Billie Eilish: A Singer-Songwriter Unbound
by: Kaitlin Aquino
Billie Eilish has always made it difficult for fans and listeners to pinpoint her definitive music genre. Pulling all sorts of elements from rock, pop, indie, hip-hop, R&B, and EDM, each of Eilish’s songs are hardly single-genre works. But that’s exactly how she wants it to be. “I don’t want to be in the pop world. I don’t want to be in the alternative world or the hip-hop world or the R&B world or whatever the fuck they think,” she said in an interview with the New York Times.
The refreshingly blunt 17-year-old singer-songwriter began her rapid rise to fame at the mere age of 13 with the notably unofficial Soundcloud release of her airy, electronic indie-pop ballad, “ocean eyes.” While Eilish’s new and first official album, “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?,” showcases her angelic voice like her older songs, it does so in a remarkably intriguing way.
Unlike most of Eilish’s pre-“WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” material, her new album is highly experimental. While each song has its own unique appeal — the inexplicably heartbreaking oscillating voice modulation of “8,” the comically seamless integration of “The Office” quotes from the iconic episode “Threat Level: Midnight” on “my strange addiction,” and the surprise trap-inspired conclusion of “bad guy” that takes the already catchy, upbeat song to another level of replayable — none are arguably as absurd as the album’s definitive song, “bury a friend.”
Co-written by Eilish and her 21-year-old brother, Finneas O’Connell, “bury a friend” integrates spooky sound bytes comprising of unorthodox noises like the actual sound of a dental drill shaving off part of Billie’s Invisalign implant during her Invisalign removal procedure, a bone-chilling rolling high-pitched wail nicknamed “nightmare horse,” and the bright, oddly spine-tingling ring of easy bake oven bell followed by the lyrics “I wanna end me.” With corresponding sound effects enhancing phrases like “step on the glass” and “staple your tongue,” “bury a friend” can be an immersive, almost cinematic experience if the listener allows for it.
The overall musical layout of “bury a friend” is absurd. “The structure’s super weird,” admitted O’Connell in an interview with The New York Times. Unlike most songs which follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format, also known as the ABABCB structure, “bury a friend” goes as follows: hook, verse, pre-chorus, drop, hook, verse two, alternate verse two, bridge, pre-chorus, drop, and hook.
Eilish also took an unusual approach in coming up with the lyrics for “bury a friend.” Rather than from her own perspective, “[the song] is literally from the perspective of the monster under my bed,” she said in an interview with UMusic.
While both Eilish and O’Connell are responsible for the song’s notably unique structure and lyrical content, the musical production genius of not only “bury a friend” but the entire album, which her brother, O’Connell contributed in producing. all of “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” -is the contribution of her brother, O’Connell. Together, Eilish and O’Connell make a powerful sibling duo, pushing one another to reject musical tradition and embrace unconventionality.
While Eilish’s old songs have moments that undoubtedly breach convention, none come close to the sheer absurdity of those featured in her newest album. In contrast to the spooky yet electric “bury a friend,” Eilish’s musical debut, “ocean eyes,” seems like a stagnant ballad with its traditional song structure and overall lack of musical dynamicity — not to say her debut single is any less beautiful than it was during its release.
For the past three years, Eilish has been releasing singles and EPs with diverse, but broken musical themes and styles, making her difficult to characterize as an artist. But “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” marks Eilish’s birth as a young, female singer-songwriter with a fascination for toxic love and heartbreak and fixation for all things that lurk in the shadows.
Her dark musical aesthetic and her range of melancholy, electric songs continuously attracts listeners who fall far outside her original young, female demographic. But despite the newer, more cohesive artistic presence she has constructed for herself, Eilish made it clear since the beginning that she never wants to allow confines of modern music culture to put herself in a box. As of now, rather than letting her hard-earned reputability and distinctive artistic presence limit her creative choices, Eilish has let her fame free her from the chains of musical convention.
In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Eilish expressed what she disliked about the music industry: “I feel like everything needs to have a certain…” she trailed off rolling her eyes and proceeded to restate what she meant to say. “This is in — this — category, and this is in — this — and … I want to be everything … Don’t tell me what I can’t be.” Two years later, in an interview with the New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli, she expressed similar anti-absolutist sentiments with respect to how she wants her fans to respond when asked to define her musical style. “I want it to be like, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ ‘Billie Eilish kind of music.’”