Who’s Afraid of Billie Eilish?
I’m reading It by Stephen King right now. The story revolves around an evil creature stalking the children of the town of Derry, Maine. In order to both capture the children and make them taste better (because apparently you taste better when you’re scared), It changes into each child’s worst nightmare—the monster under their bed. For some, this is a mummy or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For others, It becomes a leper or a spider. For one character, It manifests as her abusive step-father.
In this sense, Billie Eilish offers a musical variation on It. Do you fear morally adrift youth? Listen to “bad guy.” Do you fear spiders? Check out the music video for “see me in a crown.” (Or maybe don’t.) Do you fear rejection? She’s got a song for that. Do you fear death? She’s here to drag that fear to the light.
Eilish’s made-at-home single “ocean eyes” rocketed her to worldwide superstar status only a couple of years ago. Now 17, her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where do We Go?, made streaming history after its March release. So it’s safe to say that something about her fear-centric music is striking a chord with listeners across the globe.
Eilish’s exploration of the scariness inside and outside each of us leads to dark, ironic pop reminiscent of Lana del Rey, Lorde, and sometimes Lily Allen. Her voice carries an ethereal vulnerability with a strength equal to the slick, specific production of her co-songwriter and brother, Finneas O’Connell. Together, they make sure listeners face the fears we’d otherwise try to bury.
In the case of “bury a friend,” Eilish is that fear. As she’s explained, “‘bury a friend’ is literally from the perspective of the monster under my bed. If you put yourself in that mindset, what is this creature doing or feeling? I also confess that I’m this monster, because I’m my own worst enemy. I might be the monster under your bed too.”
The song in question features a low, throbbing melody with frequent, unsettling sound effects (jump scares, if you will). Eilish borrows from horror-movie tropes liberally in both the lyrics and music video; she centers the horror around what we do with the monsters in our heads and in ourselves. Rather than run, however, she’s here to embody the fear, and in the process, interrogate it:
What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me?
What are you wondering? What do you know?
Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me?
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?
Rather than run, however, Billie Eilish is here to embody the fear, and in the process, interrogate it.
Fear (or lack thereof) should prompt questions like this. What is it about this particular thing that scares me so much? Where does this come from? Why have I avoided confronting this? And these questions find their answer not in vague assurances that everything is going to be OK, but in the person of Christ.
As Christians, we often tend to avoid the topic of fear, or discuss it only in negative terms. We are more comfortable in the land of happy endings and courageous saints than we are with horror movies and the kid trembling under the covers in the dark (who may or may not be all of us). We forget all too easily that courage itself, based in faith, comes into actuality when fear exists. As G.K. Chesteron puts it in Tremendous Trifles: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
In this regard, our fears are powerful tools that help us identify our values, test our faith, and draw us closer to Christ. Stephen King’s creature in It or Billie Eilish’s dark fantasies may be disturbing, but they can also open doorways into deeper understanding of ourselves and our fallen world, and ultimately into a strength that rests on the one person who can overcome those fears by his presence in our lives.
1 John 4:15-18 sets up love as the resounding answer to fear, both inside and out. And the only way love can have its way in our lives is if we receive it from God through Christ: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. ...There is no fear in love.”
We are to drag each fear out from under our beds to be seen clearly by the light of God’s love in Christ. In Christ and by his love, we are accepted, not rejected. In Christ we are never alone. In Christ we can actively love those who frighten us. Above all, Christ has conquered death, the ultimate fear; we need not fear it anymore.
Billie Eilish may be fascinated by the dark side of fear, but even she can’t escape the light that love brings to that darkness. In the plaintive, penultimate song on When We All Fall Asleep, Where do We Go?, “i love you,” she grapples with the very idea that someone could love a monster like her, and that such a love could change everything.
Maybe won't you take it back?
Say you were tryna make me laugh
And nothing has to change today
You didn’t mean to say "I love you"
I love you and I don't want to
God, who is love, is the key to overcoming our fears. He graciously makes use of the fears in our lives to draw us ever closer to him. As we encounter each one and drag it into the light of Christ, he gives us the courage to say with the Psalmist: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”