Pop music of the late 2010s sounds next to nothing like what has been considered mainstream or profitable in the decades prior. A look at the top of the Billboard charts shows a sound that’s distinctively minimalist, slickly recorded without feeling over-produced, yet also minor key with lyrics that pull from the most nihilistic generation to date, torn apart by the current administration. Celebratory EDM-leaning pop anthems have been replaced by introspective tracks about fighting depression and the scourge of racism and misogyny, sung by artists that have come of age during the #MeToo movement and the everlasting malaise that began when Trump rode down his golden escalator.
Enter Billie Eilish, the ascendant teen icon ready to take the music industry by storm in her dark, haunted image. Eilish’s career to this point has been one that could only have happened now. She has only ever made music in the streaming age, where she’s translated copious plays into press hype, rather than the other way around. Riding a wave of viral social media to stardom, her handful of singles have eventually resulted in more monthly Spotify listeners than those of Beyoncé, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Cardi B—all about a month prior to the release of her debut album.
But her music, songs that emphatically encapsulate teenage angst for an existential era, is very much of this period as well. So perhaps, when we eventually look back on the music of this era a few years from now, there will likely be no singular album that absolutely nails the sound of 2019 quite like Billie Eilish’s debut record, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, for better or worse.
She delivers the record that her generation has been waiting for, one with loads of in-jokes and language (the album literally begins with a joke about pulling out her Invisalign, while “all the good girls go to hell” ends with a joke about “snowflakes”). After all, this album isn’t made for critics—or even anyone born more than a few years before 9/11—it’s for those who share the same teenage hormonal desires and emotional pitfalls that Eilish is currently going through. While someone like Snail Mail, only 18 months her elder, can put out a record with largely the same themes as WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, yet still speak to an older audience, Eilish’s debut largely doesn’t care, well aware that she doesn’t need anyone above, say, 25 to make her the biggest pop artist on the planet.
But luckily for those of us outside of the target audience of her references (though it’s mildly disconcerting to think that her sample from The Office’s “Threat Level Midnight” episode came out when Eilish was 12-years-old), WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? is a damn good pop album as a whole. Sure it’s filled with loads of fluff, but few, if any, modern of its genre albums aren’t. She largely sticks with her formula of hushed vocals on top of minimalist percussion and loud-as-hell bass that’s purposely built to rattle your speakers underneath her falsetto. None of it is revolutionary—her backing music acts as a hybrid of sorts somewhere between Grimes, Lorde, and the xx—but she puts it all together better than most. Haunted anti-drug song “xanny” combines Soundcloud rap blown-out lo-fi bass with a slickly produced morose ballad. “you should see me in a crown” features one of the best bass drops in recent music memory. Lead single “bury a friend” flips the typical verse-chorus-bridge formula on its head, never quite delivering the anthemic chorus it so tantalizingly teases to incredible effect. If anything, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’s most generic pop moments like “all good girls go to hell” or “my strange addiction” may be the least impactful tracks here.
Armed with self-defeated and self-deprecating lyrics—the hook on “Bury a Friend” goes “I wanna end me”—Eilish somehow combines the insecurities and pessimism of Generation Z better than anyone else to date, all while delivering instrumentals, produced by her brother, no less, that may provide the perfect embodiment of where music has been going for the past few years. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? has its faults, not quite hitting its full potential, but it gets damn well close, delivering an infectious record for the post-party hangover. Eilish capitalizes on her immense hype, proving that she more than deserves to stick around for years to come; if anything, she very well could define what the next decade or so of pop music will sound like. If that’s true, we have a lot to look forward to.