A review of Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

By Patty Tomsky

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
by Billie Eilish
Audio CD (March 29, 2019)

If you told me a 17-year old could write a song of substance I would have called you a liar. Truth is, the rejoinder says more about my 17-year-old self than any young person. I wrote reams of turgid, louche poems, awash in sentimentality. The work was emotional and excruciatingly boring to anyone besides me. And an artist like Taylor Swift, with prodigious songwriting chops indeed, may be preternaturally dexterous with a tune and a phrase but still holds a “moon-in-June” appeal: Fairy tales and school girl crushes were her milieu. Not so Billie Eilish.

Eilish is wry in the way of the enfant terrible but also scary, a bad seed with a beat box and an hermetical disposition that runs to chaos. At first, I thought she’d sprung fully angst-ed out of the head of some A&R woman. The maturity of her lyrics and the fierce, unwavering satire in her phrasing and in her tunes—all a clever ploy for pop stardom in the vein of a DJ Alanis Morrisette or a more whispery Bjork. But the sister and brother team of Eilish and her brother Finneas wrote every word and every melody.

Did the pair have a TV growing up? Probably not, one wagers. But they were raised by actor/filmmaker parents and must have flowered under a brand of indie culture, thus a precocious curio cabinet of a pop star was born.

Then I read that Eilish was “in a bad place” two years ago and now “feels better.” She’s spooky and damaged in her songs but chipper and wry on the pages of magazines and while sitting for Howard Stern, talking to him with a tinge of hip-hop in her voice. This little white girl also curated some music for Apple—all of which is deep-dish rap or hip-hop and none of which moved me. I’m leery of the cultural appropriation this conversational affect belies. But I love her music for the way it reaches that 17-year old inside of me, the teen girl angst I tried to process. She goes much deeper in her dirges and far surpasses the dramatic drivel I spewed back in the day. Shit, even some if not most of the dramatic drivel I produce to this day. Her artful nihilism carries a ring of truth:“I want to end me,” she whispers at one point. And you believe her.

The imagery of death, sin, the way life leeches out of the surface-attentions of social media, leaving a crushing fakeness, the dopamine plunge of missing a few likes—her music contains multitudes of modern horror. Older men calling her “baby” and her musing: “a tight dress makes you a whore.”

She’s a product of the horror that children feel when they realize how fake and false most adults are and then understand that these are the people responsible for their safety and wellbeing. Their terror at this prospect would overtake them except for the fact that instead, they choose rage. This rage feels even more out of control than being controlled by their damaged parents in our damaged culture. So they turn it inward into depression.  This rage turned inward is the secret subject of Billie Eilish. Others focus on her sexuality but acting out with innuendo in songs like “Bad Guy” (“might seduce your dad type”) is a sure sign of trauma. Billie Eilish writes and then snarls and whispers along to the noxious traumatic particulars of modern life. As a fellow empath, I relate too deeply to most people, and especially, as an ex-troubled teen and mostly adjusted adult, to a kid who’s obviously expressing delightful creativity in concert with some extremely scary fragility.

Scientists tell us that the youngest members of mammalian species are most permeable to their environment. Billie wears baggy clothes to hide her permeability. She’s easily damaged, or the persona in her music is easily damaged and particularly permeable to poisons. Her particular genius expresses itself best when she’s lashing out at this illness, mostly caused by we thoughtless adults and the world we created for her to live in. She makes art from the artifacts we leave for her to make sense of—and rails against them at the same second. I hope she learns how to shut down her ability to feel all of this, her cells’ exquisite sensitivity allows her to transmute the messages of this dark time and place into a narrator of power, purpose and rage. “What do you want from me? Why don’t you run from me?” Posing these rhetorical questions that she knows the answers to already—she’s asking us to question our own motives. Motives that objectify women, young ones, especially, to make them report, later in the song, “Today I’m thinking about the things that are deadly/The way I’m drinkin you down, like I want to drown, like I wanna end me.” In this song, she asks also, “When we all fall asleep, where do we go?” as if finding a sense of community is an inchoate thing, a longing for each person’s sleeping heart and mind to be together there, yet tragically unaware of our sisterhood or brotherhood of slumber even as we’re submerged.

Submergence is a good word for the art of Billie Eilish and her brother. Instead of working to find a stance of independence, they’ll submerge themselves into the persona that will please the perceived imposters all around—but with a wink and a snarly smile. “I like it when you take control Even if you know that you don’t own me, I’ll let you play the role.”  You get the feeling the narrator here is reveling in the dysfunction, fetishizing her own dis-ease by subsuming her autonomy within it.
I want her to emerge from these songs, better, changed, redeemed. I want to see that but I don’t think I will based on the culture these young people are skewering brilliantly. Even her love song, “I Love You” has her narrator begging, “Maybe won’t you take it back/Say you were tryna make me laugh/And nothing has to change today/You didn’t mean to say/”I love you.” The patronizing tropes of romantic love won’t tame Eilish’s clear-eyed vision of what really happens when love is expressed in words—more often than not the people involved will experience a slow decay, a slide into indifference. One thing that gives me hope for Eilish and her generation is their refusal to embrace indifference; their humor in the face of the shit that’s going down all around them; and their artful dancing-on-the-edge-of-a-chasm exuberance. I’m hoping that Billie herself is further from the edge than her songs seem to show. I’m glad her family unit is tight and, if tormented a bit by the past, at least a counterweight to the fragility evinced by her lyrics. I’ll be watching and listening and, even though I know it’s not my place, praying for signs of light.

About the reviewer: Patty Tomsky works in journalism as a copywriter and editor. Her work has been published in Kota Press, Paterson Literary Review, Small Change News, U.S. 1 Worksheets FemZine UK and elsewhere. She is a two-time recipient of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize; is included in Story Cities: A City Guide for the Imagination from Arachne Press (2018); was awarded a Pikes Peak Arts Council grant for Rock n Roll Hootchie Koo, a rock-based, multimedia poetry reading and art installation; published Take Back the Night (2017) an LGBTQIA paranormal adventure about a possessed Bowie-esque rock star and a concert at the end of the world. Her non-fiction books include Minimalism in the Home and Customer Service Magic. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction at the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Find out more about her at http://www.pattytomsky.com. The author page for Take Back the Night is amazon.com/author/pattytomsky. Contact Patty at: ptomsky@gmail.com