Five Burning Questions: Billie Eilish Tops the Billboard 200 With ‘Happier Than Ever’

, , Comments Off on Five Burning Questions: Billie Eilish Tops the Billboard 200 With ‘Happier Than Ever’

Two years after releasing the biggest debut album of 2019, superstar singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has returned with her sophomore LP Happier Than Ever, released on July 30. This week, the album debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, with 239,000 equivalent album units moved.

The response to Happier has been slightly muted compared to the rapturous reception for first LP When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which moved 313,000 units in its first week and was hailed as a classic by pop fans and critics almost immediately, on its way to dominating the 2020 Grammys. However, Happier’s bow still boasts the fifth-best first-week numbers of 2021, and on crit-aggregating website Metacritic, it has a score of 86, higher even than Fall Asleep’s 82.

How should Eilish feel about her first-week numbers? And where might her career take her from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Happier Than Ever debuts at No. 1 with 239,000 units moved — fewer than the 313,000 units for  When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in its first week, though still the fifth-best first week of 2021, and up from some initial projections. If you’re Billie, are you happier than ever, moderately pleased, 50/50, lightly bummed or sadder than ever about these returns? 

Katie Atkinson: I would imagine somewhere between moderately pleased and happier than ever. She proved herself so completely with her previous album — from that opening week through the Grammy-night victory lap — and this new one still made a big splash even without the curiosity factor surrounding a newer artist or a destined-to-top-the-Hot-100 hit like “Bad Guy,” which was released as a single the same day as When We All Fall Asleep.

Hannah Dailey: Probably a little bummed. She’s been placed on the highest pedestal I’ve ever seen for an artist this young — I have to imagine it’s difficult not to care when that pedestal is lowered even a couple notches.

Lyndsey Havens: Happier than ever — a No. 1 is a No. 1. When comparing units moved you have to look at the changing climate and tactics each year, with the biggest here being the burial of bundles. The ways in which an album could be counted toward a sale weren’t the only things that changed, of course, as consumer habits shifted as well. The most obvious proof of that is in vinyl sales: Eilish moved a whopping 73,000 units on vinyl this time around (and an even crazier 10,000 units on cassette), compared to the 15,000 copies on vinyl she moved of her 2019 debut. Plus, I think it’s important to remember who holds the title for biggest week this year so far: Olivia Rodrigo, with 295,000 units. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Eilish was essentially in her position — and that’s nothing to be sour over.

Jason Lipshutz: I’d be moderately pleased, with a chance of being happier than ever. In a post-ticket bundles chart world, an album debut approaching or surpassing a quarter-million equivalent album units represents a major accomplishment, even if (like in Eilish’s case) it’s a step down from a previous total. Add in the fact that Happier Than Ever is a quieter, more challenging album than When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and this No. 1 debut looks less like a drop-off and more like a confirmation of Eilish’s continued commercial might.

Kristin Robinson:  I remember she recently posted a TikTok captioned “is it just me or is billie in her flop era like why does she suck now…,” as a response to some of the nay-sayers leading up to this album. I hope she didn’t internalize the criticism too much — because I thought this album was gorgeous, and showed so much growth from When We All Fall Asleep. I think she should be ‘happier than ever’ with this record. I remember a guitarist once told me that a good musician can show off and do all the crazy tricks, but a great musician understands subtlety: when to show off and when to hold back. This album, to me, showed Billie (and Finneas) to truly be in the great category. It’s far more nuanced and thoughtful.

2. Sales and streams aside, the early reception for Happier Than Ever feels a little more mixed than the unanimous acclaim that When We All Fall Asleep received upon release — what do you attribute that to, and do you think it’s mostly fair or unfair? 

Katie Atkinson: It feels like there’s not a ton of new ground tread on Happier Than Ever, whereas When We All Fall Asleep felt like such a revelation when it was released — between the stripped-down production, the spooky music videos and the sister-brother dynamic duo. So now, even if Billie and Finneas are still killing it at what they do best, there’s less novelty surrounding them, which probably translates to less excitement. If this album were the first-ever material from Billie Eilish, I think it would have been more warmly received — which, I guess, is an unfair reality.

Hannah Dailey: It depends on what you call “fair.” I attribute much of her debut album’s success to her affinities for horror movie aesthetics and making deliberately startling statements in her lyrics. Like, it was pretty astonishing to hear a 17-year-old say things like “might seduce your dad” and “my Lucifer is lonely” on her last album. She’s now embraced a more mature style of writing, holding onto the same sadness as last time but forfeiting the darker theatrics — the only issue now is that people want to see her do a new trick. As solid as the new record was, it didn’t stun people like her past work and listeners equate the album’s lack of shock factor to being less good — is this equation either fair or unfair? I’m not sure.

Lyndsey Havens: To loosely quote my dad when discussing this very subject, any time you’re on the top, people will want to try and knock you down. I think it’s precisely because of the unanimous acclaim that Billie’s debut received that she’s in the position of now having to go on TikTok and essentially troll the trolls (in a discrete and authentic way, I might add) who are calling this new “era” of hers a flop. Just look at all the countries Happier Than Ever debuted at No. 1 in! Personal fandom aside, sure this album has fewer on-paper bangers, but I think it’s well within her rights as an artist to slow down a little on those — and on the flip side, fair for fans who wanted more in that lane to feel unfulfilled.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s a classic case of a debut album containing immediate hits and presenting a more accessible vision, and a sophomore album that eschews radio fodder for more thematic complexity and sonic exploration. In this way, Happier Than Ever follows in the tradition of everything from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie to Congratulations to To Pimp A Butterfly — “difficult” sophomore LPs that really were just vessels for Alanis Morissette, MGMT and Kendrick Lamar to push their artistic boundaries once their pop culture impact was already undeniable. Eilish got her foot in the door, to put it mildly, with When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?; in addition to reflecting on early fame and her personal growth, Happier Than Ever naturally allows the young superstar to color outside the lines.

Kristin Robinson: I think it’s mostly unfair. I know Happier Than Ever is a shock for some fans who were expecting a part two of her debut, but Billie made that record as a minor and that record was all about being a minor. Do we really expect her to sample The Office and take out her retainers on tape like last time? Do we really want that, even? Although it was charming back then, I think it was time to move on. Billie made it clear from the beginning of Happier Than Ever’s rollout, starting with the British Vogue cover, that this record was about growing up, embracing her womanhood and navigating fame and relationships. Those are difficult, sensitive topics which require a lot more thoughtfulness. I think she did a killer job re-introducing herself, this time as a young woman who deserves to be taken seriously and with respect. Of course, When We All Fall Asleep was a loud, fun record, but I think over time more people will come to appreciate Happier Than Ever once they have more time to sit with it. It’s more of an artistic statement than a chart topper, and I think that’s okay.

3. In the two and a half years since her debut album, Eilish has continued to release a slow trickle of new songs — some of which (“Therefore I Am,” “Your Power”) appear on Happier Than Ever and some of which (“No Time to Die,” “Everything I Wanted”) do not. Do you think this strategy ultimately helped or hurt reception of Happier Than Ever, if either? 

Katie Atkinson: I would say it probably hurt. I’ve lived with “My Future” (released in July 2020) and “Therefore I Am” (November 2020) for way too long to feel like they’re part of this Happier world — down to Billie sporting her last-era green-and-black hair in the music videos. Since she’s such a visual artist, it might have felt more innovative to truly press the reset button before this release and keep the aesthetic consistent with the music.

Hannah Dailey: I always lean toward shorter promotion cycles leading up to an album’s release. With Billie, and any other artist for that matter, having so many singles out for such a long period of time allows people to form hard opinions prematurely — especially when none of those singles stand out from one another as much as “Bad Guy” did from its counterparts. So if anything, the strategy probably diminished people’s judgments of Happier – but I’m not sure if it’s even fair to say that all of these songs came as part of a “strategy” anyway. I got the impression that Billie, whose world tour for When We All Fall Asleep got cancelled because of COVID-19, was craving the dynamic she lost with her listeners and put out songs like “Therefore I Am” and “My Future” to maintain that connection.

Lyndsey Havens: I was quite surprised to see “Therefore I Am” on Happier Than Ever. That song felt like a fun and sturdy standalone that closed off an incredibly uncertain year for everyone, and I think including it on the album perhaps made its rollout seem unintentionally longer? That said, Team Eilish has made its singles strategy clear from the start: fire on all cylinders. I think it’s a smart playbook to whip out again, considering how well it worked the first time around, but I think the reception could have been a bit less clouded if the cycle more clearly kicked off with “Your Power” and the singles prior were mere gifts.

Jason Lipshutz: Based on its chart debut, I doubt that the string of pre-release tracks hurt the reception to Happier Than Ever — although as someone who’s come to love “Therefore I Am,” I do wish that the song had been saved to closer to the release date, gotten a more substantial radio push and led into the album more directly than tracks like “Lost Cause” and “NDA.” Also, as much of a flex as it is to leave a record of the year Grammy winner off of an album, I do wish “Everything I Wanted” — one of the most absorbing and flat-out best songs Eilish has ever made — was included on the Happier Than Ever track list. Imagine “Everything I Wanted” as an over-qualified album closer! I’d be all in.

Kristin Robinson: I don’t think she needed all of them. I think some of the singles weren’t her strongest work — but overall, the singles prior to Happier Than Ever did serve to slowly reacquaint us with what an “adult Billie” album would look and sound like. With “Your Power” and “No Time to Die,” we saw her maturity; with “Everything I Wanted,” we saw her grapple with fame; with “Therefore I Am,” we saw her mischievous side was still there, although she’s grown up a lot. Without having so many of these singles, I think there would’ve been much greater whiplash between the first and second albums for fans.

4. Of the previously unreleased tracks on the album, the title track is off to by far the best start, debuting at No. 11 on this week’s Hot 100. How representative do you think it is of what the album does well — and do you see it being a lasting hit from the set? 

Katie Atkinson: It gives me “My Future” vibes with the way it starts out as one, quiet thing and turns into something much different mid-stream — in the case of “Happier,” going from a strummy ukulele song to a near-’90s riot-grrrl-style barn-burner. It definitely represents the best of what this album does, but I don’t see it being a “hit,” necessarily, because I’m not sure if it’s a fit for radio. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Hannah Dailey: Everyone is going so crazy for this song online, I’m honestly surprised it only debuted at No. 11. More and more, people are coveting an edgier, punkier sound, demonstrated by the charting prowess of tracks like “Good 4 U,” and “transparentsoul.” And with everything that’s gone down this past year, it makes a lot of sense — we have a lot to be angry about. So yes, I bet this track is going to stick around. The album is at its best when it’s matching the energy of her last record while providing a more focused, genuine lens into Billie’s mentality. “Happier Than Ever” is the best instance of this — it has the same thrills as her previous hits while feeling way more authentic.

Lyndsey Havens: The most obvious answer here is that the song goes back to Billie’s basics with nothing but her voice and ukuelele before building into a pop-rock hit about halfway through. To me, that’s the genius of Billie and Finneas on full display by making it clear they’re aware of pop trends, but refusing to try them out in any way other than their own. What really tips it over the edge, though, is that while building upon those basics, it’s not only Finneas who shows off with the unexpected and explosive production — but also Billie who showcases her strengthened and pointed songwriting style, best heard on lines like “Do you read my interviews? Or do you skip my avenue?” and “I’d never treat me this sh—y.” It’s a smart and totally enthralling song — and one I cannot wait to hear live.

Jason Lipshutz: “Happier Than Ever” best captures the essence of the album, as a showcase of Eilish’s vocal and songwriting talents that laughs in the face of traditional pop structure and expectation. It is, simply put, a cool song, and the most attention-grabbing moment on the album, which makes its chart debut impressive given its makeup and run time, but ultimately unsurprising. I’m not sure Happier Than Ever boasts a lasting hit (other than “Therefore I Am,” which is a more traditional top 40 play but months old at this point), but the title track could persist on streaming playlists for a while, rather than be a one-week flare-up coinciding with the album release.

Kristin Robinson: I think “Happier Than Ever” is a fantastic song. That being said, I am surprised it was chosen as the focus track when the album was released — but it seems like Billie has earned the right to have a lot of creative control from her team, so maybe this was her own choice. In fact, many of the singles from Happier Than Ever were surprising to me, and didn’t follow what I think a label would’ve wanted. The singles tended to be more powerful lyrically and personally, but less powerful for radio and mainstream consumption.

Of the songs on this record, I predict the label will shift to promote “Oxytocin,” a far more radio-ready song, at some point — and that it will do better than the prior singles. But I think “Happier Than Ever” will stay as a lasting fan favorite. I hope it will be remembered as her big, epic track from the album, much like “The End” was for The Doors or “Paranoid Android” was for Radiohead.

5. Billie Eilish and pop stardom was always a somewhat unusual (and arguably uncomfortable) fit, given her distinctly alternative energy and disinterest in conforming to any kind of top 40 norms. Do you see her gravitating back near mainstream pop’s center with future releases, or do you expect her to drift more towards the fringes? 

Katie Atkinson: I think toward the fringes. It’s not unlike Lorde, who came out of the gate with the Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Royals” and has since drifted farther away from top 40 since, but has maintained a large chunk of that initial pop fanbase. Billie had such an inimitable introduction, and if she follows her musical instincts, I think things will only get weirder and more exciting. Maybe radio and the Grammys won’t come along for the ride, but a big chunk of those early fans aren’t going anywhere.

Hannah Dailey: No way will Billie fade from mainstream glory anytime soon. She’s practically the mascot for the soft, sadgirl branch of pop music that’s been booming in recent years, ushering in the likes of Tate McCrae, for example. I think people will continue looking to her for cues on where the progression of that type of sound will lead.

Lyndsey Havens: I think she’ll always walk that line — and while the title track is a strong illustration of that, so is every standalone single she’s released so far. Looking back at the list in question three, “Therefore I Am” sounds nothing like “No Time To Die,” which sounds nothing like “Everything I Wanted.” For me, the coolest part about Billie’s music is that she knows all too well how to get near mainstream pop’s center — but will always take her own route to get there.

Jason Lipshutz: A little of both: Eilish has the talent and fan base to remain in the spotlight for a long time, although I’d expect more outside-the-box projects and sonic detours in the near and distant future. The one thing that seems like a complete certainty when it comes to Eilish’s career is that she will never prioritize current pop trends and attempt to score more hit singles. That doesn’t mean she won’t have them, though.

Kristin Robinson: I see her moving farther away from pop. I think she’s proven everything she needed to prove (and then some) to be considered an A-List star, and now she can have the freedom to experiment. So many artists have followed this path of becoming popular with a more mainstream song or album, and then using the clout earned from that success to explore more avant-garde sounds. I’m excited to see where she (and Finneas) take the music next. I wouldn’t underestimate them.

soul, classic soul, motown,