The rapper's magnum opus turned 10 years old over the weekend.
It's almost eerie how accurately Kanye West predicted his own fate when he uttered the words "I miss the old Kanye" on 2016's The Life of Pablo.
In my head, and likely in the memories of many others, there are two Kanyes: a then and a now. Both are cocky, self-important, certifiable jerks, but then, he at least still felt a marginal need to continue proving himself.
Now, he's so immeasurably detached from reality that it's a little hard to take anything he does or creates seriously—at this point, I find it difficult to even care. I don't want to explicitly cite a certain presidential election and its aftermath as the dividing line between the Kanye of then and now in my conscience, but...yeah, Kanye rubbing elbows with Trump was pretty much the last straw for me.
Does her new album go too far?
Billie Eilish's sophomore LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is significantly darker than anything she's released before. Even "idontwannabeyouanymore," the most serious track on her debut "dont smile at me," was an indictment of damaging beauty standards.
Her music has always been melancholy, pulled from whatever spring of velvety, neon-saturated darkness that Lana Del Rey and Lorde first drew from. But When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? dives deeper. It stares into the far reaches of the subconscious, and somewhere along the way, it moves into the realm of explicit suicidal ideation, raising the question—should we be concerned about Billie Eilish? And what do we do with music that isn't just sad, but sounds like a genuine cry for help?
Although lyrics like "I want you to worry about me" and "call my friends and tell them that I'll miss them / but I'm not sorry" express new levels of desperation, Eilish has long been open about her struggles with mental illness. She told Zane Lowe on Apple Music's Beats 1 that depression had "controlled everything in [her] life," adding that "I've always been a melancholy person… I feel like there are some people that neutrally they're happy." When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? doesn't shy from this at all, visually and lyrically. Despite a few exhilarating tracks like "you should see me in a crown" (accompanied by one of the most magnificently creepy pop music videos in recent memory), it's mostly about depression, heartache, and death.
Billie Eilish - you should see me in a crown (official video by Takashi Murakami) - Teaser www.youtube.com
Eilish is no stranger to death, and it's clearly not a joke to her. She publicly mourned the passing of her friend XXXTentancion, who was shot in June, and by the sound of it he's not the only one; songs like "bury a friend" and "ilomilo" excavate these painful experiences.
But "bury a friend" and especially "listen before i go" both veer into explicit ideation at points; the latter is a veritable suicide note. It sounds like giving up, like a last call at the end of the night when plans have already been made. And that's where it goes too far.
Obviously, Billie Eilish not the first musician to write and speak out about these themes. Everyone from Billie Holliday to Elliot Smith has detailed the intricacies of their struggles in the public eye, and the media has been glamorizing the trope of the troubled young star since time immemorial. A new generation of emo-rappers, from Lil Peep to Lil Uzi Vert, has also brought raw, unfiltered honesty about mental illness into the mainstream.
Since extreme emotion is a shared aspect of the human experience, it's no surprise that these themes are so pervasive. Ours is a strange world—and especially for those growing up with unlimited access to the Internet, faced with pending environmental catastrophe and ever-more-insidious pressures from a voracious media-industrial complex, it's not an easy place to be. So all this definitely is not meant to criticize Eilish and her peers for feeling these things and for creating sad, furious, disconcerting art.
Image via Pitchfork
This also isn't a damnation of sad music. Sad songs and other forms of public honesty about mental illness can do a lot of important, often subversive work; they can interrupt the media's simulacrum of false happiness or function as catalysts for discussions about mental health. Those conversations are vitally important, especially in light of the fact that many reports say there's a higher level of depression and anxiety in teens than ever before, and when one in five adults struggles with a mental illness.
But there's a difference between being honest about mental health, and creating work that threatens actual self-harm and could be potentially triggering, especially for vulnerable fans who view artists as cult leaders who they'll follow, quite literally, to the end. Billie Eilish's new music goes too far because—coupled with her too-cool-for-you ethos and pending superstardom—she not only glamorizes mental illness; she glamorizes suicide, packages it up in a bundle of synths and bass and sells it for $200 a ticket.
Billie Eilish - bury a friend www.youtube.com
So what are we as listeners to do with music that's explicitly suicidal? In truth, there's not much we can do except trust that Eilish has a solid support system. She's in a band with her brother, and a whole bunch of people had to be involved in creating her album; hopefully, someone is taking steps to get her the help she needs. Of course, often with things like depression, even if you're close to the person, there's not too much you can do aside from validating their feelings and encouraging them to seek professional support. And even with professional help, there's no easy solution for mental illness, no neat way to sew it up; it's a monster that ebbs and flows, changing shape and requiring individualized treatment and attention.
This is most definitely not meant to criticize Eilish for speaking out, or to say that should just try yoga and get better. In fact, she's truly brave for speaking out so candidly about her feelings, for continuing to create and for staring fearlessly into the eyes of her demons.
But part of the issue here is that Eilish's music is so flat-out beautiful, her persona so magnetic. She's a bona fide star, with a huge amount of power that's sure to only grow with this release. In light of the huge amount of sway she holds over deeply impressionable kids across the globe, she now has a responsibility—or at least a tremendous opportunity—to speak out and share messages of support, to promise that it's okay to feel and struggle and that healing is possible, to inspire others not to give up, no matter how much pain they're in.
Billie Eilish - when the party's over www.youtube.com
After all, there are ways to talk about depression and mental illness without glorifying and aestheticizing them. Lana Del Rey has long been the poster girl for the "sad girl" trope, which came to a head when she received blowback from Francis Bean Cobain after telling an interviewer that she "wished she was dead already." Since then, Del Rey has released a hopeful Trump protest album followed by the empowering "Mariner's Apartment Complex." This shift in her approach, though slight, is significant because it moves away from the passivity that made her earlier work so dangerously seductive. And Julien Baker, who makes some of the saddest music around, is stunningly hopeful and inspiring in interviews and online, constantly spreading messages about faith, community, and recovery. Other artists like Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga have been explicit and honest about their mental health struggles, but equally explicit about their healing journeys.
Lana Del Rey - Mariners Apartment Complex www.youtube.com
Julien Baker - "Appointments" (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Eilish is also 17, significantly younger than any of the aforementioned artists, so she can be forgiven for not channeling her pain into some kind of larger force. It may be a good sign that she's coming to terms with her emotions early, that she's sharing them and learning how to deal with them. Often depression and mental illness stem from an inability to process deep-rooted trauma, so allowing oneself to traverse the depths of the subconscious mind and unearth repressed memories can be incredibly beneficial.
But for people as uniquely powerful and culturally influential as Eilish and her team—and for anyone interested in addressing and subverting the reasons mental illness is becoming an epidemic—simply being honest about mental illness isn't enough, especially in terms of serious suicidal ideation. Stopping the stigma should be a beginning point, the launching pad for structural changes and new ways of understanding and treating real mental health issues, not an end in itself. We should be talking about recovery, about how it is possible to live a full life while suffering from mental illness. We should be talking about how there are always options and pathways through places of darkness, and how it's definitely not beautiful or somehow more authentic and honest to give up hope.
If you or a friend are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 or visit afsp.org to learn more.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
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He's worked with Lorde, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Tegan and Sara, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Here's how to be next.
Jack Antonoff is one of the thousands (millions?) of Brooklyn-based male producers, but unlike most, he has worked with some of pop music's most fascinating female artists—including Lana Del Rey, whose Norman Fucking Rockwell will be coming out at some point this spring (release date still TBD).
Hi! https://t.co/glpCw8EvHu— Lana Del Rey (@Lana Del Rey)1533584178.0
He has also collaborated with Tegan and Sara, Sara Bareilles, Christina Perri, Grimes, Sia, Fifth Harmony, Banks, and P!nk, and recently expressed interest in working with Kesha and Julien Baker. His ever-growing list of widely loved female collaborators has begun to provoke resistance, like Noisey's JACK ANTONOFF YOU STAY AWAY FROM THE DIXIE CHICKS.
Although these artists all have different sounds, they are eerily similar in many ways, belying an underlying method to this Antonoffian madness. Here are some of the requirements for his typical collaborators.
1. Be the subject of thousands of thinkpieces
If there's one thing that Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift have in common, it's that they've made people really angry—and very inspired to write about it. From Lana Del Rey's disastrous SNL performance and the subsequent neverending storm of outraged blog posts to Taylor Swift becoming the face of white feminism (alongside Lena Dunham—Antonoff's ex), Antonoff seems to go for singularly contentious figures.
Image via exclaim.ca
Upon the release of "Look What You Made Me Do," Antonoff excitedly told The Guardian, "I remember saying: this is going to make thinkpieces on thinkpieces on thinkpieces!" Although Lorde hasn't provoked quite as much rage as those two, she's been spawning conspiracy theories since the release of "Royals". And let's not even start on the Grimes Internet storm following the Met Gala.
2. Have personal autonomy and/or some element of indie cred
Taylor Swift might be the exception to this rule, but across the board, Antonoff has chosen to work with artists who maintain some credit in alternative spheres, or who possess some level personal autonomy (just listen to Sara Bareilles's "Brave"). He seems to prefer collaboration rather than writing on his own or jumping on a track after it's done. He also seems to work with artists who refuse overtly sexualized imagery. In fact, most of Antonoff's collaborators are hugely successful female artists who satirize or subvert the archetypically scantily clad, shallow, love song-spouting popstar image (at least during their time with him; the promotional content for Norman Fucking Rockwell has all featured a makeup-free, T-shirt-wearing Lana Del Rey). For better or for worse, he seems to attract women who write their own words and emphasize their independence, whether they identify as feminists or not.
Lana Del Rey - How to Disappear and Venice Bitch Live at Apple Event 2018 www.youtube.com
3. Be cool with commuting to Brooklyn
Antonoff doesn't come to you; you come to his Brooklyn studio. Maybe this is part of his brand, for Antonoff seems to have crafted a niche for himself as the go-to producer for those looking to avoid LA's impersonality; he's even been called the "antidote to Dr. Luke." This affection for homeyness seems to extend to his preferred working environment—his studio, which he modeled after his childhood bedroom, right down to the wallpaper printed with tigers.
Antonoff in the studio; note the tigersImage via soundonsound.com
4. Write about parties, but in a dark, jaded way
What do Lorde's Melodrama and St. Vincent's Masseduction have in common? They're both about hedonistic cultures of excess—but viewed from the sidelines, through waves of smoke and exhaustion. Melodrama takes the listener through a single party whereas Masseduction takes on Los Angeles's culture of pills and plastic surgery, but both lean into the glamour of these settings while observing them through a lens of wearied experience. Similarly, Lana Del Rey has always written about the dark sides of drugs, men, and bohemian freedom, and Banks' "Crowded Places" oscillates between love for performing and a fear of crowds. This fascination with the seam between abandon and the desire to escape it seems like a running theme for Antonoff, starting back with "We Are Young."
BANKS - Crowded Places (Visualizer) www.youtube.com
5. Be willing to pour your heart out
In 2017, Antonoff told the Ringer that he starts his songwriting sessions with the question, "What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?" This has proven fruitful; Lana Del Rey described her forthcoming album as more "sad girl shit." Antonoff hasn't yet worked with Julien Baker, but she writes some of the saddest songs around; he clearly has a thing for emotional honesty.
JACK ANTONOFF YOU STAY AWAY FROM JULIEN BAKER.
6. Love synthesizers
Antonoff's music production is defined by a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation and slick beats cast against rougher vintage sounds, but there's nothing he loves more than a good synth, preferably sent through a lot of filters. Describing Masseduction, he said that the album is a "push and pull of wild, synthetic sounds and deeply personal organic sounds." He can create huge soundscapes or strip back to nothing but a voice and piano, but there are always those synths somewhere in the background, waiting to launch any track to high drama.
St. Vincent - Masseduction www.youtube.com
7. Be straight, white, and feminine
Jack Antonoff has primarily chosen to work with conventionally attractive, straight white women. While women in music are still underrepresented, on the whole, white women have the easiest time making it by far; and traditional beauty standards are still unfortunate and damaging requirements for many women looking to break into the pop sphere.
Based on this algorithm, Billie Eilish, Fiona Apple, Halsey, or Ariana Grande could be next, and Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Maggie Rogers, and Kacey Musgraves are also fair game. Why does he choose to work with these kinds of people? Is there something Freudian going on here? "I just want to be around women," he said in a Pitchfork interview. "It's not a sex thing — I'm heterosexual, but it's not coming from any place like that. It's just a comfort thing."
Ultimately, it's annoying that the music Jack Antonoff makes is so fucking good. If it weren't, his invasive presence beside some of the industry's most talented women would be insufferable. No matter how much he insists that his motives are pure, it's easy to intuit that there could be something off about the whole nice guy schtick, something underlying one man's desire to draw confessional narratives from and to produce music alone with so many women.
All that is speculation, but there is also a very long, real history of women's achievements in music being attributed to men. When it comes down to it, in spite of their superficial similarities, each of these women is a uniquely talented innovator and visionary, and each is the primary creator and orchestrator of her story.
And in the end, none of this matters when you're experiencing their music like it's meant to be experienced—falling into the neon blue pool of overwhelming beauty that is "Sober II" or crying at a party to "Mariners Apartment Complex" while slow-dancing with your half-drunk glass of wine.
Lana Del Rey - Mariners Apartment Complex www.youtube.com
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.
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