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how billie eilish uses humour and horror to talk about mental health

On her first full-length album Billie skilfully discusses mental health and self-loathing. But behind the melodrama there’s an extremely relatable, endearingly goofy 17-year-old.

by Jake Hall
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04 April 2019, 10:51pm

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When Billie Eilish was 15 years old, she had an epiphany: “You don’t have to go through anything to write about it.” As a young pop agitator, this realisation began to shape the music she was writing together with her brother in their LA family home, but the results weren’t light, frothy fantasy worlds; instead, her songs laden with references to murder, violence and straight-up horror.

At first glance, her debut EP don’t smile at me features all the hallmarks of a pop record: there are love songs, ( Ocean Eyes) ballads about low self-esteem ( Idontwannabeyouanymore) and scathing takedowns of imitators ( COPYCAT). But one song in particular stands out: “My friends aren’t far / in the back of my car / lay their bodies,” sings Billie against a bright acoustic backdrop in Bellyache, which sees her inhabit the character of a sociopath on the run.

These themes are amplified enormously on her first full-length album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Continuing to work with her brother Finneas as co-writer and producer, Billie skilfully discusses mental health, self-loathing and narcissistic tendencies in metaphors about blood-splattered walls and -- sensing a theme? – friends she’s buried. The soundscapes are creepy, driven by menacing basslines and ominous synths which wrap themselves around Billie’s hushed vocals.

But behind the melodrama there’s an extremely relatable, endearingly goofy 17-year-old. The first sounds we hear on the album are Billie’s slurping as she takes out her Invisalign braces; it’s a nod to her Instagram, where she last year posted a video with the caption “tell invisalign to go fuck itself i hate that shit.” The short clip of her flipping the middle finger has almost six million views.

There is obviously truth in the descriptions of Billie as a sort of Gen Z poster child – usually prefaced by these kind of social media statistics – but they don’t often scratch the surface. Although her success story is specific to the music industry today – the meteoric rise to stardom through streaming and social media – there’s social commentary in her lyrics which tends to be missed.

x anny, the record’s third track, is exemplary of this. Mental illness is increasingly common among teenagers, and it seems that more and more of us are turning to self-medication. Xanax – an anxiety-numbing pill referenced often in the ‘emo rap’ that Billie sometimes lifts from – is fast becoming the Gen Z drug of choice, swallowed en masse by teens looking for brief respite from their own minds. In xanny Billie laments the loneliness of being the only sober person in a room of drugged-up friends; “I don’t need a xanny to feel better,” she sings, as her vocals begin to blur. That’s not to say she hasn’t considered it, though – “I must be missing something,” she muses, before becoming more defiant: “Don’t give me a xanny, now or ever.”

It’s a classic tale of refusing peer pressure, but heavy overtones of mental illness paint a sobering on cultural pressures. Despite being billed often as the sole root of the problem, social media has actually created a new way of discussing mental health: memes. Today’s generation is known for making light of anxiety, depression and even suicide to cope, as governments struggle to adequately fund vital services. Some argue this approach has benefits, whereas others are less convinced.

Billie’s discussions of her own mental health are cryptic, especially as she tends to claim distance from her lyrics. Nevertheless, she has spoken candidly about the effects that fame and success have had on her mental wellbeing. In one video interview she watches the answers she gave to the same questions a year prior and the atmosphere is heavy. The new Billie is darker, more hardened; she wears black instead of bright green and laughs bitterly as she outlines that the younger version of herself had “no idea what [was] coming”. This same darkness looms particularly heavy towards the final act of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO, which finishes with three songs designed to create a sentence: listen before i go, i love you, goodbye. Explaining this choice in another interview, she alludes heavily to suicide before pausing and laughing: “Wow, that got dark!” It’s an example of using humour to intercept an extremely heavy, emotional conversation.

Social media allows us to overshare when we feel like it and posture when we don’t, with the swelling popularity of Finsta accounts aiding the digital curation of our personalities. Likewise, the songs on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? can also be viewed in this paradigm, too, split between the ‘main account’ tracks and ‘finsta’ tracks.

The final three songs undeniably fall into the latter category, but plenty of the others have a distinct swagger which sets them apart. bad guy is an infectious, controversial flex track (the ‘might seduce your dad’ lyric has raised more than a few eyebrows), as is early single you should see me in a crown, whose cocky chorus comes and video – in which tarantulas crawl across Billie’s face and even out of her mouth – only heightens this sense of fearlessness.

These walls collapse on a song like wish you were gay. Initially, the lyrics drew criticism of queer-baiting and trivialising LGBTQ identities, although Billie later clarified it was about narcissism and self-loathing. Indeed, at its core, the song is a goofy declaration of unrequited love which Billie wishes could be explained through any reason other than her being a “shitty person”, as she sings, “Don’t say I’m not your type / just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.”

Candid moments like these stand out against more visceral tracks like bury a friend, although the themes – anxiety, fear – are largely the same. Modern horror films like Us and It Follows have begun to move away from cheap scares and CGI monsters into a more psychological realm; they depict the terror of confronting darkness within yourself, using horrific imagery and old-school tropes to convey a much more complicated conversation about the anguish of mental illness. bury a friend borrows from this formula. She confirmed in an interview that it was written from the perspective of her own monster, as well as the night terrors she experiences as part of her sleep paralysis. The result is a brutal, industrial track about the existential fear that anxiety can induce. But these themes are stylised through lyrics about stapling tongues and piercing through skin with shattered glass.

With don’t smile at me and WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, Billie Eilish has crafted a language both goofy and dark to engage in difficult, emotionally laborious conversations. The distance she emphasises between herself and her lyrics is interrupted by occasional overshares, which remind us all that there’s a young, complicated person behind the music. Although she’s tapped into a wider trend of using horror as a medium to address collective anxieties, her work is distinct; it’s claustrophobic, her voice a heavily stylised yet disturbingly intimate whisper. It’s the key to Billie’s charm and relatability: whether she’s oversharing in interviews or singing from the perspective of her own monsters, she masks truly terrifying conversations with humour and horror. It’s original, it’s effective and it ties into a wider cultural shift in terms of narratives around mental health: it’s what makes her a ‘Gen Z’ popstar.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.