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30 July 2021

Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever details the darker side of fame

On her second record, the millennial pop star addresses music industry pressures and the intense public scrutiny she has faced as a result of her success.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Has Billie Eilish already fallen out of love with the music industry? Despite the title, on Happier Than Ever, her second full-length album, the 19-year-old Californian singer airs her many grievances at a business that has shamed and criticised her since she entered it as a child. “Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now,” she sings in a quiet mumble over sparse, harpsichord-like keys on album opener “Getting Older”. It’s a notably vulnerable start – even from an artist known, and celebrated, for speaking her mind.

Eilish was 17 years old when she released her debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. With it, she became the first artist born in the 2000s to have a number one album in the US, and the youngest female solo artist ever to have a number one album in the UK. Writing alongside her producer brother Finneas, Eilish makes a very millennial brand of pop: open-minded and chameleon-like, morphing from pure pop to electro-pop, and then to hip-hop, with ease. It’s in these bright-eyed, thrill-seeking switches – from the breathy, synth-heavy “Oxytocin”, straight into the angelic choral opening of “Goldwing” – that Happier Than Ever is most arresting. And it’s these moments of musical intrigue that you know keep Eilish writing too. 

[See also: Willow’s Lately I Feel Everything proves emo isn’t dead]

Because the stories she tells are not fun: her lyrics set out, over and over again, a life that would exhaust even a seasoned pop star, never mind one still in her teens. “Therefore I Am” addresses the intense public scrutiny she faces, and the disingenuous relationships she has learned to avoid. On “Billie Bossa Nova”, over a samba groove, she sings of the cruel realities of fame – of having to use a false name at hotel receptions, and always looking over her shoulder, watching out for who she’s seen with in public. The song is coy and gentle, and Eilish sings it as though she’s sighing – she’s over being angry at the situation; her despair has turned to despondency. 

For much of “NDA” her vocals hold a similar tone. Eilish rarely offers up the full extent of her impressive soprano, instead preferring a mid-range, ever so slightly inhibited tone; there’s a cool, apathetic attitude inherent to her mumbling. The song makes a half-joke of the fact that anyone who stays overnight with her will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to take the story to the press. It’s only a half-joke because its sentiment about Eilish’s safety is all too real; it follows a chilling verse about a stalker who “says he’s Satan and would like to meet”, alluding to a real incident in early 2020 when a stranger repeatedly rang the doorbell of her family home, asking for Eilish. Finneas’s production here is glitchy, synths hitting like strobe lights. “You couldn’t save me but you can’t let me go,” calls Eilish, her voice clawing out to be allowed to hit the high notes but suppressed by auto-tune, as though her expression, too, has to be boxed in, kept safe.

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Synths sound like sirens on “Not My Responsibility”, a spoken-word interlude that Eilish first performed during a 2020 tour. On it she draws close attention to the media’s obsession with her sexuality. “You have opinions about my opinions/About my music/About my clothes/About my body,” she says. “The body I was born with/Is it not what you wanted?/If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/If I shed the layers, I’m a slut”. It’s an eloquent response to those who have criticised – or even just questioned – her choice to wear baggy clothing, and those who reprimanded her still on the occasions she has chosen to wear closer fitting, more typically “feminine” outfits. Eilish offers no solution to such hypocrisy, and can only ask questions about intent, and perception. It is, as a political message, utterly heartbreaking, a stark interrogation into the dismal reality of being a young woman in the public eye. “Nothing I do goes unseen”.

[See also: Radiohead’s eerie Creep remix is the perfect soundtrack for an age of crisis]

There are glimmers of more straightforward love – or break-up – songs here. On “Your Power”, which has a country twang, Eilish’s soprano is more luminous than anywhere else on the record. She’s addressing a former lover, but ends up probing male abuses of power more generally. She sings in this higher register on “Male Fantasy” too, a song about trying to get over someone that begins by describing the inherent misogyny of pornography. Only on the title track does she get through a whole number without overtly delivering a political message – and the song, with a sweet, ditty-like first-half, and a crashing, anthemic finale, is a disappointment. She calls out an ex-lover who drives under the influence, who treats her “shitty”. Hackneyed rock drums disguise any true emotional intent. The content of this awful former relationship has yielded her album title – “When I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever,” she sings – but it’s a phrase that jars with the contents of the rest of the album. This can’t be Eilish at her happiest, we know; she deserves so much better.

In the same vein as other recent much awaited, high-profile albums – such as Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, and Ariana Grande’s PositionsHappier Than Ever is, at 16 tracks long, bloated. It could be half that length and cover the same number of themes, flit between the same number of musical styles. But at just 19, Eilish already has too many stories to tell; the coarse music industry and its scandal-crazed press has made sure of that.

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