Examining “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” A Year Later

If you’ve listened to the radio at all in the past two years, you know who Billie Eilish is.

The fresh-faced 18-year-old has been making waves in the music industry since she was 14, writing songs like “Ocean Eyes” with her older brother and posting them to SoundCloud. Then, in 2015, she had about 400,000 followers on Instagram. Now, in 2020, one year after her debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” dropped, she has 60 million. For reference, Billie Eilish now has more followers than the population of 211 countries. This cult of personality surrounding her isn’t unexplainable, or undue--in fact, it makes perfect sense.

Think about the music that’s normally made for teenage girls. When I was 15, it was bands like One Direction, Little Mix, even Halsey. The music packaged for young women in the past has been solid, manicured work, worthy of praise, certainly, but not anything particularly ground-breaking. The 2010’s ushered in an era of dark pop princesses that entirely changed the game--Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and most recently, Eilish herself. Notably, Eilish and Lorde were both very young when they became famous; Eilish at 14 and Lorde at 16.

This turbulent time is precisely why these women are so popular. Being a teenage girl sucks. You constantly feel too big and too small for your skin; it seems like no one understands you or cares about your thoughts and feelings, except for these other teens who seem to struggle in the same areas as you. This is where Eilish shines: husky-yet-paper-thin vocals extolling her anxieties of friends using drugs, of fear of climate change, of her suicidal thoughts. Her millions of fans and corporate partnerships might be unattainable, but her mind is an open book to other young girls feeling the same anxieties. They can look to her as a friend; she’s relatable, mildly tortured, even a little funny.

She even takes her Invisalign out noisily on the first track, proclaiming “this is the album." This ocean of personal anguish Eilish swims in is where she excels. “When The Party’s Over” is an example of this. A piano ballad on steroids, it details Eilish’s enraged despair of the growing distance between her and her lover with haunting production and vocals. “I could lie/say I like it like that,” Eilish seemingly sobs, her own voice harmonizing with her, “let me let you go." This situation of teen love fraught with problems is more than relatable to her listeners.

“Bury a Friend” is another phenomenal track. Meant to be from the perspective of “the monster under the bed," perhaps alluding to Eilish’s struggles with sleep paralysis, the song reads less like pop and more like the theme of a horror movie; the sound of breaking glass and screams mixed into the back, and unnerving effects placed over Eilish singing “The debt I owe/gotta sell my soul” is deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.

“Xanny” stands out as perhaps the best song of the album, if not Eilish’s discography so far. A track about her friends abusing the prescription drug Xanax, it dresses her wounds in oppressive bass, said by her to mimic secondhand smoke. “I can’t afford to love someone/who isn’t dying by mistake/in Silver Lake”, Eilish sings, before the song strips to nothing but her thick, whispering voice.

The album isn’t without it’s faults. “Bad guy” and “My Strange Addiction” are both goofy tracks, with admittedly-killer production but both the attempt of someone with more sincerity than song-writing experience. It’s clear Eilish succeeds best when avoiding gimmick and speaking from her oft-broken heart.

Some might say that Eilish is corrupting the minds of youths, or ruining pop music, or promoting Satanism (no, really). But truthfully, in this day and age, kids are already the seedy underbelly of humanity too fast, and looking for someone to tell them they’re not alone. Eilish is just portraying the death of the American teen as best she can.