The Casual Trauma of “Happier Than Ever”

Billie Eilish and I aren’t too different. She’s a 19-year-old superstar with billions of streams under her belt and I’m a 20-year-old something with… not that. My point being, we’ve both experienced what it’s like to be young women right now. In her latest album “Happier Than Ever”, Eilish takes the everyday trauma of being a girl and doesn’t shy away from it. If anything, Eilish kisses it on the mouth putting it front and center.

Less than a minute into the album and Eilish acknowledges that she’s grateful for all the privileges that stardom and her socioeconomic standing have allowed her (and if that reads as shallow, so be it.) She’s lucky, yes, but it’s not as simple as that. It never is. At 19, if Eilish were anyone else she would be able to go on dates and step outside and pursue relationships without a second thought but because of her status, her concerns are less about what to wear and more about her safety and stalkers. This isn’t a concern that just plagues female celebrities either. Women in general deal with sexual harassment, assault, stalking, Intimate Partner Violence, and abuse. Eilish takes this album to break the stigma that the abuse is the victim’s fault and provides a starting point for a bigger conversation to take place.

Eilish takes the everyday trauma of being a girl and doesn’t shy away from it.

“Oxytocin” is a standout track for its aggressive-sounding instrumental, filled with looping screams and mechanical sounds but the lyrics are what really drive the point home, allowing Eilish to illuminate the link between sex and violence, intentional or not. Critical phrases in the heart of the song like “You should really run away” and “I wanna do bad things to you, Don’t wanna treat you well” might not set off alarm bells at first because similar imagery around sex and desire is so normalized, but it should ring as concerning. Further into the song, it escalates. In her signature rasp, Eilish says “Cause as long as you’re still breathing, Don’t you even think of leaving.” It almost sounds like a death threat, which is the last thing you want to hear in a romantic situation.

It feels like Eilish is faking the listener out, saying, “Here’s this chemical that we associate with sex, with pleasure. Now take this super violent track. Because that’s what dating’s like as a young woman. It’s fucking terrifying. You could go to dinner with this guy, and he could be totally great. Or he could be Ted Bundy. And you won’t know until you’re behind closed doors.” It may be projecting but every girl’s worst fears come to light when “Oxytocin” is firing on all cylinders. Between the lyrics, instrumental, and Eilish herself, it feels like a horror movie unfolding out from underneath us.

This isn’t the only time that the idea of sex and violence, or unbalanced gender dynamics pop up either. In “Overheated” Eilish asks “You wanna kill me? You wanna hurt me?” before pushing back with “Stop being flirty. It’s kinda workin.” It’s tongue in cheek. Someone as creative in her work and evasive in her public persona as Eilish seems to be aware that there are social connotations behind the things she says and does. Nothing exists in a vacuum and for this statement, there is the legacy of teaching young women that violence from men is how they show affection, that Eilish plays into without believing in it.

In one of her straighter forward tracks, she trades flashy filters for acoustics. “Your Power” is as clear as it gets, recounting textbook tales of grooming and abuse that are all too familiar to the young women who make up the majority of her fan base. While it might not happen to all young women, it happens to enough of them. Eilish speaking on these issues helps bring awareness to what would typically be downplayed or ignored.

Of the last two tracks to discuss the overall theme of love and abuse, “NDA” happens so fast, it takes a couple of times before everything sinks in. There are more mentions of a stalker. The CDC says that 1 in 6 women experiences being stalked in their lifetime. However, what sticks out the most is a line toward the end. Most of the dialogue surrounding trauma up until this point has been vague or comedic, but the line “Hit me so hard, I saw stars” in context with the rest of the album is the first time Eilish mentions an incident of physical violence. It’s a little rattling, but she pushes forward into the title track.

The dichotomy of “Happier Than Ever” is my favorite part of the entire album. The soft tone, in the beginning, captures the toll that trauma takes on a person, and the pop-punk tone Eilish takes in the back half of the song just exacerbates the frustration that one feels coming out of an abusive situation. There’s a point made here, that abuse isn’t always physical. The person in this song isolated her because she didn’t know any better and made her feel horrible. Full disclosure, I think I bruised my hands punching my steering wheel because I related so hard.

Make no mistake, Happier Than Ever isn’t a sad record, it is a tangled and complex body of work that not everyone will relate to as a whole BUT, what it does successfully serves as a portrait of trauma that young women endure on the regular.

I’m not saying that Eilish speaking on these issues is the cure-all to an epidemic of gender-based violence. With the current state of the culture, there are people who have the attention of millions. They have the ability to use their platforms to bring attention to issues like this through their work and the next step is to use their privilege to enact change. Eilish exists at an interesting intersection. She’s a white person with immense privilege, money, and influence at her disposal. She’s also incredibly vulnerable as a young woman. This album lives as proof of that. So while it may be nice to see people with the means to make a difference talk a big game in their work, now’s the time to back it up with action. Start donating to woman’s shelters or destigmatizing abuse, that’s what matters.

Cheyenne Ashe

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