Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Hours after Billie Eilish unseated the longest-reigning No. 1 song in Billboard Hot 100 history, she was out on tour in Switzerland, of all places. Trying to put a bizarro pop song she wrote as a 17-year-old in her parents’ Los Angeles home over a year earlier into context alongside “Old Town Road” and six decades of Hot 100 lore proved to be, well, a lot.
“It’s crazy to think of ‘Bad Guy’ as a well-known song,” she says with a friendly cackle. “You know what I’m saying?”
Indeed. Ever since Eilish broke through with the sleeper-pop hit “Ocean Eyes” in 2016, a great deal of philosophizing has been done over the reigning King of the Teens — and since earlier in 2019, over her skeletal, bass-driven bop that oozes to an unexpected finale about 70 bpm slower than the rest of the song.
Kids want to know how they, too, can dress like Guy Fieri walking the runway for Chanel. Industry types want to know every last detail about how Eilish’s 2019 debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? came to dominate the streaming landscape (“Bad Guy,” her biggest Spotify track, is closing in on a billion plays). And everyone outside of Gen Z seems to need some sort of explainer on her baggy clothes, her obsession with The Office, what’s up with the push-ups and the cereal in the surreal “Bad Guy” video, or why she’s insisting on being “the bad guy” in the first place.
“It’s a weird thing to hear coming out of a girl’s mouth,” Eilish explains. “A bad guy and a bad girl are so different. In any movie or children’s book, there’s always a bad guy. Even if it’s a girl, the title is the bad guy. I wanna be that.”
The line first came to Eilish long before she wrote the bulk of “Bad Guy” in April 2018 with her older brother, the songwriter-producer Finneas. Alone in her bedroom studio, speakers balanced on some open shelf space, she recorded what today stands as the zonked-out 40-second breakdown that ends the song: “I’m a bad guy,” sings Eilish, barely above a whisper. “We had the rhythm before we had any of the lyrics,” Finneas remembers. “Then I thought of Billie a year earlier in her room. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I think that’s the hook of the song.’”
During the rule of “Old Town Road,” “Bad Guy” spent nine weeks at No. 2 with Eilish’s team pulling out all the stops to clear the final hurdle — the biggest flex, a remix featuring a guest verse from Eilish’s tweenage idol, Justin Bieber. But this apparent outsider weirdo didn’t need Bieber’s seal of approval; by the time “Bad Guy” got to No. 1 five weeks later, the remix had clearly been more of a footnote than a decisive factor. Left-of-center was center stage. Bedroom recordings were record-breaking recordings. Like Lil Nas X, Eilish was repping a new school of teenaged hitmakers: synthesizing an endless scroll of sounds, seamlessly embedded in the discourse of their fans.
“She’s not censoring herself,” insists Finneas — now 22, offering the (comparatively) elder’s perspective. “Many pop stars kind of patronize — they’re like 25, talking to 15-year olds. [Billie] is the same age as a lot of the kids that are listening to her. She can literally just be like, ‘I am 17. I am my target demographic.’”
Eilish returns to the question. “I know why I resonate with it, but they’re all my own reasons.” For everyone else? “It’s fun. It’s catchy. It’s a weird-ass song.”