The Metamorphosis Of Billie Eilish: From Bedroom Pop To Global Phenomenon

Billie Eilish

Recently, I teamed up with my fellow contributors to discuss the latest album from Billie Eilish, called Happier Than Ever. Much like other comparative articles like the one on the recent Modest Mouse record, I provided a template of questions for each of the writers to respond to. Here is our conversation on Happier Than Ever, which we have affectionately titled: The Metamorphosis of Billie Eilish: From Bedroom Pop to Global Phenomenon.

What growth did you notice from Billie Eilish between her debut EP, her first full-length When We All Fall Asleep,Where Do We Go and now Happier Than Ever?

Garrett Lemons: The growth that I notice the most comes in the lyrical department. This is an album about the pitfalls of fame, growing up in the public eye, and finding yourself—what that means physically, sexually, mentally, as a creative—throughout both of those experiences. It reminded me, in many ways, of how Drake explored very similar themes on his album Take Care. “Ocean Eyes” and the ensuing critical and commercial success of When We All… catapulted Billie to a superstardom that surprised almost everyone, but no one more than Billie herself. This album is a lyrical masterclass of what being Billie Eilish actually means. And when you strip away the fame, the hilarious Vogue interviews, and the arena tours… that’s just a teenage girl who is just stepping into adulthood. Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR tread some of these grounds earlier this year, but those extra two years of Age that Billie has coupled with a longer time in the spotlight has imbued Happier Than Ever with far more gravity than I initially expected. At nineteen years old to be putting out an album of this caliber filled to the brim with her unique voice, vibe, and lyrics? We are in for something special… but only if Billie wants to keep doing it. Happier Than Ever proves that going forward, it’s only going to be on her terms.

Mary Varvaris: Billie Eilish has grown immeasurably since she released her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in March 2019. She has grown so much more than I expected! I thought that her debut was fun but flawed. Upon revisiting it, there are really only a handful of standout tracks (“bad guy,” “when the party’s over,” and “bury a friend”) in comparison to Happier Than Ever, which is stacked with incredible songs. Billie and Finneas’ creativity is off the charts. I know the album is mellower than we thought it would be, it’s less immediate, and Billie’s singing hasn’t changed all that much. To me, though, it’s a rich, intimate record that’s so brave coming from an artist who has already achieved monstrous success in terms of record and ticket sales, critical acclaim, and devoted fandom. Happier Than Ever’s structure is better than When We All Fall Asleep, the melodies are beautiful, the lyrics are sharper, and of course, the production is otherworldly. She could have released a whole album of “bad guy”’s – thank god she didn’t. This is far more impressive. 

Aaron Mook: To be perfectly honest, I got on board with When We All Fall Asleep…, an album I found interesting and enjoyable at first but have grown to truly love in the past couple of years. I love that record because of Billie’s own idiosyncrasies as a singer/songwriter, as well as they way she and Finneas are unafraid to tap into and mesh a number of different genres. It’s a really endearing debut and its roots extend way past top 40 pop.The growth between that album and Happier Than Ever feels directly correlated to those two distinct components of Billie’s music; the songwriting here still feels very distinctly “her” while seemingly being rooted in self-awareness and coming of age in the public eye. The album still traverses a variety of styles, but Finneas’s production and sequencing somehow makes songs like  “Billie Bossa Nova,” “my future,” and “Oxytocin” feel like they’re all extensions of the same organism. That kind of focus really does make for a better front-to-back album experience.

Adam Grundy: I agree that the greatest growth found on Happier Than Ever comes in her dynamic and well thought out lyrics. It seems like she never takes any lyrical line for granted and captures magic early on in the album, and never really lets that momentum drift away. Her debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me, was classic “bedroom pop” as she explored her voice that richly complemented Finneas’s production elements. On her first proper full-length record, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish was able to channel her personality directly into pop songs that had plenty of texture, depth, and interesting parts. I feel like on Happier Than Ever she takes herself much more seriously as an artist, and delivers all over on the LP that is filled with complex beats, beautiful harmonies, and intricate lyrics.

What works particularly well on her sophomore record, Happier Than Ever?

AM: Truthfully, Billie is in full-on chameleon mode, and not in a way that keeps her from standing out. It’s just so impressive that she can tackle throwback jazz or swing, electro-pop, Latin groove, modern pop (which she is pretty much dictating to some degree), and even moments of industrial or alt-rock without slipping up once. None of it feels ill-advised; she and Finneas are firing on all cylinders here.

MV: A lot works well on Happier Than Ever. For one, there’s the aesthetic – gone is the horror-influenced Billie, it’s time to welcome a Billie influenced by classic lounge artists and actors. She didn’t have to outlay the difficulties of her meteoric rise to stardom, like the stalkers, fake friends, the things she once loved only keeping her employed now, and processing the feelings in “Male Fantasy” but it’s significant and powerful that she has. Young people listening to Billie Eilish get to listen to someone who keeps it real with them and doesn’t think they’re too childish to handle mature subjects. I think that’s great. I also think that Billie achieved her goal of making an album with songs that are all over the place but listened to as a whole package end up cohesive and making sense. I love albums with that goal in mind. In terms of song quality, a lot of the tracks are brilliant. The AV Club compared “Getting Older” to “Serve the Servants” and while I understand what they were going for, Kurt’s music, lyrics, and fame were so different from Billie’s that I found that take to be reaching. The song is stunning, though. “Your Power,” like “Male Fantasy,” is important. The heavy beat on “I Didn’t Change My Number” and the assertive words really work for me, so does the excellent flow from “NDA” into “Therefore I Am” – both songs complimented side-by-side and on the album. I adore “my future,” I felt excited to hear Happier Than Ever when she released that single. “GOLDWING” is probably the most beautiful song she’s released so far, and “Oxytocin” should have been a single. Such a fun, gritty song for her to release that’s going to click with a lot of listeners. Oh, and the title track is her best song to date. It reminds me of a combination of “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers and “Just a Lover” by Hayley Williams.

GL: The narrative structure of the songs on this album leading up to the “Not My Responsibility” interlude and then again to the end of the album is a beautiful work of sequencing (the feels like it’s tacked on “Male Fantasy” notwithstanding). Not only does it highlight the lyrical growth, but connects songs on either side of the interlude for a more cohesive statement.

AG: I concur about the track call outs from my fellow contributors here, and songs like the introspective “Not My Responsibility,” the industrial pop of “Oxytocin,” and the blissful beauty of “GOLDWING” really bring purpose behind each of the songs. Finneas’s production was already great on the debut EP and LP, but he really gets into a new gear on songs like “Lost Cause,” “Overheated,” and “NDA.” His contributions to Billie’s growth cannot be understated, but her ability to convey so much raw emotion into every song only speaks to her continued artistic growth.

For the fans that enjoyed the early material, what do you think they will be most surprised by when listening to the new album for the first time?

GL: That more of the album is in line with those older songs than the lead singles led us to believe. I went into this release with much lower expectations after not finding “Your Power” or “Lost Cause” to be all that enticing upon initial listen.

AM: I think the growth here is self-evident and I just really hope the album doesn’t get overlooked for not have a “Bad Guy Pt. 2.” The album is deceivingly subdued, and even with how many of the songs follow a similar mid-tempo lull, the songwriting itself and variations of style make it extremely rewarding on repeat listens.

MV: I think listeners will be surprised by the overall subtleties at play on Happier Than Ever and how quiet half of the album is. 

AG: My first impression of Happier Than Ever was honestly nervousness. Nervousness that her fanbase would quickly dismiss her as a one trick pony and not get what she was going for on this record. The TikTok generation may end up hating this sophomore record, but the more they give it a chance to grow on them, the more they will understand all of the rich complexities to be found in Billie’s sound. She really has created her own “lane” and I feel like it’s a sound that will continue to be emulated, imitated, and yet appreciated by fans and future artists to come.

This new record has a lot of cool jazz and modern pop elements mixed in. What tracks ended up being your favorites in this set?

MV: I didn’t hear much jazz, to be honest, but I’m a lot less familiar with jazz music than I should be. “My Future” is probably that track for me, if that qualifies here!

AM: There’s not really anything I don’t enjoy here, just moments that could have been cut for time. Of the singles, “Your Power” is heartbreaking and sounds gorgeous, while I think “NDA” does a great job of blending the sound of the last album with something new. Otherwise, “Billie Bossa Nova” is incredibly smooth, and “Oxytocin” continues to blow my mind. It’s got this really primal Nine Inch Nails energy to it that I never expected to hear on an album like this. But somehow, it fits!

GL: My buddy mentioned that “my future” has a lot of vibes that he associates with Stevie Wonder. I’m not familiar enough with his catalog to supply the veracity of that statement, but it was the highlight of the early singles (until “NDA” arrived) and the song I revisited the most in the lead-up to the album. But the album definitely is willing to go explore more musical styles and then bring them under Billie’s (or maybe I should be saying Finneas’s) stylistic flourishes. Every song is full of little moments that catch your ear and draw you into the songs. “I Didn’t Change my Number” is one of the ones that utilizes these the best.

AG: I’m absolutely obsesses with the NIN-inspired song “Oxytocin.” It’s complex, yet abrasive beat demands immediate dance floor action, and never loses its momentum throughout the beat. I really think Eilish gained a hell of a lot of confidence from her “one off” songs like the 007 theme “No Time To Die,” and the Grammy-winning Record of the Year single for “Everything I Wanted.” This newfound exposure to the mainstream of media, astronomical expectations, and everyone’s opinions about her could’ve been enough to break the will and spirit of Billie Eilish, but nevertheless she persisted and created one of the most complex pop records of my generation.

Are there any songs on Happier Than Ever that you could have lived without, or saw room for improvement?

MV: Even after listening to Happier Than Ever a couple of times, I just don’t like “Lost Cause.” I was hoping I would after the other singles worked so well in context but this one just doesn’t connect with me, doesn’t coincide with the other themes Billie tackles, the instrumentals feel kinda lazy, and I think that the song is mean. I also think that “Overheated” would be better if she didn’t enunciate the chorus differently from the rest of the song and album. That’s nitpicking, I know, but that chorus annoys me for this reason!

AM: Again, none of these songs really miss the mark for me, but I do think “Everybody Dies” meanders a bit, and I’m curious about the decision to tack on “Male Fantasy” when the title track feels like such a surprising, explosive conclusion to the record. I still wish “Lost Cause” packed more of a punch, too.

GL: I contemplated this question the longest, because I know which songs I think throw in a hiccup to the flow of the album, but on their own merits, I still quite like them. There aren’t skips, just odd placements. I think removing “Billie Bossa Nova” and “Halley’s Comet” from the first half and then only having one of “Everybody Dies” and “Your Power” (I would cut “Your Power” between the two) instead of both on the album would create a much more dynamic record. “Male Fantasy” also stands out as oddly placed in large part because of the power of the trio of songs coalescing in “Happier Than Ever” that come before it, but I couldn’t tell you where to move it to keep it on the record. That is not undermine just how important of a song “Your Power” is. I do want to make that clear. As we live in a post-Kesha vs Sony, #FreeBritney world…female pop stars have had some of the loudest voices on the airwaves and the quietest voices in the rooms that matter. With Billie, all over this album but specifically on “Your Power,” maybe we’re finally seeing a shift.

AG: Really, there wasn’t too much on this record that I felt like didn’t “fit.” If I had to pick certain room for improvement, I’d say the sequencing is a little all over the place, with the front half of the record sounding much different than the back half. Celebrities like Hayley Williams have gone on social media to praise Billie Eilish’s exciting new direction on Happier Than Ever, and Williams even pointed out the back half of this record, in particular, as being especially powerful. The ending of the record with “Male Fantasy” seemed a little odd to me, but that speaks more to the amazing beauty of the title track, that like Aaron and Garrett said, really should have been the true ending of the album.

Based on this latest album, where do expect Billie Eilish to take her sound in the future with her subsequent releases?

GL: My personal album highlights are the industrial “Oxytocin” and “NDA” and the soaring rock crescendo of “Happier Than Ever,” which makes me crave her exploring those sounds a bit more.

AM: Honestly, her path feels unpredictable at this point, and that’s a great place to be for someone so early in their career. I can’t wait to see her grow as a songwriter because I feel like her records will hopefully continue to branch in two parallel directions: introspective lyricism and innovative instrumentals.

MV: The most thrilling thing about Billie Eilish is that we have no idea where she will go next. I mean, maybe we knew where Happier Than Ever would go after “everything I wanted,” but there’s no way to be sure. It would be cool if she experimented with rock music and used her chest voice a lot more – I can see listeners quickly tiring of the whispered vocal if they haven’t already. I expect her to continue making music without label input and of her own accord until she gets fed up with the entire cycle. 

AG: Much like my fellow contributors have stated, Billie Eilish can really do whatever the fuck she feels like at this point. She’s garnered more awards than people twice her age have ever accumulated in a lifetime of music, and yet she remains focused and hungry in improving her already trademark sound. I’d like to eventually see Billie try some exciting vocal approaches and belt out some more power notes, much like on “No Time To Die,” to prove to the naysayers that she only whisper-sings. The best and most exciting part about this young woman is that she is never satisfied with the status quo and will continue to push herself to become the phenom she was always meant to be.