What is it like when half the world watches you grow up? Billie Eilish reflects on her role in the world on her new album “Happier than Ever” – and is still frighteningly good at staging herself in the ruling power structures.
By Alice Galizia
Another record: The picture, which shows a hydrogen blonde Billie Eilish in a pink corset on the cover of British “Vogue”, reaches a million likes on Instagram within six minutes – faster than any Instagram post before. The fact that Billie Eilish was so classically sexy hit like a bomb.
Well calculated by Eilish, whose trademarks until then were wide dresses that almost swallowed her body and that had been spotted in public once in a tank top. The paparazzi pictures of it that appeared in the spring of 2020 triggered a flood of comments – how good or bad or fat Eilish looked, how disappointing or pleasing that was. Eilish then published a three-and-a-half-minute “short film” on Youtube: “Do my shoulders, my chest provoke you?” she asks in “Not My Responsibility”. A sparsely orchestrated, sluggish piece, and Eilish, who asks in a low voice, “Isn’t the body I was born with what you wanted?” and finally: “Could it be that I am not responsible for your opinion of me?” Of course, Eilish benefits from the enormous interest in her body, in every step she does. But it is also quite impressive how she manages to provoke this attention in a targeted manner – and at the same time credibly accuse her.
It’s going to be good
The lyrics of “Not My Responsibility” could also come in its anger and directness from a band that is at home in “Riot Grrrl” punk, shouted instead of breathed. The song is now right in the middle of the new album, «Happier than Ever», which Eilish like her debut «When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?» (2019) together with her brother, producer Finneas O’Connell. “Happier than Ever” is musically less dark than its predecessor – peppered with some ballads in which it becomes clear how much Eilish’s singing voice has developed in the last two years. Eilish has become more thoughtful – older, as she herself says in the opener. “Getting Older” tells of the slow healing process of a psychologically disabled person, and Eilish, who has always been open about her depression and her feeling of loneliness, says here after all: “Should someone ask, I promise, it will be fine with me.”
The real theme of this album, however, is the confrontation of a young woman with her role in the world and its power structures. “Your Power”, for example, a ballad accompanied by acoustic guitar, accuses men who abuse their status to seduce minors. In “NDA,” Eilish has an affair sign an agreement not to tell anyone about it; “Oxytocin” tells of a toxic relationship, “Male Fantasy” from the perspective of a young man who only wants to hate his ex-girlfriend. This is often very vulnerable and openly uncertain, but there are also wonderfully arrogant lines like this, such as in “Therefore I Am”, which with its supercooled beat most closely resembles the older pieces: “You think that you’re the man / I think therefore I am”. Eilish already knows how powerful she herself has become.
So what does it mean to be a young woman in this world today? It is Eilish’s talent and one of the reasons for her success that she presents herself less as a hunted pop star than as a normal teenager who is now rich and famous, but still has to struggle with the usual problems. What do I want and where can I trust? How does my body change, am I satisfied with it, do I like others? And how Eilish deals with these questions, sings about the conflicts that arise from them, is so convincing and so close that quite a lot of people, especially very young people, feel understood by her. You could also say that Billie Eilish and her brother know how to make good pop songs – songs that are written specifically enough to stand out from the crowd, but at the same time describe feelings such as being in love, disappointment or insecurity in such a general way that a wide variety of people can identify with them.
Clothing as protection
But it isn’t just her good songwriting that makes Eilish so successful. Rather, she seems to understand very well how she can stage herself – including a film about her life between sixteen and eighteen («The World’s a Little Blurry», 2021) and illustrated book («Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish», 2021), in which she collects childhood and youth photos of herself on over 300 pages.
Part of this self-staging was the loose clothing, which Eilish wore also to reduce unsolicited comments about her body to a minimum, as she once said in an interview. So giving them up from one day to the next had to be well thought out. First of all, the picture on the “Vogue” cover is simply very good, also because it seems to quote both Marilyn Monroe (hair, look) and Madonna (the legendary Gaultier bustier from the “Blond Ambition” tour in 1990, which Pope John Paul II described as “one of the most satanic shows in human history”). Secondly, Eilish talks to “Vogue” in detail about the effort with one’s own body, about the effort to be constantly evaluated by someone, especially as a woman. She chose this outfit because she felt like it and because it doesn’t matter to anyone. To those who scolded her inconsistently afterwards because of the sexy photos, she already provided a precautionary answer. Whereby the choice of the corset is also interesting because it forms a certain type of woman’s body that most people perceive as beautiful, but actually conceals how the person underneath actually looks. It makes bodies uniform, much like baggy pants do.
Not really satisfied
Of course, one can be annoyed by this perspective, which hardly goes beyond an individualistic feel-good feminism, and one can accuse Eilish that it is much easier for her as a white, young, rich, not physically or mentally disabled woman and anyway a common ideal of beauty to simply do what she wants. Nevertheless, their role model function should not be underestimated in this respect. After all, it can be relieving to learn that even a world star like Eilish struggles with her body and has to deal with ideals of beauty and rigid role models. In any case, it is much more interesting to observe how Eilish repeatedly gets freedom from the narrow radius of a constant public figure – and so far without ever making a mistake. When a video appeared on Tiktok in which she expressed a racist term for Asians as a thirteen-year-old while singing along to a song by Tyler, the Creator, she apologized so credibly and in all form that in the end even those who had originally uploaded the video accusatory were appeased.
She also has to struggle with the constant public attention, as the new album tells us. Maybe that’s what makes Eilish so connectable: that she can never really be happy in this world. “Happier than Ever” here simply means being able to deal with the bad days a little better.