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Canary in a cultural coal mine

TRENDING | The music of Billie Eilish captures the angst of a generation shaped by the internet


Illustration by Zé Otavio

Canary in a cultural coal mine
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TAYLOR SWIFT’S Midnights won Album of the Year at this year’s Grammy Awards. In her acceptance speech, Swift announced that her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, would arrive on April 19.

It’s an odd title for an almost universally beloved performer who is living a charmed life. (She is winning at everything, including the Super Bowl.) But Swift knows her audience, and “tortured” may be an accurate way to describe the mental health of today’s teens and young adults.

Last May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joined the chorus of medical researchers and authorities sounding the alarm about internet use (particularly social media) and youth mental health problems (see “Kids on Mars,” in this issue). Murthy cited studies showing that teens who spent more than three hours per day on social media “faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety,” and that high schoolers were spending more time than that—an average of three hours and 30 minutes per day—on social media. Murthy calls youth mental health “the crisis of our time.”

Another pop megastar, Billie Eilish, whose mien and oeuvre seem more authentically “tortured” than Swift’s, seems to have captured the angst Murthy describes. Eilish (and Finneas O’Connell, her brother/collaborator/producer) also collected hardware at the Grammys in February, winning Song of the Year for “What Was I Made For?”—the massive hit from the Barbie soundtrack. She won an Academy Award in March for the same song.

Eilish’s young career is remarkable. She’s only 22 and has nine Grammys. And there’s depth and edge to her dreamy, synth-heavy pop that’s missing from Swift’s repertoire. For instance, take the following lines from Eilish’s single “TV,” off her 2022 EP Guitar Songs:

“I put on Survivor just to watch somebody suffer / Maybe I should get some sleep / Sinking in the sofa while they all betray each other / What’s the point of anything?”

Such lines capture Eilish’s voice, a singularly apocalyptic one among today’s pop superstars. Her music reveals dark truths about life in the internet age in large and startling ways, as Flannery O’Connor might have put it.

Eilish and her brother, Finneas, perform “What Was I Made For?” during the Oscars.

Eilish and her brother, Finneas, perform “What Was I Made For?” during the Oscars. Chris Pizzello/AP

Eilish is a canary in the online coal mine. The quieter she gets, you might say, the worse the cultural air quality. It’s not that Eilish is all that loud to begin with. Her voice is a contradiction in terms, at once powerful and ethereal, and she wields the power selectively. Still, when she’s breathlessly quiet, as she is on the somber, piano-forward “What Was I Made For?,” it means everything is not alright.

“What Was I Made For?” builds on the themes Eilish has developed in much of her previous work. Namely, that the internet is a terrible place to search for existential certainty around questions of fame, identity, purpose, and love. That maybe this experiment in rootless, distracted ways of inhabiting the world is leaving entire generations wondering why they’re here at all.

Eilish’s sophomore album, Happier Than Ever, is a slow-burn, mostly hushed (if not profane) meditation on the oppressiveness of Too Much Internet. As such, it contains contradictions. In order to “keep [herself] together,” she gazes resolutely upon herself—a defining trait of the smartphone era. The album’s title track is about the ugly end of a dysfunctional relationship. “When I’m away from you / I’m happier than ever” is a brutal opener for any breakup song but serves just as well as an epiphany about life without, say, social media.

The aforementioned “TV” is like a zeitgeist bingo card. There’s binge watching, insomnia, alienation, loneliness, and anxiety over the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Eilish’s voice is as elegant as it is exhausted by it all. It’s possible that this exhaustion leads to the surprising refrain of “Maybe I’m the problem” as the song quietly builds to its conclusion.

Her voice is a contradiction in terms, at once powerful and ethereal, and she wields the power selectively. Still, when she’s breathlessly quiet … we do well to pay attention.

This step toward repentance would be a good starting point for understanding what we’re made for. “What Was I Made For?” scores the climactic scene in Barbie. It’s heavy on lament and longing, and it’s weighed down with a kind of existential original sin (“I used to float, now I just fall down”). But the song betrays little interest in penitential introspection. Eilish’s answer to the Big Question is happiness.

And yet, in the online tunnels of our own making, we’ve sifted through an infinite number of dopamine deposits in pursuit of happiness and become spiritually numb. “I don’t know how to feel,” Eilish admits in the chorus.

In a way, the song sets the internet aside to consider the next big technological disruptor: artificial intelligence. If AI can make art, compose music, reply to emails, and provide the artifices of companionship, what, indeed, are we made for? What are we supposed to be doing here?

In The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch, drawing on Jesus’ words in Mark 12, posits, “Every human person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” In other words, image bearers of the triune God. This is what we’re made for. But many young Americans look to their devices for an image to behold, seeing only ourselves in the glass brightly. Crouch explains that we are indeed made to behold an image—just not one of our own making. So, maybe we are the problem—a truth that Billie Eilish seems to recognize.

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