In her sophomore album Happier Than Ever, pop savant Billie Eilish chronicles her struggles that accompany her thrust to sudden fame and contemplates her relationship with stalkers, paparazzi, critics and the media. Our writer Sng Ler Jun takes a journey with her through her music to find out how she manages to sound so self-assured despite her fears.
From her 2019 blockbuster debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, the world got to know Billie Eilish as the teenage singer-songwriter who refutes what a female pop sensation — think Taylor Swift, Hailey Williams or Olivia Rodrigo — should resemble. Famous for her jet-black mop that boasts neon green highlights and her idiosyncratic fashion sense that took after oversized hip-hop and skater looks from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Eilish’s music veered towards the gloomy and insular while her personality runs the gamut from the occasional nonchalance to rebellious or depressive episodes. It was a far cry from most female teen pop stars who are usually charismatic, flirtatious, or exude innocence.
Her meteoric rise to fame has seen her performing the theme song for a James Bond film, starring in her own documentary film Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry in 2020, as well as clinching seven Grammy awards (she is also the first female artist to win four main Grammy categories — Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year— in a single year), three MTV Music Video Music Awards, several Guinness World Records, and more. This year, the pop sensation returns with the release of her highly-anticipated sophomore album Happier Than Ever, which explores the effects of fame on her.
A beautiful and raw introduction to the album rooted in her vulnerabilities, the airy opening track “Getting Older” documents Eilish’s growing unfamiliarity with herself. She croons “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of,” explaining how the music she used to make for fun in the confines of her bedroom now comes with an added pressure needing to outdo herself and perform well. It also talks about “deranged” strangers appearing at her doorstep, reflecting how people often clamoured for her attention.
In the same song, she sings “I’m gettin’ older, I’ve got more on my shoulders / But I’m gettin’ better at admitting when I’m wrong”. Eilish was most recently a subject of ridicule. Her newfound notoriety saw her being accused of queer-baiting and tacit racism for mouthing a racist slur in an old video that went viral on TikTok. Eilish has since apologised.
The same theme of introspection reappears in “my future”, the lead single which dropped last year. Written during her quarantine, the song begins slow and dreamy before gaining tempo and becoming more upbeat in the third verse. Here, Eilish contemplates what the future holds and welcomes it with open arms despite its uncertainty. We know this as she whispers “ ‘Cause I, I’m in love / With my future / Can’t wait to meet her”, although for the most part, like many confused youths, she does not know where she is going. And that is okay.
The dark and pulsating number “NDA” is a compelling piece filled with Eilish’s signature whispers alongside the eerie plucking of string instruments and noisier tracks. Here, she seemingly recounts her experience with the paparazzi and stalkers. Eilish’s physique was also a target of scrutiny. In 2020, a paparazzi image featuring the singer in tank top and shorts outdoors went viral, and a slew of derogatory and body-shaming comments toward the teenager followed. She seems to take on these criticisms in the interlude monologue track “Not My Responsibilities”, most evidently through the question: “The body I was born with / Is it not what you wanted?”
Written by Eilish and her equally talented brother Finneas O’Connell, the track “Oxytocin” is a fan favourite. One of her raunchiest songs yet, “Oxytocin” starts off sultry but gradually gathers momentum, beat and tempo to become a track reminiscent of the kinds you hear in a steamy club. It also features erotic lyrics (“If you only pray on Sunday / Could you come my way on Monday? / ‘Cause I like to do things God doesn’t approve of if she saw us” or “And what would people say, people say, people say / If they listen through the wall, the wall, the wall?”) describing a casual hook-up. Eilish eventually lets off a feral scream for her lovers to run away.
The penultimate title piece “Happier Than Ever” is the longest track from the album. Half-part whisper ballad and half-part electro punk-pop, “Happier Than Ever” merges two distinctive genres and narratives into a compelling piece that is guaranteed to reel listeners in. The first part of “Happier Than Ever”, which featured a sombre Eilish, highlights the emotional turmoil of her former relationship and the joy that followed when she finally got away. The latter half is best described as a catharsis of sorts when she continues to diss her abusive ex. In simple words, an unexpected diversion from the overarching theme of the album.
Other noteworthy mentions from the 16-track album include the soothing “Halley’s Comet”, which is all about yearning and learning from her past relationship mistakes, and the hip-hoppy “Therefore I Am”, which takes a play on French philosopher’s René Descartes’ famous saying.
Wildly imaginative and brutally honest, Happier Than Ever has thoughtfully documented Eilish’s emotional maturity as she transitions from a teenager to a young adult. Nevertheless, the pop savant’s album is brimming with earworms that are relatable and occasionally ASMR tingle-inducing. As she retells the ups and downs following the success of her debut album, the 19-year-old deals with the pressure of releasing a sophomore album by baring it all to be as genuine as she can be.