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Billie Eilish and the Rise of Moody Pop

From Lana Del Rey to Lorde and the current queen of the teens, what does it mean that pop feels more downbeat than a decade ago?

by Ryan Bassil
04 April 2019, 11:14am

Billie Eilish, album artwork

The day: 23 June 2009. Depending on your location, you first heard it through headphones, a shop speaker, over a car radio. It began with a nuclear bright synth, keys joyfully flopping onto the chords of G, C, E minor, then back to C – a nauseating combination. Then came the immortal, robotised words: “I gotta feeling (woohoo)…. That tonight’s gonna be a good night… that tonight’s gonna be a good good night”. Rinse and repeat. Or rather “do it, let’s do it… and do it, and do it (x 15)”

That song is of course “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas. Chances are you've heard it, if not on or close to its 2009 release date then more recently, because it is ubiquitous. Still. It spent 14 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard 100, was for a few years the unelected theme song of terrible nights out from Magaluf to Manchester to Miami, and at one point the most successful song of the 21st century based on sales and streams. And only then was it beaten in 2014 by Pharrell’s “Happy”, another saccharine, upbeat song.

To this day, the BEP’s aural manifestation of a singular feeling is the most downloaded song on iTunes, of all time. Of course ten years later, no one downloads music. They stream it from phones and laptops and tablets, from in-built entertainment systems, or by calling across the room to something called Alexa. And unlike the best-selling music of 2009, the “I Gotta Feeling” to go out and “Just Dance” at a “Party In The USA”-era of club-pop, the pop music of 2019 feels less carefree than its decade-old counterparts.

Take Billie Eilish. She’s the newest act to break a record on an Apple Music service – her debut album set new one-day streams for a rock/alternative album, as well as reaching number one in 96 markets. And unlike Miley Cyrus’ foray into MDMA-referencing on 2013's "We Can't Stop", Eilish’s sound associates itself with the macabre. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go is loosely themed around sleep paralysis. To Zane Lowe, she spoke about the album's foundations sitting on “night terrors, nightmares, lucid dreams”. Eerie, spooky soundscapes hold up its structure: a stray emergency siren low in the mix on “you should see me in a crown”; a sampled dentist drill, from her Invisalign treatment, and a staple gun, on “bury a friend”.

The 17 year-old’s wildly popular album comes after a raft of big-hit releases that suggest pop music is less upbeat and moodier than ever before. You’ve read about the anhedonic, nihilistic rap of Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Peep, Xxxtencacion. But what about the downcast, melancholic pop trend? It runs the gamut from Lana Del Rey and Lorde through Khalid and The 1975, with Eilish album's hitting the latest peak – a dark album for dark times, Gen-Z terror-pop, a selection of songs that identify the swelling darkness in this generation of teens. Obviously, Eilish has been on the rise for years now, though it's taken some time for older listeners to pay attention. For her fans, When We All Fall Asleep is yet another iteration of her fluid approach to genre, and intensely personal lyricism.

“I found her through a video on the YouTube channel COLORS where she performed ‘Watch’”, says 17 year-old Aron Kühner, who runs a Billie Eilish fan account on Instagram. He likes the fact that Eilish is the product of an internet culture where music is more genre-less than it’s ever been. “I think you can’t really find one term that could describe her music. She has so many different songs: really sad ones, scary ones, more hyped/trap songs – it’s hard to put a label on her.”

So what does he think to describing her music under a catch-all term of moody pop? Do you have to be depressed to enjoy it? Are all teenagers depressed, and that’s why there’s a rise in less joyful music? “I’m a happy person and still like Billie’s music and can identify with it even though I’ve never gone through depression,” he says. That said, Aron says “I can totally understand why so many people can relate to her and feel like they can identify with her lyrics and the more depressing parts of her music.” Really, even though headlines tend to draw a causational link between social media and anxiety and depression among teens, Billie is popular with a teenage audience because she’s of their age.

Sure, you could argue that pop music's starting to sound sadder. Researchers from the University of California found as much last year, when they looked into 500,000 songs released over the last 30 years and found a decrease in positive descriptors – ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, for example – and an uptick in ‘sadness’. So where has the increase in moody, depressing music come from? When it comes to music released in the last decade, Lana Del Rey – queen of darkness, "Summertime Sadness" and all the rest of it – becomes the name you hear most often.

Six albums in, she's the CCO of the mood-pop revolution: an influence to Billie Eilish (“[‘Off To The Races’] is the fucking most badass song I've ever heard in my life”), a slight comparison or gateway to Lorde (though the New Zealand songwriter has called LDR an “unhealthy” influence on fans), one of the main inspirations (the other one being Drake) for a short yet punchy one-line Instagram quote. Lana is to this group of pop stars what Kurt Cobain was to grunge.

But Eilish is the next in that succession, similarly influenced by LDR’s sad pop as she is Tyler, the Creator (like him, she has creative control of her videos and image), the controversial rap acts she looks up to, and also the Soundcloud wave of minimalist production that informs the music she and her co-writing brother Finneas create. What Lana was to a Tumblr era of internet culture, Eilish is to teens who don’t consume traditional media. That’s how she’s crept seemingly from nowhere with a best-selling debut album, despite releasing her debut single “Ocean Eyes” in 2016.

We might be witnessing a trend in downbeat pop, but arguably it’s cyclical. Or maybe it’s that we’re given more choice than ever before. The music industry has shifted since The Black Eyed Peas were big in 2009, with the advent of streaming and playlist culture allowing genres like alternative pop and rap a global audience like never before. Perhaps we’ve always been into moody pop music, but nauseating earworms like “Happy” and “I Gotta Feeling” bellowed with more dominance. And in this current climate, music like Eilish’s makes sense. Listening to anything stupidly upbeat as the world burns around us isn’t going to be anything less than maddening. It’s sad music, for sad times; mood music, for the mood of the world.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.