Is it appropriate for young kids to listen to this stuff?
Billie Eilish isn’t an exception to chart rules but an extreme. Teens have hit it big singing gothic lyrics over shuddering post-dubstep beats before. Have any gone as far over the top as Eilish on her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s exhilarating when pop stars throw caution to the wind like this. Usually, the most avant-pop projects exist when an artist has reached such ubiquity that their name is the selling point rather than the product. There’s a lifeline between Kanye’s Yeezus and Rihanna’s Anti and this album. But Eilish is a rising star, so it feels riskier.
So much of the album is just her voice flickering faintly over a bass tone or a distant snatch of choral harmony. Then something happens, usually something big and frightening. On “You Should See Me in a Crown,” it’s a bass drop. On “Xanny,” it’s song-subducting distortion, over which she struggles to stay afloat. She gets one word out unscathed: the title, the “n” sound elongated until it threatens to snap.
These aren’t songs meant for dancing, save perhaps the steam and sequins of “Bad Guy,” but we get the sense that dancing is less an ideal Friday night pastime for Eilish than murdering her friends. If her thin but fiercely present voice invites comparisons to the other Billie, as telling is her middle name, Pirate—as in Jenny, the Kurt Weill heroine who dreams of bending a town to her will (“I’m gonna run this nothing town,” she sings on “You Should See Me in a Crown.”)
What Eilish and her brother, co-writer/producer Finneas O’Connell, have hedged their bets on is the young listener’s instinctual reaction to musical violence and murderous intentions. This is the loudest and most extreme music many fans will have yet heard. It’ll sound like nothing they’ve heard before. It’ll shock them and frighten them, and then make them feel powerful. A wall of sound is, after all, a great barrier against parents.
Eilish is 17, and many of her listeners are even younger. A former colleague of mine at San Francisco Magazine posted “Bury a Friend” to show his dissatisfaction with what the “kids” were listening to. A friend chimed in to say her 11-year-old daughter was enthralled with Eilish. 11!
Is it appropriate for kids that young to listen to this stuff? She teases swears and never delivers, but she trades, like so much Trump-era pop, in the language of depression and addiction. “I want to end me,” she mutters on “Bury a Friend.” “My Strange Addiction” is pretty self-explanatory. She takes pride in sober clarity on “Xanny,” but thousands of kids are learning the word from this song.
But Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance spoke to preteens in the same language. The way AC/DC and Aerosmith talk about women might be more harmful in the long run. None of these artists would ever confess to making children’s music, but if you don’t get into them by a certain age, you probably never will.
And maybe I’m old, but though I admire Eilish’s horror show, I don’t know if I’d pay the admission price. I prefer Ariana Grande to Grand Guignol. When she sharpens a knife on “You Should See Me in a Crown,” I think of Mr. Bungle, not murderers. I also remember how great “Hair of the Dog” by Nazareth sounded when I was 12. And “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by Skrillex when I was 16. I remember where I was when I heard those songs, and a lot of people are going to remember exactly where they were when they first heard Billie Eilish.