Album Review: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
There’s something strange happening in the world of music, and I couldn’t be happier about it: women are getting angry again.
Not that women haven’t been angry, of course. But this is different, I think. The anger is more pointed, now, less aimless. Politics aside, angry women make great music; better, I think, than angry men do. There’s a wolfish grin behind every beat of MIA’s Bad Girls that is utterly unlike the compartmentalized wastelands of Trent Reznor or Thom Yorke. And it’s precisely the pioneers like Lana Del Rey, K. Flay, and MIA that made Billie Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? even possible.
I was compelled to write about this album in part due to Amanda’s recent obsession with HBO’s Big Little Lies. I’m not a huge fan of Big Little Lies. My reasoning is simple – and it’s as I told Amanda – I’m just not terribly interested in shows where all the men are either stupid, weak, or malicious. It’s boring, to me.
This begs a question, however. If I don’t like TV shows with stupid men, why do I love the rusty razors of K. Flay, the poisoned lollipops of Zella Day, or the dark locomotion of Billie Eilish? So far as I can figure it, it’s because this kind of music is often brilliant. Eilish’s album is self-described “pop horror,” and while I’m not particularly horrified, I am amazed. Here is one of the first musicians since the seventies to wield her music as a weapon.
When listening to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, something becomes obvious: Eilish is singing from a place of truth about things she has no right knowing. She never shies from this, often taunting her audience (including both genders, it’s worth adding – she is egalitarian in her violence) with a meanness that is refreshing.
Rarely have I encountered a musician who so knowingly plays with both musical and social expectations. A pop album from a 17 year old? Surely we’re going to get a lot of songs about love – and a lack thereof. We’ll get goofiness and we’ll end up rolling our eyes at least once. Which, given that the album opens with the sound of Billie taking out her Invisalign, we might be deceived into thinking we know what we’re walking into.
Instead of singing about holding hands, however, things quickly take a turn for the startling: Eilish sings about things she ought to have no idea about (drug abuse, rough sex, masochism, heartbreak) but of course she knows about these things, because this is 2019 and kids are killing each other at school, so why wouldn’t they know about and sing about stuff like popping Xannies and sex?
The beats are rhythmic and marrow deep, tangling with the lyrics to create a dark locomotion not unlike something out of a prohibition jazz club. (Eilish, with her husky voice and listless, narrowed eyes, only feeds into this parallel.) Rules are regularly broken or discarded altogether; one of the most memorable tunes is set to quotes from the hit television show The Office.
Like her album, Billie is an enigma – and enigmas are never accidental. Here is a 17 year old who sings about sex, not as an invitation, but as an act of defiance. It was fitting, then, that when she was recently subjected to the worst of Twitter (wherein men three times her age were describing her as “thicc” because she was photographed wearing a tank top), Eilish took it in stride.
She was surprisingly unperturbed, because she had planned for and expected this exact possibility. (This is why she dresses in clothes five times too big.) In the end, the men on Twitter looked shameful and desperate – and Billie barely had to lift a finger. She set the trap, and they fell into it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen similar scenarios play out, only with more tears.
I conclude that Billie Eilish has considered every element of the package: not just the music, but the musician. She knows that – especially in 2019 – they are fused together in a profound way. This is the same sort of fourth-wall playfulness we saw with Reputation, Taylor Swift’s 2017 album-as-middle-finger-to-the-world. Yet Swift, at age 30, has only just begun to truly lean into the image she’s crafted in subversive ways. Remember that time last month she and Katy Perry made up in a music video? Eilish leverages this same sort of knowing technique, at age 17, with (arguably) better music.
This is the art of Billie Eilish. Unlike the art of Big Little Lies, it isn’t content to complain. Instead of casting herself as a victim or as a victor, Billie Eilish instead casts herself as the monster under our cultural bed; the underage woman who does...well…whatever she wants. Hers is not a call to action for men to behave better – it’s a lure, and a threat. Behave better, or I’ll take and break and eat your heart.
It’s fitting, then, that the one pure love song on the album is clearly targeted at what we might imagine as the kind, good person (presumably a male, though not assuredly). Eilish seems to know that it’s not enough to simply threaten. For the decent, it’s a pocket of warmth and softness in an album of sneering violence. It’s also a reminder that even an angry woman can be kind, if you give her a reason. The song I speak of, aptly titled I Love You, serves as the antidote to the album. It offers a path forward.
All in all, the album is a refreshing spin on the angry woman music I spoke of earlier, and that it’s brought to us by someone so young is – to me – an encouraging thing in a world full of discouragement. In an age when we’re losing our heroes and presidents are no longer something to aspire to, we need our artists, at least. Eilish is an artist, and I hope she continues for years to come.
And that’s what it comes down to, really – a microcosm of this next generation of young people preparing to go off to college and inherit their place in a civilization hellbent on going backwards. Like Emma Gonzalez, it seems like Billie Eilish is done talking, and is ready for war. If you haven’t listened to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? then you should. Start at track 1, and go through to the end. Listen to a story. Listen to the sound of a kid smiling as she puts her hands around the throat of the world, and begins to squeeze.