Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers on Billie Eilish's Staggering Debut Week For 'When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?'

Billie Eilish
Kenneth Cappello

Billie Eilish

If you had any doubts that 17 year old alt-pop sensation Billie Eilish had already become one of the most impactful new artists of her generation, the first-week totals for March's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? -- still technically her debut album -- should put those to rest. 

When We All Fall Asleep moved 312,000 equivalent album units in its debut week, easily debuting atop the Billboard 200 albums chart and marking the second-biggest week for any album this year, behind the opening frame for Ariana Grande's Thank U, Next. (Eilish also becomes the first artist born in the 21st century to score a No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and the youngest artist to top the chart since Shawn Mendes in 2015.) 

It's a lot to take in for an artist who most of us were largely unfamiliar with just two or three years ago, and leads to a lot of questions about where the left-of-center breakout artist fits in today's current pop landscape. Below, Billboard staffers try to make sense of it all by answering five of those questions. 

1. Are Eilish's first-week sales numbers about what you'd expected?

Tatiana Cirisano: Billie has catapulted to celebrity status so quickly that, leading up to this album, I was still trying to unravel whether Billie-mania is a niche craze or more widespread phenomenon. Given the buzz around Billie’s debut and her recent moves on the Hot 100, I expected a big first week for the album, and figured she'd be a lock for No. 1 -- but these kind of record-smashing sales numbers, I did not see coming. The debut puts her just below par with megastar Ariana Grande, the only artist with bigger first-week sales this year. I wouldn’t say I’m shocked, but I am surprised.

Stephen Daw: Color me completely unsurprised. With every release of a single leading up to the album, I watched as the Billie Eilish train picked up more and more steam on social media, in the press, album streams and sales, and just simple word of mouth. Her fanbase not only has the makings of yet another terrifyingly well-organized stan militia, but they have been exceptionally good about getting the word out on Billie. She may not have the kind of radio presence to explain the prominence of these numbers, but she is one of the only artists that I have seen people talk about nonstop since her album drop.

Gab Ginsberg: Yes! Eilish feels something like the biggest artist in the world right now, and there’s no way this first week was going to be anything less than massive. Items in her wildly popular Blohsh merch line were bundled with digital album, which likely gave her a boost, and recent appearances at SXSW and on The Ellen Show (as both a performer and interviewee, the latter of which is rarer for artists) helped her gather momentum. Here’s what I didn’t expect, given the supposed age demographic of Eilish’s fanbase: 170,000 were in album sales, and a whopping 15,000 in vinyl. That impressed me, for sure.

Chris Payne: Billie is such a massively hyped artist without much commercial history; I don't think any number would have really shocked me, if you know what I mean. 500,000 units? Sure! The little bit of backstory offered plenty of clues to points towards such a success -- like the album being announced with plenty of lead time, all the exposure she had on the big streaming services, and how so many of her old tracks would linger in the Spotify top 200 songs chart long after their release. 

Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, for at least the last half-year, Billie Eilish has been pretty firmly in Always Bet The Over territory. When an artist's popularity doesn't seem to waver much from release to release, and when every new song seems to serve as a rising tide to lift up all their own songs, those are pretty sure signs that something pretty massive is going on with them. Once "Bury a Friend" spiked to No. 14 on the Hot 100 -- almost certainly the weirdest non-hip-hop top 20 hit we've had in recent years -- all bets were pretty much off anyway. 

2. Are you comfortable at this point referring to Eilish as a "pop star," full stop?

Tatiana Cirisano: I’d be quicker to label her disruptive brand “anti-pop star" -- but if we’re talking in terms of success metrics, then totally. She’s selling out arena stages, racking up Hot 100 hits and influencing the listening habits and style choices of a generation. Check her 17 million Instagram followers and counting, or better yet, listen to the glass-shattering screams coming from fans at her shows. How we define a pop star is definitely changing (Billie has little in common with, say, Britney Spears), but I’m comfortable referring to Billie as the 2019 version of the form. 

Stephen Daw: What even is a “pop star” anymore? Yes we have our Ariana Grandes and our Demi Lovatos of the world, but I feel like in the last few years, the definition of what makes a person fit this label has only become more vague. So, when I see all of these different headlines saying that Billie is “redefining” what being a pop star means, I don’t really agree. She is undeniably a star, and she is making pop music -- albeit very dark, moody pop music -- so technically, she is a pop star. But it also seems like she is trying to bypass that label, and all labels in general.

Gab Ginsberg: Yes, though it seems wrong to not throw “anti” or “unconventional” in front of it. Eilish makes pop music, sure, but she also makes dubstep-tinged trip hop and spooky alt-rock. She’s aware of the pop spectrum, but is not interested in its limits, so she simply borrows what she needs when the song calls for it. The term “star” applies either way; one need look no further than her carefully curated aesthetic (see: edgy streetwear fits) and staggering amount of social media followers. I do think “pop star” applies more than any other classification at the moment.

Chris Payne: Yeah, that's the only way to go. Her whole vibe is definitely weirder than most of the other artists you'd call pop stars in 2019, but in commercial numbers she's right there with that crowd, even lapping some of them already. Sonically and visually, she might scan as more "alt" or "indie," but out in the real world she has has more in common with Ariana, Halsey, Post Malone, Khalid, etc. 

Andrew Unterberger: Well, one person who definitely isn't comfortable with it is Billie herself. But most artists tend to shirk labels -- they're really more helpful to us than to them -- and eventually an artist gets so popular that there's nothing else to call them anyway. Worth noting, though, that perhaps there's a different label for Eilish that some people (like oh I dunno Dave Grohl) would argue is more accurate: Rock star. Musically, she doesn't totally fit into one or the other, but in terms of edge, personality, and general excitement of the new and unknown and potentially dangerous, the latter is probably the slightly more comfortable lineage to slot her into. 

3. Much has been made about Eilish's singular appeal to the teens of the world. As a post-teen, tell us one thing about her that you still find particularly compelling or relatable, and one thing about her you don't get at all.

Tatiana Cirisano: Billie’s unflinching honesty is one of the most compelling things about her, regardless of the listener's age. She’s courageously open about her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts (on songs like "Bury a Friend" and "Listen Before I Go"), and while celebrities have been breaking the taboo around mental health for a while now, I don’t know anyone whose lyrics are as starkly honest about those things as Billie’s. But it’s not just her willingness to share the darker parts of her psyche that makes her relatable -- she’s also just unabashedly a weirdo, in all the best ways, whether she’s professing an addiction to burritos, sticking a Sharpie up her nose or yodeling in the car. I don’t totally get the bored-to-death eyes she does in every single photo -- a stunt she’s kept up for years! -- but the more Billie establishes her anti-establishment aesthetic, the more I’m warming up to it.

Stephen Daw: As one of our staff’s more recent graduates from the esteemed school of Puberty, Pimples and Adolescent Angst, I can relate to a lot of what she’s doing: the attitude, the memes, the content of her songs, it all speaks to me. But it’s her refusal to add more definition to who she is or what she does that I find so endlessly interesting, because it so closely resembles the way that teens everywhere are basically giving up on labels of any kind. It infects pretty much every part of her public persona -- she doesn’t wear typically “feminine” clothing, her music straddles multiple different genres, and we literally just debated the question of whether or not she’s a “pop star.” That specific kind of non-conformity is really appealing to me.

That being said, I really can’t get behind her video with the spiders. That’s extra and I’m not here for it.

Gab Ginsberg: I definitely respect her authenticity. She calls the shots on everything from her personal style to her video treatments, which I find cool no matter what age you are, but the fact that she’s so self-assured at 17 years old is especially admirable. The one thing I don't get: her friendship with Bhad Bhabie.

Chris Payne: I connect to... her love of The Office? JK! I actually am not a big fan of the later seasons, and the "My Strange Addiction" sample is from season seven, so I guess that makes me a Certified Old. (There was a "classic" Office episode in 2011?!?!)

Andrew Unterberger: Agreed about The Office -- I can barely even watch the episodes of that show that I thought were good the first time around anymore. And perhaps more pressingly, Billie's presumed Instagram excellence is totally lost on me, a relative social media luddite. But musically, there's actually not a ton here I don't understand pretty well, even as a 30-something: Not to take everything back to the Alternative Nation days, but the first time I heard the growling drop on her EP track "Copycat," Eilish clicked with me instantly, the way top 40-subverting alt artists of my youth like Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins did back in the day. I haven't lost the thread with her since. 

4. Elish's success as a singles artist has been building very slowly for the last few years, and seems to be hitting an early peak in 2019. But ten years from now, which song from When We All Fall Asleep do you think will be the best-remembered?

Tatiana Cirisano: “Bury a Friend.” It’s the epitome of a Billie Eilish Song, a recipe four years in the making: haunting; indulgent; bass-heavy yet delicate; cross-genre; dark as hell; somehow still a dance club banger. As such, it’s the most sonically-daring song on the album, making it all the more impressive that she pulls it off. But most importantly, the single was our first introduction to When We All Fall Asleep -- not counting the singles released from it before we even knew the album would be a thing -- establishing its woozy, delirious world inspired by night terrors and lucid dreams, and alerting listeners that, yes, things are going to get weird. Everyone I know had a different slightly different reaction on their first listen (mine: I am terrified and I like it!!), and its release is a moment I think we’ll all remember.

Stephen Daw: I genuinely love a lot of the songs on this album, but “Bury a Friend” is the only one, for me at least, that has spawned the most conversations and debate. It has the exact kind of unsettling vibe that perfectly encapsulates the album’s spooky is-it-a-dream-or-a-nightmare aesthetic, while also having some of the most interesting production choices I have seen in recent memory. Plus, with that very creepy and jarring video, I can easily see this being the song that everyone remembers from this era of Billie’s probably-illustrious career.

Gab Ginsberg: Personally, “You Should See Me in a Crown” (released in July 2018) was the first Eilish single that really hooked me since “Bellyache.” “Crown” has a sleek chorus that comes off as wonderfully jarring next to those sultry verses, and its lyrics are too prophetic to ignore. “Bite my tongue, bide my time,” Eilish sings. “Wearing a warning sign/ Wait ’til the world is mine.” Sort of already is, no?

Chris Payne: Man, this is really hard to answer. As the big single to drop alongside the album release, "Bad Guy" is going to have an advantage in pure exposure -- this could be the track that gets a ton of radio play on a bunch of formats and introduces her to the masses who aren't necessarily keeping track of the hottest, newest stuff. (It also fucking goes.) As for other contenders, "Bury a Friend" also has similar ear worm pixie dust thing going for it and "You Should See Me In A Crown" was an alternative radio hit, though I feel like its moment has kinda passed already. My sleeper pick is "Wish You Were Gay." The conversation topics and quotables are just baked into that one. And you're definitely going to have more people talking about taking out their Invisalign. 

Andrew Unterberger: Put me down for "You Should See Me in a Crown" -- not her biggest hit on charts or on streaming, but the song that I think marked the first time a lot of people really understood what Billie Eilish was all about. The chorus drop will come to be iconic, as ready a signifier of late-'10s pop weirdness as you could ask for. That said, 20 yeas from now the answer might be different -- as by then, I imagine some enterprising music supervisor will have figured out a way to work "When the Party's Over" into a pivotal TV (post-TV?) moment, to finally get kids who've always thought of Billie Eilish as their parents' music intrigued by her for the first time. 

5. It's been predicted that Billie Eilish's tremendous success will lead an industry scramble to find the next version of her. If a major label asked you for your recommendation, which artist would you point them to?

Tatiana Cirisano: Billie is such a remarkable anomaly in music that this is almost an impossible question to answer. But I’ll bite: King Princess, a.k.a. the 20-year-old singer-songwriter Mikaela Straus. Like Billie, she’s a strikingly young talent who emerged out of a viral hit (the tender queer love song “1950”) and has since amassed a dedicated following while flaunting a screw-the-system mentality: she prefers baggy tees and no makeup, her must-follow Instagram is basically a meme account and one of her most popular tracks is titled “Pussy Is God.” Both artists have risen so quickly, in fact, that they've been accused (only half-jokingly) of being industry plants. But my strongest evidence is anecdotal: At a recent sold-out show in Brooklyn (just her second-ever in New York), the way she commanded the stage and connected with adoring fans reminded me of, well, the first time I saw Billie live in the same city last spring.

Stephen Daw: In my humble opinion, I think Columbia Records already has an artist with the makings of the “next” Billie Eilish in King Princess. She doesn’t have remotely the same sound as Billie, but Mikaela has such a specific way of approaching music and her fans that really echoes that same sensibility of authenticity that makes Billie so appealing. My advice to them? Let her get weird if she wants to. Her last single, “Pussy Is God,” was an ethereal, verging-on-experimental pop song that was very different from her last EP. Take a note from Billie's success and understand that if the "weird" comes across as genuine, fans will eat it up and come back for more. 

Gab Ginsberg: In terms of vibe, AU/RA immediately comes to mind. She's a 16-year-old German/Antiguan singer-songwriter with teal hair, a stunning voice and an affinity for sci-fi themes and creepy visuals. She’s also covered “Ocean Eyes” before, and the mutual AU/RA/Eilish fans are already begging for a collab.

Chris Payne: King Princess feels like a good answer to this; she's cool, has some successful singles already, and just generally feels like where pop that's popular with teens is headed. Maybe Clairo, though she strikes me as more of indie thing, at least so far. And Cuco is obviously a dude, but he is also very cool and talented and has a certain Future King Of the Teens vibe about him.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll go off the board here for an artist who might not have quite as high a commercial ceiling as Billie, but I think could appeal to a lot of the same fanbase: Girl in Red. The Norwegian singer-songwriter's Bandcamp info reads simply, "im 20 i make songs in my room," and her music -- gauzy, washed out, post-fourth-meal indie rock -- has that same kind of unpretentious directness, with a short-but-sweet editing style to make it accessible for the SoundCloud set. Most importantly, her songs keep getting better: March's "I Need to Be Alone." has a chorus to die for and a dramatic swell that should be practically impossible in its three-minute runtime. She might not ever fill arenas like Eilish -- though a couple of her songs are already hovering around the eight-digit-play mark on Spotify -- but she could probably open for her at a handful of them. 

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