The half-jokey suck of an Invisalign tray begins Billie Eilish’s debut album — but not really. “!!!!!!!” is a fourteen-second tribute to meme culture, a stupid-smart deference to the calculated nonchalance of a generation coming up just behind millennials. Can’t wait for those thinkpieces, truly. The record’s true opener picks up just after, and in what is becoming a signature bait-and-switch move of Billie’s, “Bad Guy” is the sleeper hit on an album full of sleepy-eyed hits. (It’s worth noting the video for the song includes the album’s spoken opener, effectively meshing the two.)
Released as the album’s fifth single the same day her paradigm-shifting When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? officially came out, “Bad Guy” is practically the first thing anyone hitting play on a streaming service hears — it’s the album’s calling card. And for those who haven’t been following Eilish’s meteoric rise since she uploaded “Ocean Eyes” to Soundcloud in late 2015, the song is a fitting introduction to pop music’s darling new id.
Primitive, instinctual, sexual, and aggressive, “Bad Guy” positions a young female pop star in a role that’s usually reserved for men working in rock or hip-hop. Packed with so much aggressive drive it feels like a White Stripes song, but with synth bass instead of guitar, the initial production brings the same night-drive swagger that made Jack and Meg beloved, a sonic hard left for a pop hit. Add echoing snaps, a half-spoken chorus, a trap breakdown, and a heavy dose of misandry and feminine gloating, and you’ve got “Bad Guy.”
It’s the kind of song that builds power as it unfolds, an anthem imbued with casual fearlessness, sung to a demographic all-too-familiar with being afraid as a default setting. And, in the Year Of Our Lord Lil Nas X, long live “Old Town Road,” “Bad Guy” absolutely deserves to be Eilish’s first No. 1 hit. If anything can unseat the nine-week reign of a 20-year-old viral rapper in cowboy boots, it’s Billie; “Bad Guy” entered the charts the same week Lil Nas ascended to the No. 1 position. In as many weeks, Billie’s new hit climbed from its debut at No. 7 slowly upward until last week it hit No. 4, and this week made it to No. 2. The top is imminent.
Or, maybe it’s not. The force of “Old Town Road” is so much more than another viral moment, it’s a necessary reckoning of racism in the music industry, a confrontation of the strange alienation of Black voices in a genre called “country” — a style clearly based on the experience of southern Americans, of which an overwhelming number of which have always been Black. It’s important, even if the song itself is not to your liking musically, the symbolism of this moment can’t be overstated.
But if “Bad Guy” does creep into the peak spot on the most important song chart in the country, it will be because it deserves to be there, too. Because there are a plethora of voices, backgrounds, and experiences that have historically been marginalized in this country, and like it or not, pop culture is a crucial realm where these wrongs can be upended. So, let the young women coming up after the #MeToo generation take on Billie Eilish as an avatar, let a woman’s teenage voice boast of its power, assert her sexual dominance, and use men as playthings instead of sing about being used as one by them. Let “Bad Guy” be the biggest song in the country, thundering this alternate reality to the men who think their legislation can shut down the power of a woman’s body, or her power to use it in whatever way pleases her and no one else.
On the track, Eilish seduces herself with the allusion of power that all villains aspire to by subverting her relationship to both men and other women: “I’m that bad type / Make your mama sad type / Make your girlfriend mad tight / Might seduce your dad type / I’m the bad guy, duh.” The point of “Bad Guy” isn’t to harm anyone’s familial relationships, really, but instead to postulate a dramatic rejection of the expectations forced on a young woman, that are codified and kept in place by pressure from either side of the gender spectrum. And surely, Billie’s choice of gender-neutral, or arguably definitively masculine clothing, comes in the spirit of “Bad Guy” — I know a marm or two who would tsk-tsk her rejection of an overtly feminine wardrobe.
And while male stars often come up on narratives of rebellion and rejection of social norms or the status quo, women are expected to keep the peace, play the game, be nice. Especially young women. So to have one of their own playing by her own rules, catapulting herself to the role of villain, doing it while blending practically ever popular style of music currently available; well, that can only be good. Pop critic and novelist Zan Romanoff put it better than I can, writing in her newsletter When I Sing Along With You (which anyone can subscribe to, here) on the subject:
“…I just wish I’d had it at fifteen. I wish I’d had Billie Eilish wearing weird enormous outfits that obscured her body, being petulant and talented and female and young and obsessed with her own self and its strangeness. I wonder what it would be like if the words I’d inscribed on my heart at that age weren’t written by men who I’d later discover were serially abusing girls like me.”
So yes, I hope “Bad Guy” becomes Eilish’s first Billboard No. 1. But even if it doesn’t, I know it will still inspire some pre-teens out there to put on the cologne instead of perfume, wear baggy shorts instead of a dress, to let their expression fall freely into resting bitch face instead of plastering on a fake smile — to be the bad guy even if it pisses off some men (and, potentially, women) around them. Becoming yourself is bound to have some casualties.