MM – Billie Eilish & music criticism

I haven’t seen all that much variety in discussions regarding to the impressive young pop phenomenon that is Billie Eilish. It seems to be very much “love” or “hate” – and along with those in the “hate” category come claims that Billie Eilish is “overrated”.

On this Miscellaneous Monday, I want to talk about how we discuss music and art in general, particularly when we label it “overrated”. I want to do it using a huge artist like Billie Eilish as a way to sort of anchor my words a little more in something (or rather, someone) that many people know about.

Before we get into it, for anyone who has to have been literally living under a rock for the past year or so, Billie Eilish is an artist who has made an already resounding impact on pop music despite her young age. Her hit songs sound like this:

And this:

And this:

This last one blew up on Soundcloud when she was only fourteen years old, and her popularity hasn’t really stopped growing since.

As of the last couple of years, she’s really managed to come out of that underground bedroom pop niche and into the world of mainstream pop music. She has already won five Grammys and as of the day I’m writing this, she sits at #9 in the entire world for the most monthly Spotify streams. Needless to say, Billie is a massive star and everyone who has access to new music in any way (whether through radio, YouTube, streaming, etc.) has heard her at one point or another.

Changing gears for a second, the word “overrated” is defined as: “to have a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved”.

This is an accusation often leveled at Billie Eilish; that she is getting more praise, accolades, money, streams, whatever, than she should be getting.

When people talk about “shoulds” in music (and in art in general), it always irks me a little, because it implies that people are obligated to like or dislike something for a reason other than their own personal genuine enjoyment or displeasure of said thing. I’m not bothered about individual people discussing why they shouldn’t go see this particular movie or listen to this particular album (if I was, I wouldn’t be running a blog) – what irks me is when people try to project their art taste or vision onto the industry or onto society as a whole in a negative, denigrating, and holier-than-thou way.

My goal with this blog is to discuss music from a personal perspective and give you reasons aside from my own feelings about to potentially like or dislike it, without coming off as an arrogant asshole whose perspective runs supreme and while also encouraging you as a reader or listener to always make up your own mind.

And I’m not saying that it’s easy or that I always succeed in doing this – but I try.

An objective sort of “this person shouldn’t be getting this amount of praise” creates a lot of negativity that we don’t really need. I like when people do this in an uplifting manner (like “hey, these guys should be more famous, they’re awesome!”) but I get annoyed by the seemingly endless stream of people doing the complete opposite without providing valid reasoning to the contrary.

I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing critics; I’m criticizing those who act like their own mind is somehow the only appropriate one to gauge the quality of something.

Basically, what I’m saying is: if you’re going to claim that something or someone is overrated, be ready to back up your claim with more than just “because I don’t like it.” Just that is always a valid enough reason for you not to like something, but never for everyone else to take your word as truth.

Now, let’s turn our attention back to Billie Eilish.

The number one criticism I hear about Billie is her voice. While it’s naturally soft, she tends to subdue it in a lot of her music for aesthetic purposes. She’s been called a “whisper pop” artist because of it, a label used on many other more soft-spoken female vocalists in the last several years. Some examples include Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Lorde, Julia Michaels, Lana Del Rey, Sia, and now, Billie Eilish.

Music critics use the term to describe a genre of music popularized in the last decade or so (and pioneered by many of the people I just listed) – however, most people tend to use it in a way that has an inherently negative connotation. It’s meant to imply that the person can’t actually sing well, notably in terms of range.

Rather than striving for the outskirts of their basic range, the singer whispers the note instead out of laziness or lack of skill – generally, I hear the former accusation leveled when it comes to discussions around the quality of live performances, but I do hear both pretty often in regards to recorded music as well.

Billie has been given this label numerous times. If we’re talking about the “whisper pop” music genre, I definitely agree that she fits in there, vocally-speaking (sonically, I’d sooner throw her in the alternative or bedroom pop box, but that’s another story).

The designation of “whisper pop”, however, generally seems to be employed against Billie to argue that she isn’t a skilled singer, and is thus overrated.

I first of all take issue with the pervasive idea that a skilled singer is inherently so because of their wide range. Of course, range is impressive and having a greater range makes one a skilled singer in the objective sense (more on that below). However, range is not the only characteristic of a skilled singer; there is tone, timbre, power, pitch, and the type of vocal outcome, by which I mean the way it “comes out” if that makes sense; AKA sung, screamed/unclean, spoken, etc.

Range can be measured in octaves, which I think is why many people cling to it over other aesthetic qualities of voice because it has an objective, measurable standard. I’m usually exactly the type of person to cling to empirical explanations like this, but in the case of music and art, I tend to lean more on the side of subjectivity.

I would argue that any of the qualities I listed above may and will have equal or superior importance in the ears of different listeners to range, making a “talented” vocalist in the ears of one person a not-so-talented in the ears of another.

With this in mind, I therefore secondly take issue with the statement that Billie Eilish is not a talented singer. One could successfully argue that range is not her strength (two octaves and four semitones, which is just above that of the average non-singer), but that certainly doesn’t make her unskilled.

She is able to manipulate her voice with great versatility to create everything from her characteristic light, breathy sound to low, sultry vocals. She goes through runs with an effortless airiness that appeals to many and, contrary to popular belief, she can indeed belt out notes as well. Her music doesn’t generally call for it, aesthetically-speaking, but I think it’s helpful to point out that she can indeed do it.

Here’s a live clip of her singing “No Time To Die” – jump to 3:25 to hear her hit a pretty big note quite steadily (and notice the ensuing run, how easy she makes it sound):

My personal favourite parts of her voice are its airy quality in her high runs and its thick, almost obstructed timbre in her low notes. Like it or not, these qualities can’t be replicated by just any singer and can (and do) sound good to some people.

Actually, they sound good to a lot of people – Billie’s fame speaks for itself, right? If her voice didn’t sound good to this many people, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

And I mean, anybody’s fame speaks to something special or unique about themselves, really. I’m a firm believer that not just anyone can get famous, and that there is something worthy of fame about every single artist that rises to such levels, even if I don’t personally like them and even if that “special” attribute is sounding exactly like someone else, if that’s what people like. I also think this applies for better or for worse outside of music too – for instance, in politics.

Society has shown that it values many things that perhaps don’t belong under a spotlight. How come? Who knows, but it gave that thing a spotlight.

Am I saying that you can never call anything “overrated” ever again? Of course not. Everyone does it, but as I explain below, I think we need to be a little careful.

To some, Billie doesn’t sound good. Fair enough. To me and to many others, she does.

So, is she overrated, then? What I’ve been trying to express in this post is that I think asking and answering that question as though it is an objective one is misleading to begin with – maybe that’s something that applies to everything, and I’m just making the tired “ahh everything is subjective because humans are subjective” argument. I honestly can’t really answer that when it comes to other aspects of life.

What I think I can confidently answer, though, is that it definitely applies to music and art. These are things that are fundamentally designed to be subjectively experienced and analysed, and to pretend otherwise goes against one of the basic tenets of art.

So, again, to me, no, Billie Eilish isn’t overrated and I tried to show you reasons why, without simply saying “I like/don’t like this” – I discussed different components of voice and attempted to explain their relevance as aspects that can enamour some listeners and not others when applied to the specific example of Billie Eilish.

Framing a question that inherently relies on “shoulds” within such a subjective realm as music kind of promotes something that I really don’t like, and that’s when people claim their perspective to be the lens by which every other person should see the world. I’m becoming pretty disillusioned with this idea, in all areas of life.

I think this is something that’s even further perpetuated by the fact that people can disseminate their ideas so easily and freely online now – there’s something to be said about the way the internet and social media can amplify our sense of entitlement and self-importance when it comes to literally anything.

I just so happened to talk about it in regards to music.

I think that as long as we use our “shoulds” within music criticism without making it about this one Truth that can come from the perspective of a single person and with the incorporation of real justifications outside of “like/dislike”, we can adequately analyze and criticize this art form we love.

— H

What do you think? Drop a comment to let me know!

Published by mcharlow

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