- 30 Jul 21
Pop sensation grapples with the fame monster to devastating effect.
Billie Eilish’s singularity as a pop star was revealed to the world the moment she opened her mouth and machine-gunned the chorus to her 2017 track, ‘Bellyache’. “Maybe it’s in the gutter, where I left my lover…” she crooned, delicately and dangerously.
“If you listen to any song right now – and there are a few exceptions – but I’ve found they’re all about the same thing. ‘I’m in love with this person, they don’t love me, I’m sad’,” Eilish told Hot Press in 2018. “And that’s it. Sure you can write about that and feel that way – everyone feels that way. Why not write in a different way? I’m not criticising anyone specifically. In my head that’s how I feel. You could go… ‘I’m sad…’ Well that’s fine. You could turn it around – ‘I just killed a bunch of people and I have a bellyache because of it’.”
That ferociously enigmatic quality persists with her long-awaited second album. Together with her producer and brother Finneas O’Connell, Eilish has crafted a thrillingly introverted, irresistibly stark and profoundly woozy collection. Her voice is often just an intense whisper, threatening to drift out of earshot. Arranged around it are grooves that go off like hallucinatory depth charges, imbuing the music with a ghostly and fever-dream quality. The subject matter – as it so often is with second records – is the dark side of fame. Becoming a public figure at age 16 is not, the LP warns us, an experience to be wished on anyone. Eilish, we learn, feels objectified, taken for granted and caricatured.
“Some people hate what I wear. Some people praise it,” she says on spoken word piece, ‘Not My Responsibility’. “Some people use it to shame others, some people use it to shame me. If I wear what is comfortable I am not a woman… If I shed the layers, I’m a celeb.”
Celebrities have been alerting us to the double-edged nature of fame from the moment the first Instagram influencer and their selfie-stick clambered out of the primordial ooze. There are certainly echoes in Happier Than Ever of Taylor Swift’s Reputation, another frontline report from trial by social media.
And if there is a criticism it’s that Eilish has prioritised an exploration of fame and its pressures over the phantasmagorical melancholia that was the signature of her debut, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? But what it lacks in emo murkiness, the project more than compensates for with the sheer efficiency with which it conveys Eilish’s tortured perspective. Accompanied by a lurching groove – think ‘Bad Guy’ with some dubstep in its soul – ‘Oxytocin’ compares and contrasts a blighted romance to addiction to prescription painkillers. The irresistible deliriousness is ratcheted further on ‘GOLDWING’, which swerves from a ethereal introduction to a blitz of trippy beats.
Eilish’s relationship with rapper Brandon “Q” Adams was revealed to the world in the Apple TV + documentary, The
World’s A Little Blurry. While no longer on the scene, there are veiled references throughout Happier Than Ever to romance with an older man (Adams is five years her senior).
The suspicion, in particular, is that he is the subject of ‘Your Power’, where she sings “I thought that I was special, you made me feel/Like it was my fault, you were the devil, lost your appeal.”
Happier Than Ever closes with the freak-show lullaby ‘Male Fantasy’. “I loved you then/And I love you now and I don't know how,” she coos. “Guess it's hard to know/ When nobody else comes around.” It’s the perfect finishing touch from an artist who has scaled the peaks and, as they gaze down upon the world, seems to have become overwhelmed with a sense of isolation. And it is a reminder that, even when engaging in the well-worn celebrity ritual of bemoaning the burdens of fame, Eilish remains a pop star like no other.
Listen to the album below.