With ‘When We All Fall Asleep…’, Billie Eilish Is Redefining Pop Stardom As We Know It

Eilish’s album will be a record-breaking success, but her influence on the next batch of up-and-coming musicians will be the true success of her debut record.

Billie Eilish album review photo

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Billie Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? arrived with record-breaking pre-orders and already sold-out shows.

Fortified by unprecedented hype — to the tune of billions of streams on Spotify over the last three years — the 17-year-old Eilish has the star power of a veteran. Her latest accolade? Becoming the youngest-ever female artist to top the UK album charts, breaking a record previously held by Joss Stone.

Eilish’s chokehold on the current state of pop culture goes a lot further than breaking records. Eschewing the usual cavalcade of superstar producers that usually accompanies a pop album, When We All Fall Asleep… was written and produced by herself and 21-year-old brother, Finneas — an approach the two haven’t wavered from since their first taste of fame.

In 2016, when Eilish was 14 years old, she was busy dancing, horseback riding and singing for the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, while Finneas was committed to making music for his band.

“One of my teachers asked if I would either write a song or have my brother write a song to choreograph a dance to,” she told Teen Vogue. “Then, my brother came to me with ‘Ocean Eyes,’ which he had originally written for his band. He told me he thought it would sound really good in my voice.”

After uploading the song to Soundcloud, with a free download link for her teacher, Billie was thrust into the madness of overnight virality. Today, ‘Ocean Eyes’ has over 97 million views on YouTube.

Building A Popstar

Viral notoriety is a surefire way to be noticed but also lost in today’s content-driven 24-hour news cycle, and industry execs Danny Ruckasin and Brandon Goodman recognised this threat to Eilish immediately. Reaching out to her in the wake of ‘Ocean Eyes’’s success, the two became instrumental to Eilish signing with Darkroom (a subsidiary of Interscope Records) at the age of 14.

Determined to foster a career that didn’t hinge on the success of one song, Goodman and Ruckasin took advantage of the momentum with a string of follow-up singles and streaming-friendly EPs. Meticulously nurturing Eilish’s streaming numbers created a force that surpassed ‘Ocean Eyes’. Growing a pop star in this way was largely unheard of, but it worked: Eilish currently has eight different songs with more than 140 million plays on Spotify.

But it isn’t only her unorthodox rise to fame that sets the Los Angeles native apart from the pop star template the genre has maintained over the last 20 years.

In a culture that applauds authenticity, it becomes increasingly difficult to look past the seams of pop stars agonisingly sutured albums, appearances, performances and interview answers.

In 2000, Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson were heralded as role models for their vamp-virgin dichotomy. The Church of England even went as far as hailing Spears as a “saint” for being an ambassador of abstinence (she was subsequently torn to shreds for later revealing she succumbed to pre-marital relations.)

Later, when sex became more laissez-faire, a new class of Disney and Nickelodeon musicians overtook the market. Cast from a similar mould, drama kids, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and The Jonas Brothers’s idiosyncratic sound was over-the-top and theatrical. As their careers continued, their meticulously maintained facades cracked.

As label-orchestrated and -choreographed bands returned to prominence, dissenting members were ushered back into the zeitgeist. Camila Cabello, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Normani left bands they later described as regimes.

In an interview with Complex, Malik opened up about the band’s strict rules to maintain their “young teen boy look.” “[It was] mainly my beard, honestly. I wasn’t allowed to keep it,” he said. “Eventually, when I got older, I rebelled against it, and decided to keep it anyway. That was just because I looked older than the rest of them. That’s one of the things that is now quite cool. I get to keep my beard. I also wanted to dye my hair when I was in the band, but I wasn’t allowed to.”

In a culture that applauds authenticity, it becomes increasingly difficult to look past the seams of pop stars agonisingly sutured albums, appearances, performances and interview answers.

You Should See Her In A Crown

Eilish isn’t a political conduit for parental concerns, nor the face of any social movements — she’s simply a teenager. And while it isn’t particularly brave or manufactured, that speaks to a generation of new music fans.

Digital natives are drawn to Eilish’s hip-hop by way of a Lana Del Rey-esque personality that ebbs and flows throughout her record. From exuding confidence and egotism (‘You Should See Me In A Crown’), to battling her own self-professed lifelong battle with “melancholy”, Eilish is messy, never once sticking to a theme.

The sound effects are spooky, vocals are playful warbled, and there is a sense of trial and error that is refreshing when pop has so consistently produced well-polished products, wiped of their human sheen.

The album is a tangle of different coloured threads, all trying to achieve more than it’s capable of but its victories are so immense, it’s easy to forgive. Eilish plays the ukulele (‘8’), toys with witch house (‘Bury A Friend’) and takes thematic risks someone older would not (‘I Wish You Were Gay’) — but the true triumph is in the potential.

On ‘Xanny’, a song titled after the anti-anxiety medication, adopted by a generation as its drug of choice, she laments its chokehold on her generation. “I don’t need a xanny to feel better,” Eilish croons, more afraid than she is preaching.

Forever draped in oversized tracksuits and gold chains, it would be easy to mistake Eilish for a rapper if you saw her before you heard her music. “Everyone needs to give hip-hop credit — everyone in the world right now,” Eilish told New York Times. “Whatever you’re doing, you’ve been influenced by hip-hop.”

This isn’t a protest against figure-baring outfits of her peers, but rather the adoption of hip-hop’s rebellion du jour. It isn’t just her music that’s a mish-mash of genres.

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is a beautiful disaster that combines contradictions with clichés. Moreover, it’s a glimpse into the zeitgeist of our time, and signals a dramatic change in pop music. Eilish’s album will continue to break records, but her influence on the next batch of up-and-coming musicians will be the true success of her debut record.

Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter