Guest Article by Peter Smith: Impress Your Teenage Daughter! “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” by Billie Eilish
Reminds us of Lana Del Rey, Sigrid, Grimes, not many older artists actually but at a pinch Tracey Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Sinead O’Connor …
For those (like me) who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the musical generation gap was huge. Our parents grew up pre the whole rock music era, so even Merseybeat or the pop tunes of the summer of love sounded strange and threatening to many of their generation. By the time I was watching Bowie doing Starman on Top of the Pops as a 14-year-old, I was literally getting the “I can’t tell if he’s a boy or a girl” comments from my parents. Luckily (for them, anyway), I was off to university just as the Ramones, then the Pistols, Jam, Clash, Elvis Costello and more formed the punk soundtrack to the next few years of my life.
Today, things are very different. Teenagers are likely to be combing through their parents (or even their grandparents) vinyl collections for obscure gems, and whilst some of us might struggle a bit with grime, it’s nothing like my Dad’s vitriolic reaction to Hot Love by T.Rex (OK, I had played it 6 times straight through …)
While I was frequently asked to “turn it down”, today’s parents may be puzzling over the enigma of Billie Eilish, who is now the 6th most listened to artist in the world on Spotify. But today’s parents will be saying, “can you turn it up? Why is she whispering? Can’t she sing louder?”
Eilish has come up through the YouTube route, putting songs online since she was about 13, and now aged 17 her first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is out, and is already huge.
Much of the time, Eilish sings gently, mutters and whispers her way through this collection of resolutely low-fi pop songs, although my parents would have appreciated the fact that her vocals are generally comprehensible. Her older brother Finneas is a co-writer and producer, but she seems to be her own woman rather than the front for a back-office Svengali. Whoever is responsible for the sound has interesting ideas though – it is very minimalist, and often Eilish sings to just a sparse rhythm track, with some multi-tracking on her vocals to keep her company and maybe some occasional keyboard interventions.
It can get a little cutesy at times – “8” is particularly annoying with its ukulele and little girl vocals. But it can also work very well – “when the party’s over” features vocal harmonies and a simple piano accompaniment and is genuinely lovely. Occasionally a heavier dub-step feel creeps in, before a song reverts to softness. Vocals can be distorted, but the tunes are generally pretty strong, and her voice is pretty and naturalistic, conveying emotion successfully without vocal histrionics.
Eilish has built her huge following by being a spokeswoman for her generation of young woman. She sings about their concerns, and it can be quite dark at times – growing up, the pressures of friendship, first boyfriends and so on. But there is some humour and irony too. “wish you were gay” for instance is about liking a guy who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, so she wishes that his sexual orientation was the reason for the rejection.
Whilst those of us who aren’t the target market may not relate to that (!), I found the album surprisingly enjoyable. It is unusual particularly in its soundscape, but the songs are at heart “just” good pop songs, and it is a whole lot better than what many teenage girls listened to in my era (Bay City Rollers, Donny Osmond…). There’s much to admire and little to dislike here, and I’m looking forward to seeing her at Reading Festival in August, although I suspect the huge Radio 1 tent may be packed to overflowing with excited kids who will I’m sure know every word of the songs! She is low key in her dress, appearance and demeanour too – the polar opposite of the Kardashian culture, so credit for her on that front too.
It’s hard to relate Eilish to acts of a previous generation given the modernity of the production – I’d just sum up by suggesting that if you like tuneful, clever pop, female singers, and don’t object to the occasional bit of electronics, then you’ll be fine …