Photo: Kelia Anne MacCluskey
Billie Eilish's Road To 'Happier Than Ever': How The Superstar Continues To Break Pop's Status Quo
It's daunting how quickly life can change in just two years. While most teenagers were spending sleepless nights studying for the SATs or picking out prom dresses, Billie Eilish had an opposite adolescence. The Los Angeles native went from plucking a ukulele in her bedroom to skyrocketing into one of this generation's most lauded artists, selling out arenas and collecting trophies with apparent nonchalance and ease.
It all began in 2016 when a 13-year-old Eilish uploaded "Ocean Eyes" to SoundCloud, which was written and produced by her brother, collaborator and confidant FINNEAS. The haunting ballad was meant to be a recording that Eilish's dance teacher could choreograph to, but turned Eilish into an overnight sensation (the song now has nearly 50 million SoundCloud streams) that led to an Interscope record deal.
From there, Eilish dropped her 2017 debut EP Don't Smile at Me and followed up with 2019's monstrous, Billboard 200 chart-topping debut album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Drawing inspiration from Eilish's nightmares and bouts with depression, it captured an intimacy that could only be born out of FINNEAS' bedroom studio.
Now, the pair has managed to double down on that vulnerability with Eilish's second album Happier Than Ever. Released on July 30, the album documents how she's coped with not only the demanding music industry but stalkers, toxic relationships and the misogyny that powers them both.
"There's so much pressure and so much expectation, and it's so public," FINNEAS told Billboard in 2019. "It's amazing that anyone has navigated it, especially someone as young as Billie." Eilish, who was preparing for her debut Coachella performance at the time, echoed it: "I'm in the good old days right now. Who knows if this is my peak and then I die or some s***? Or my career dies and I go away and no one cares. Or it gets crazier."
Her career trajectory has definitely gotten crazier. Following the release of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Eilish became award season's golden child. She did an impressive clean sweep at the 2020 GRAMMY Awards, winning five of her six nominations while breaking age and gender-defying records throughout the night.
Eilish was the second artist in GRAMMY history (following Christopher Cross in 1981) and the first woman to take home the Big Four awards: Album of the Year (When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?), Record and Song of the Year ("Bad Guy") and Best New Artist. The singer also won Best Pop Vocal Album. Then 18 years old, she was the youngest-ever winner for all categories in the Big Four. FINNEAS, then 22, also won big with Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (the youngest to do so) and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
The snowball effect continued at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards, where 2019's "Everything I Wanted" single once again won Record of the Year. She also scored Best Song Written For Visual Media for her Bond theme song "No Time To Die," from the film of the same name.
Eilish was heavily decorated before her 20th birthday. And as with every artist who experiences immediate ascension—from the conservatorship-controlled Britney Spears to Eilish's own idol Justin Bieber—daggers from naysayers and trolls will be thrown. It became more evident that the pressure was getting to Eilish, who's never shied from detailing every angle of her emotions.
On "Everything I Wanted," she summates how her brother helps her handle the internal pressures. The song was inspired by an unnerving nightmare where she committed suicide and no one—from family to dedicated fans—cared. Ultimately, it's the launching pad for Happier Than Ever. Here, in all her newly blonde glory (as seen on the Old Hollywood-inspired artwork), Eilish emerges from the cloudiness that engulfed When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? while navigating the trauma she's experienced since the album's release.
Happier Than Ever feels like a heavy sigh, with Eilish sounding completely overwhelmed on nearly every song. Gone are the dentist drill effects, "Duh!" eyerolls or The Office sound bites that outlined the kooky teen angst of her debut. Happier Than Ever is both stronger and more subdued. The singer gives listeners just enough to be satisfied, almost as if to cheekily dump it all on us post-success: "Here's what you a**holes wanted!"
But Eilish is smarter than that, and the thoughtfulness she put behind the album's curation is evident. "I wanted to make a very timeless record. That wasn't just timeless in terms of what other people thought, but really just timeless for myself," she explained in a Vevo interview last month. "I gathered a lot of inspiration from a lot of older artists that I grew up loving. Mostly Julie London, and a lot of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee."
Billie Eilish. Photo: Kelia Anne MacCluskey
The result is a jazzy 16-track confessional where she comes out of the other side with a more mature mindset. It's almost heartbreaking how quickly Eilish had to grow up. "Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now," she grieves on the "Getting Older" opener, which might inspire waves of relatability for millennials forced to realize their youth has slipped away.
But the album still has sprinklings of that deadpan "zero f***s given" attitude—and most of it is targeted at a deadbeat ex-flame. The swagged-out "I Didn't Change My Number" nods to her debut album's wild sound effects, opening with what sounds like the growl of Eilish's pitbull, Shark. "Lost Cause" also knocks down her ex's ego, condemning him as a jobless fool who couldn't even bother gifting her flowers. And that "Get my pretty name out of your mouth" line on her "Therefore I Am" single is heavenly sarcasm.
That said, misogyny's shackles have a tight hold on Happier Than Ever, as Eilish unravels the consequences of fame that more women are speaking up about. The spoken word "Not My Responsibility" debuted during the singer's March 2020 Where Do We Go? World Tour before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled it. It's a candid look at how society places women's bodies under a microscope and subjects them to unwarranted opinions. "The body I was born with / Is it not what you wanted?" she presses.
Eilish's curves—which she opts to cover with oversized clothing—were picked apart once the paparazzi caught her sporting a form-fitting top last fall. She later gave social media's body shamers the middle finger with her seductive British Vogue photoshoot. But naturally, as heard on "Overheated," she hasn't fully shaken off those thoughts. "And everybody said it was a letdown, I was only built like everybody else now," she half-raps over FINNEAS' chilling, futuristic production. "But I didn't get surgery to help out."
Happier Than Ever also touches on more frightening themes, with "NDA" targeting Eilish's stalker. One of the few tracks that revisit the unnerving sonics that made critics brand her a pop prodigy, it's filled with plucky synths and distorted vocals reminiscent of Madonna's Music deep cut "Nobody's Perfect."
"I really don't like to be alone. I do like having anonymity, or autonomy, but I really am flipped out when I'm alone. I hate it," Eilish told The Guardian. "I have a lot of stalkers and I have people that want to do bad things to me. I also am freaked out by the dark and what's under beds and couches. I have a lot of weird, irrational fears. So I'm still at my parents' house a lot. I just love my parents and really like it here. It's very comforting."
That feeling of comfort is nonexistent on "Your Power," which spotlights abusive and predatory men. The stripped ballad, with Eilish's signature low decibel barely rising above a murmur, is devastating: "But you ruined her in a year, don't act like it was hard / And you swear you didn't know / No wonder why you didn't ask / She was sleepin' in your clothes but now she's got to get to class."
But the album's heaviness is balanced with a healthy dose of horniness, indicative of just how grown Eilish is becoming. "Billie Bossa Nova" is a sensual, hip-swaying tale of keeping her secret lover's identity hidden as they make love in a hotel room.
And "Oxytocin" (titled after the "love hormone") can travel two ways: a head rush in a '90s London rave surrounded by sweat and hot beer breath, or a designer drug-fueled Crystal Castles concert in the mid-'00s. But Eilish's feral screams ("YOU SHOULD REALLY RUN AWAY!") are all her own.
"There was flashing in my head when we made that. The color of whatever was in my brain while making it was dark, but also a flashing yellow," she told The Guardian of the track, which was birthed from her synaesthesia. "Honestly, the images I have for 'Oxytocin' were just sex. That's it. All different kinds and styles and colors and locations. That's really what was in my head. Sex."
Eilish's artistic prowess is best captured on the album's title track. Beginning with those familiar, dreamy ukulele plucks from her debut days, the second half is an electric guitar-ripping rock shocker. It's a raw therapy session as she gets over a shady ex: "I don't relate to you 'cause I'd never treat me this s***y / You made me hate this city."
About the title track, "Do you ever want to say something to somebody for a really long time? You don't really know what you want to say or how to say it," she explained to NPR. "Then maybe you have a conversation with somebody else, or you think a little bit about it, and you figure out what it is you've been trying to say for this entire period of time? That's how it felt: That was the entire writing process, that was the recording process. Everything involved in this song felt like how it feels when you finally find the words for something."
The singer, well known for her controlled soprano whispers, breaks her own boundary on "Happier Than Ever," allowing her voice to get loud, ugly and angry. It's the album's least restrained moment and the most relatable form of catharsis.
"I'm in love with my future / Can't wait to meet her," Eilish croons on "My Future." The single is a semblance of hope, which is tucked within an album by a woman ready to move on from the disappointments blocking the joys of her own womanhood.
But there will come times where you just want to scream your head off—and Eilish will provide the megaphone.