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Billie Eilish and the Loneliness of Megastardom

The 19-year-old’s second album, ‘Happier Than Ever,’ finds her in a place unfamiliar to the average listener but all too relatable for the young and ultra-famous

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Do yourself a favor and watch Billie Eilish meet Justin Bieber in person for the first time. This fraught pop-star summit occurs midway through the exquisitely sad documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, released in February on Apple TV+. (Specifically, it occurs at 1:16:05, if you’re still subscribing thanks to Ted Lasso.) They meet at Coachella 2019. Eilish, then only 17, has already performed—her Coachella debut, and essentially a hometown gig for a conquering hero—to deafening fanfare, even if she flubs a few lines of “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” Afterward she is devastated, inconsolable: “I was not happy with the way I was.” Everyone around her is so proud of and blissfully happy for her, but this only seems to make her sadder.

But Bieber’s here. Billie Eilish loves Justin Bieber. She loves him so much she knows exactly when and where he was born. (March 1, 12:56 a.m.; London, Ontario; St. Joseph’s Hospital, second floor.) She loves him so much that at 12 she worried she’d never love anyone else. She loves him so much that Eilish’s mother says she considered taking her daughter to therapy for loving Justin Bieber too much. Now the boy wonder himself has jumped on a remix of Billie’s smash hit “Bad Guy,” from her dominant 2019 debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and we’ve already watched her listen to his verse for the first time, and it seems clear in that moment that (a) she’s not necessarily bowled over by his verse per se, but (b) who cares, because she loves Justin Bieber so much.

So they meet, Billie and Biebs, in an outdoor Coachella VIP area, with a ring of bodyguards enclosing them and a mob of screaming fans clutching smartphones just barely out of reach. Ariana Grande is onstage nearby, singing “Bad Idea.” And Eilish has, let’s say, a multiphase response to the physical presence of Justin Bieber. A three-hour opera packed into less than 60 seconds. She melts, she recoils, she disassociates, she flirts, she stares. She holds up her hands to prevent Justin Bieber from getting any closer. She sticks her head in a nearby cone that might be a confetti cannon or something. Eventually, she pulls herself together and pulls in JB for a sobbing embrace that lasts somewhere between five minutes and five days. Later, on the drive back to the hotel, she cries some more—finally, fleetingly blissful herself—as her brother/collaborator/producer Finneas O’Connell gently points out that after a couple of years of Billie superfans crying in her arms during meet and greets, “You know how it feels to be him in that situation.”

“You carry a heavy calling,” Bieber tells Eilish in a lengthy and gracious post-meetup message that she cries while reading aloud, maybe not registering the full gravity of his words. Or maybe by then Eilish already knew that crushing heaviness intimately. “This is gonna be wild for 10 years, it’s gonna be crazy,” Katy Perry warns Eilish about pop megastardom when they meet face-to-face themselves at Coachella. “If you ever wanna talk—’cause it’s a weird ride.”

Billie Eilish’s second full-length album, Happier Than Ever, came out Friday. It’s about how two pop megastars hugging one another might be the only true, and truthful, intimacy available to pop megastars at all.

The World’s a Little Blurry, like a great many pop-star documentaries before it, illuminates the baffling public highs and pulverizing personal lows that come with chart-topping fame: the screaming crowds, the punishing physical grind, the cowed and inattentive soon-to-be-ex, the arduous but occasionally ecstatic artistic process itself, the supportive parents (love Billie’s parents), the Fucking Internet, and the invasive indignity of all those meet and greets. Along those same blurry lines, Happier Than Ever, like a great many sophomore albums before it, blends ecstasy with exasperation, unimaginable triumph with bone-deep exhaustion, celebrity panopticon oversaturation with maddening isolation. Whether she’s flirting or recoiling, attacking or defending, these 16 songs (probably too many, but better that than too few) are shot through with a punishing loneliness. “I’m gettin’ older / I think I’m agin’ well,” Eilish sings on the album’s opening lines, now a world-weary 19-year-old. “I wish someone had told me I’d be doin’ this by myself.” But we pretty much know for a fact she’d been told.

Eilish’s rise from lovingly homeschooled L.A. overachiever to theoretically underground 16-year-old streaming colossus to Grammy-dominating superstar felt shocking and unprecedented even if, from Bieber on down, you can name plenty of pop megastars who forged a similar supernova path before and since. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was a startling mix of macabre electro-pop propulsion and somehow even scarier torch-song hyperballadry, her gnarly visuals (the black tears, the spider, the syringes) still nowhere near as frightening as the sheer ASMR malevolence of her voice at its softest. It’s the slowest and even sweetest tunes that reveal themselves, in time, to be the most exhilaratingly sinister, even if “When the Party’s Over” took me months to fully appreciate and “I Love You” took me basically two years.

But I am somehow startled anew, every time I reencounter this person, at how quiet and exquisitely somnolent and outright elegant much of Eilish’s music is, her gothic, disruptive, teenage-phenom rep notwithstanding. On Happier Than Ever, she trills and purrs and moans like a jazz singer unstuck in time: “What a drag to love you like I do,” she murmurs luxuriously on a tremulous, sleepless lullaby called “Halley’s Comet”; futz with the production just a little and you can imagine it coming out any time in the past 80 years. There’s a song on this record literally called “Billie Bossa Nova,” an eerily erotic daydream that swings from “use different names at hotel check-ins” to “heavy breathin’ on the floor” but mostly conveys the idea that she’s stuck alone in way too many penthouses. You can be super-famous and terribly lonely at the same time, y’know; you can be an old soul and the boogeyman at the same time. When you think about it, the boogeyman might be the oldest (and loneliest) soul there is.

She is famous now. She is 19 now. She is blond now. She wears corsets on the cover of British Vogue now. Deal with it. She is trying to deal with the Fucking Internet’s ongoing failure to deal with it. Happier Than Ever, once again home-produced and cowritten by Finneas, attacks—and defends itself from—superstardom from multiple angles, on multiple fronts. There is “Getting Older,” laced through with too-many-hotels ennui. (“Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now.”) There are also myriad midtempo fuck-you anthems, possibly leveled at that cowed ex, possibly leveled at the Fucking Internet, possibly leveled at the dehumanizing and objectifying music industry as a whole. “I Didn’t Change My Number” is a slinky, dismissive strut with a mellifluously crooned chorus of “Don’t take it out on me / I’m out of sympathy for you”; “Lost Cause” has a slithering slow-mo-funk bassline that engraves the line “I know you think you’re such an outlaw / But you got no job” onto some poor chump’s tombstone; “Therefore I Am,” funkier and slinkier and meaner still, rails against seemingly everyone vain and deluded enough to believe they really know her, or are worthy of even being associated with her:

Articles, articles, articles
Rather you remain unremarkable
Interviews, interviews, interviews
When they say your name, I just act confused

So yes, OK, this is a Coping With Superstardom album, and you’ve heard (and maybe even loved) hundreds of those in your lifetime even as you roll your eyes at the self-pity. That pitfall, especially, Eilish is ferociously intent on avoiding. “Last week, I realized I crave pity / When I retell a story, I make everything sound worse,” she sings on “Getting Older,” but unreliable narrators are always more dangerous, which is to say more fun, and for that matter more believable in a celebrity-panopticon hellscape this unreliable. “Not My Responsibility” is an extra-chill and thoroughly brutal spoken-word number that literally begins with her saying, “Do you know me? Really know me?” and goes on to describe her relationship with the Fucking Internet in the clearest, starkest, most furious terms imaginable, even if she’s basically whispering:

Some people hate what I wear
Some people praise it
Some people use it to shame others
Some people use it to shame me
But I feel you watching
And nothing I do goes unseen

That song is considerably more disheartening than the song called “Everybody Dies.” But Happier Than Ever is packed with a furious resilience too. Eilish confronts an abuser on the deceptively gentle acoustic-guitar ballad “Your Power” (“You ruined her in a year / Don’t act like it was hard”). On the hypnotic trip-hop interlude “Goldwing,” she plays guardian angel, imagining what she’s described as “a young, non-exploited, non-traumatized person” and then counseling them (“You better keep your head down”) to avoid abusers of all types, or maybe the abusive music business as a whole: “They’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear / Then they’re gonna disappear / Gonna claim you like a souvenir / Just to sell you in a year.”

Most of these tracks are so slow, so stately, so somnolent that it may take quite a few listens (or months, or years) for them to truly sink in. I almost feel bad that my favorite song here, by far, is the EDM-festival-obliterating banger “Oxytocin,” which is by far the fastest, loudest, most hypnotic, and disruptive moment on Happier Than Ever, and the closest this record comes to having a “Bad Guy” in a way that would feel calculated were the result not so thrilling and unsettling. “Oxytocin” is an eerily erotic waking nightmare with more heavy breathing and hotel intrigue (“What would people say, people say, people say / If they listen through the wall, the wall, the wall?”) that can’t help but equate lust with abuse:

Can’t take it back once it’s been set in motion
You know I need you for the oxytocin
If you find it hard to swallow
I can loosen up your collar
’Cause as long as you’re still breathing
Don’t you even think of leaving

It’s the best-case-scenario example for the record Halsey’s supposedly making with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You could say the same for “NDA,” with its slo-mo sunburst of a dystopian techno-pop chorus as Eilish once again revels in the trappings of fame even as she rails against them: “30 Under 30 for another year / I can barely go outside, I think I hate it herе.” And it all climaxes with “Happier Than Ever,” another soft, acoustic, unstuck-in-time jazzy ballad (“Do you read my interviews? / Or do you skip my avenue?”) that abruptly explodes into a bruising pop-punk frenzy:

And I don’t talk shit about you on the internet
Never told anyone anything bad
’Cause that shit’s embarrassing
You were my everything
And all that you did was make me fuckin’ sad

From Olivia Rodrigo to Grimes to Rina Sawayama to Phoebe Bridgers’s climactic gentle-to-apocalyptic anthem “I Know the End,” this song has lots of sonic and emotional company in its journey from absolute calm to boiling rage, from tender crooning to pop-punk (or even nü-metal) howling. But the restraint Eilish shows for much of Happier Than Ever makes the title track hit that much harder. In one sense this is a somewhat hasty sophomore album that repeats When We All Fall Asleep’s core themes (“You think that you’re the man,” she sneers repeatedly on “Therefore I Am,” echoing “Bad Guy” in word if not in sound) and leans heavily on Eilish’s remarkably fluid and volatile singing voice to sell its clunkier lines. (Though when she sings, “You were easy on the eyes / But looks can be deceiving,” she sounds like the first person to ever point that out.) This is still a remarkable slow-burn travelogue through the trappings of suffocating 2021 pop-star fame, and even more impressively, it suggests that Eilish has found, if not a way out, then at least some breathing room.

So yes, “My Future” is another sleepy ballad, another vaguely erotic love song, but that’s “My Future” as in “I’m in love with my future,” as luxuriously sung by a young but already battle-hardened pop star who realizes pop stardom doesn’t leave much space for anybody else in her hotel room, but maybe that’s for the best for a couple years:

I know supposedly I’m lonely now
Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone
But aren’t I someone?

When Eilish sings these lines I flash back to her cowering in Justin Bieber’s embrace as he listens to Ariana Grande and perhaps imagines that they’re the only three people on earth, because at their level that’s maybe exactly how it feels, how it truly is. Happier Than Ever takes some getting used to, but so does pop superstardom, clearly, and at its best this record finds Eilish blinking hard in the harshest possible spotlight, but taking solace in, and drawing power from, the warm embrace of her own shadow.