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Tiresomely woke

MUSIC | Billie Eilish pushes already-torn envelopes

Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

Tiresomely woke
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In 2019, Billie Eilish, then all of 17 years old, topped the charts in 10 countries with When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It is an album so lacking in musical oomph that it seemed people had to be embracing her for something more than the self-consciously vulnerable sounds that she and her brother, producer, and co-writer Finneas were creating in their home studio.

People probably were. Climate-change awareness, veganism, mink is murder, “body positivity,” abortion, Biden 2020—Eilish the offstage advocate left no “progressive” stone unturned, becoming in effect a Gen Z avatar who could also carry a tune.

To be fair, Eilish’s next album, the ironically (or maybe not) titled Happier Than Ever, was a big improvement. Vocally, she still tended to go from a whisper to a coo, but her brother’s electro-pop noodlings had developed catchy quirks and other signs of life implicit in the term earworm. And her lyrics were getting interesting.

So were her interviews. In 2021 she told Howard Stern she’d become addicted to porn (which, like today’s marijuana, is a lot more potent than it used to be) at the tender age of 11. “I think it really destroyed my brain,” she said. That same year, she told British Vogue that she’d been sexually taken advantage of as a minor (one of the experiences at the root of Happier Than Ever’s “Your Power”). Sexual exploitation plus exposure to porn at a young age—maybe there were reasons that Eilish often sang with the voice of an abused child hoping not to get abused again. The ironic-or-maybe-not title of her brand new Interscope release? Hit Me Hard and Soft.

Hit Me Hard and Soft

Hit Me Hard and Soft Billie Eilish

Let the album play in the background, and you’ll notice right away how much happier it sounds than Happier Than Ever, especially the songs “Birds of a Feather,” “Lunch,” and—from the high gear into which it shifts partway through to its end—“L’Amour de Ma Vie.” On “Skinny” and “The Greatest,” Eilish even bursts full voice into song. “Maybe she’s outgrowing her woke-avatar phase,” you think.

Listen closely, however, and, sure enough, the other shoe drops. She plops an S-bomb into the middle of “Birds of a Feather,” and in keeping with the more salacious parts of her April Rolling Stone interview, “Skinny” and “Lunch” pop the cork on lesbian longings. What was it that Robertson Davies is supposed to have said? “The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up”?

We’ve been here before. Jill Sobule and Katy Perry each scored big with songs called “I Kissed a Girl” in 1995 and 2008 respectively. So for all their putative envelope pushing, there’s something tiresomely familiar about Eilish’s coming-out songs. Let’s hope that, at least for their content, that familiarity starts breeding contempt.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986.



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