Leave Billie Alone: On Joyless Culture War Polemics and the Transcendent Power of Art

Among the many casualties of cultural and political polarization is our collective relationship to art. It is a truism that artistic expression and political analysis are not meant to be coupled together—the warm glow of one moving against the cold sterility of the other—but we would appear to have gleefully abandoned that sentiment in modern life out of either expediency or laziness. 

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Lin-Manuel Miranda defends the fusion of art and politics by insisting at the jump that “All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it.” Thus, because art and politics both happen to exist in the world, we are compelled to interpret expressions of art through an explicitly partisan lens otherwise we are simply being dishonest. Yeah?

Of course, none of us are in the position to cleanly divvy the realms of art and politics for the very reasons Miranda relates, but that doesn’t that mean we should abandon any pretense of art bearing intrinsic power beyond its sociological context. As James Baldwin warned some 70 years ago, “The reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings in social terms.” The partisan hackery which neuters free expression, translating raw emotion into social units to be measured and quantified in the light of the latest socio-political trend, cuts us off from what we are. Indeed, we are more than the forces that produced us. 

In Defense Of Billie Eilish 

Which brings us to Billie Eilish. At this year’s Grammy Awards, the 18-year-old pop-music sensation made history by snatching gold five times (!) for her debut album “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”,  the youngest person ever to win all top prizes—album, song, record of the year and best new artist. Produced with her older brother Finneas in the bedroom of their Los Angeles home, the album has reverberated to an extent rarely seen in the pop music world, bridging the gap between younger and older generations while encapsulating the raw emotion and surrealism of our cultural moment. It’s masterful and addictive. And yet, sections of the political commentariat have been unapologetically cynical in their appraisal of Eilish and her album with signature smarminess, revealing the compulsion of the intelligentsia to make every sphere of public discourse as grey and joyless as their own. 

In an article for the National Review, Armond White writes of the album, “When We All Fall Asleep resists the self-righteous attitude of “wokeness,” yet it is very much in the vein of woke dissent. Each song features a self-destructive undercurrent that suggests the influence of leftist malevolence, the sorrowful, angry backbiting of revenge and resistance.”

Meanwhile, at The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber writes that “the totality of her sweep hints that her acclaim owes not only to her significant artistic ingenuity. She has positioned herself to have multi-quadrant and oddly traditionalist appeal. She is also well connected, popular, and white, and those things still trump most else at the Grammys.. That’s because her whiteness allows her to be perceived as belonging to genres more “respectable” to masses of Grammys voters.”

In what world could both of these things be true, in which Billie Eilish is both a nihilistic radical and the embodiment of traditionalist whiteness? Spoiler alert: Not ours. These potshots expose the incommensurability of elite polemics with anything that even gently rings of human feeling. 

Now, I’m not a music fanatic, but upon listening to the album I couldn’t help but identify with it and be moved by it. As an example, take Eilish’s hit song “I Wish You Were Gay”, which generated some controversy for potentially stigmatizing homosexuality. In reality, the song is about the internal dialogue aroused from romantic rejection. The song is beautiful, heartfelt, and exceptionally relatable, laying bare the process of explaining away a former partner’s lack of interest.

As the lyrics go:

How am I supposed to make you feel okay

When all you do is walk the other way?

I can't tell you how much I wish I didn't wanna stay

I just kinda wish you were gay

To spare my pride

To give your lack of interest an explanation

Don't say I'm not your type

Just say that I'm not your preferred sexual orientation

In a video explainer, Eilish and Finneas discuss the emotional undercurrents of the song—an excavation of places we go amid the felt experience of unreciprocated love. We hope against hope this asymmetry is unrelated to our personal flaws, though we know, on some level, that it probably is. The mind scrambles to save face and avoid the pain of having our affections denied. The sentiment is universal and the song an absolute banger. If you can give it a listen without having your heartstrings pulled, God bless you child. 

Other themes to be found in the album include mental health, addiction, alienation, and loss, all of which are highly relevant in a society with declining life expectancy, skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression, and an epidemic of loneliness. Contrary to what might be expected in the age of narcissism and resentment, the messages in the music are exceptionally healthy and positive. In the song “xanny”, in reference to the anxiety medication Xanax that is often used recreationally, she depicts the feeling of looking around at a party and only seeing self-loathing and harm. The song is a defense of sobriety and clear-mindedness. 

The chorus goes:

I'm in their second hand smoke

Still just drinking canned coke

I don't need a xanny to feel better

On designated drives home

Only one who's not stoned

Don't give me a xanny now or ever

In the follow-up video contextualizing the song, Billie and Finneas talk about the pain of loving someone who is doing harm to themselves. “Drugs and cigarettes are you killing yourself. You’re slowly killing yourself. I can’t afford to love someone who isn’t dying by mistake. Loving someone, giving your all to someone is draining.. I don’t want to love someone who I’m going to lose.” They also touch upon the weird feeling of being around someone who is drunk when you’re sober, as though the qualities that mark their personality have disappeared into the night. This cuts to the heart of darkness underlying addiction: the need to escape to another place. 

No, I don’t agree with every idea expressed in her music. For instance, Billie’s professed admiration for climate activist Greta Thunberg makes me vaguely nauseous. In the song “All The Good Girls Go To Hell”, she sings, in reference to the climate issue, 

Man is such a fool

Why are we saving him?

Poisoning themselves now

Begging for our help, wow!

Going onto lament that

Hills burn in California

My turn to ignore ya

Don't say I didn't warn ya

I’m not particularly fond of this juvenile “told you so” attitude and I myself feel pretty grateful for the world gifted me by my forebears. But who cares!? That doesn’t ruin the song for me. Billie Eilish is not a wordy op-ed columnist or a climate scientist, and I very much doubt anyone has been moved to like or dislike her music based on her political convictions. She is an artist above all. We’d have to be quite the snowflake to be bothered by these sentiments. The same would apply to the progressive distaste for Kanye West per his bizarre embrace of Donald Trump, and conservatives are correct to defend the brilliance of his music from leftist hysteria. If only this ethic could be applied across the board. 

In our all-encompassing political moment, it is understandable that partisanship has bled into the realm of culture and art. But this infusion is toxic. Sure, it’s kind of interesting that Tarantino’s latest movie had reactionary themes, or that Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” contained some feminist sizzle. But not that interesting. What distinguishes art from other aspects of life is its transcendent power, its ability to lift the fog of our perceived limitations and give us a glimpse of something more. 

The function of the artist is to uncover the universal in the particular and the beautiful in the mundane and, in displaying those qualities, grant us permission to feel.  Life would be better if the obsession with defeating our political opponents didn’t carry into realms that are meant to bring us together. Leave Billie alone!

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