And Britney is lucky to be alive
If you ever need to prove the patriarchy exists to anyone in 2021, ask them how many cis male pop stars have lyrics about people’s criticism of their physical image.
Because it simply doesn’t make much sense why Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell has to subjugate her world-topping success as a musician who’s won the Record of the Year Grammy twice before her twenties by prioritizing people who feel entitled to her image. But that kind of grossness is baked into showbiz, and it wouldn’t be any less depressing if she was less talented or accomplished.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
It’s just more striking, because 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which scored her rave reviews at age 17 (Christgau surmised that barring a possible Elvis exception, it’s the greatest album ever made by a teenager), a number-one hit (give it up for instant goth-“Hava Nagila” classic “Bad Guy”), and enough Big Four Grammys to embarrass her deeply. But the already dour singer now has adulthood to contend with at its most predatory.
Artist: Billie Eilish / Olivia Rodrigo
Album: Happier Than Ever / Sour
Label: Interscope Records
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars) (for both)
So in the very middle of the deeply sarcastically titled Happier Than Ever, Eilish takes time out for nearly four minutes of lecturing the world on her boundaries, in her trademark ASMR soft-speak, over exceedingly unstressful ambience called “Not My Responsibility.” And from titles like “I Didn’t Change My Number,” to “NDA,” she’s the umpteenth pop star to riff on how life has changed since she traded privacy for power. But she’s one of the first to sound like she’s not falling apart as she does so, even as shadowy and enigmatic as her affect and backing tracks remain.
In fact, she may be the first star in history to be less emo on her fame-battling follow-up, and for a child star she seems to have healthy, even humorous ideas about sex and privacy. As Britney Spears remains in a court-ordered abusive conservatorship with little precedent, but nearing possible freedom as the culture cheers her on, this is major progress, as is another best-of-2021 candidate, Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, which is bigger and funner and still feels the necessity of pointing out “I think I think too much about kids who don’t know me.” Sour couldn’t be anything but a debut album and Happier Than Ever couldn’t be anything but a follow-up. “Brutal” is one of those first-album first-tracks that lays out the future of music itself, just like Eminem’s “My Name Is” or Eilish’s own “Bad Guy.” It rocks harder than Rodrigo’s other guitar-based showstopper “Good 4 U,” but “Good 4 U” returned rock guitar to the peak of the Hot 100 like no “rock” artist has done since, well, It Depends.
“Bad Guy” hit number one too and is considered rock by some, I’d throw in Gotye’s Sting-and-Pete Gabriel-evoking smash “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Actual Rock Band fun. got there in 2012 with “We Are Young,” which would’ve made Freddie Mercury proud. But except for the guitarless “Bad Guy,” none of those songs can be said to rock, as a verb, which takes us even further back to another pop artist in 2009 having fun with fuzz pedals: Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You.”
What matters is that the downcast, even monochromatic environments of Drake, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Future, and the Weekend (not to mention Imagine Dragons or Twenty One Pilots as far as “rock” goes) are giving way to dynamic and stylistic shifts again in the evidence of the pop charts, which occasionally have made room for a throwback raver like Lady Gaga’s “Rain on Me” or a video-driven anomaly like “Bad Guy” itself or occasionally uptempo retro like Lizzo or Bruno Mars, but never a full-on genre upheaval like “Good 4 U.” Eilish’s new album is more of a step backwards in this regard, like Lana’s last five and least diverse five albums. But she’s so rewarding as a lyricist, aural decorator, and even a melodist, that it doesn’t matter.
Both Eilish and Rodrigo are ridiculously songful, with Eilish the ringer on a tiki torch called “Halley’s Comet” but also a knowing pastiche like “Billie Bossa Nova.” She’s making a point of labeling her genre excursions, that’s growth for sure. She also tries to rock, as a verb, once. “Happier Than Ever” sounds exactly — lyrics, dynamic flow from quiet to TikTok-era power ballad, four-chord pound — like something that belongs on Sour. Except it’s the first time production fails her and her lab-rat producer sibling FINNEAS. Don’t take mixing cues from the otherwise strong Willow Smith; guitars aren’t meant to sound like they’re two rooms away. The climactic “Male Fantasy” 180s neatly with a close-miked acoustic porn treatise more Soccer Mommy than Phoebe Bridgers. “I’m going back to therapy,” she announces in her sweetest head voice.
It’s the opening “Getting Older,” as benign as “Brutal” and “Bad Guy” were explosive, that immediately presents two ways she’s matured, personally (“I’m getting better at admitting when I’m wrong”) and artistically (rhyming “I’m happier than ever” with “at least that’s my endeavor”), over chord changes worthy of “Martha My Dear.” How typical for her sonic palette to grow subtler with age as her words get tougher and cleverer: “I want to do bad things to you / Don’t want to treat you well,” she murmurs over the best-in-show “Oxytocin,” a club banger from beyond the cybergrave.
Which isn’t to say she’s not still offering plenty of “Don’t take it out on me / I’m out of sympathy / Maybe you should leave” in a tone pitched somewhere between Shirley Manson and Lana Del Rey over a low-organ beat T.I. would’ve had a field day with in 2006. In her determination to remain sparse and drab but also vibrant and rich (money-wise), she recalls the xx. This is a small, intimate, thorny affair with addictive little parts that form quite the sum. It’s neither a conscious sophomore detour nor a big-pop double down. Happier Than Ever a lateral Radiohead move that could well be home to a hit even though it hasn’t been one yet; I’m happy to report the sequencing makes terrible airplay choices like “Your Power” and “Therefore I Am” signify as set pieces that make everything around them stronger and vice versa. The latter’s chintzy Eminem beat, which sounded too simple on its own, now benefits from “NDA”’s preceding exhaust as the most arresting ear trickery on the album. Dig that portamento piano.
If Rodrigo’s exceptional, abstraction-free effort of widescreen Disney pop feels like the stronger of the year’s two best records so far, it’s less likely to worm itself into your day-to-day. Smashes like “Driver’s License” and “Déjà Vu” demand attention; if you’re not at liberty to sing (or shout) along, don’t bother. Billie and FINNEAS’ fascination with negative space takes their work beyond the merely hushed like Drake or Del Rey and back to earscape-shapers like Pink Floyd, who also topped the charts inserting the sounds of workaday objects into their unlikely hits. Their music has yet to deviate from its between-the-cracks compulsions, intimate collaging, and exceptional stillness. Some have brought in trip-hop, which says more of this album’s exceptional quality than its occasional 90s-style drum loop.
Like everyone else, I wish Eilish made more noises on Happier Than Ever but the album’s literally about not catering to me. And that spoken interlude has musical pleasures in addition to major social value even if the Knife’s “Collective Body Possum” did it with more panache.