What Billie Eilish learned from her own ‘Barbie’ song

What Billie Eilish learned from her own ‘Barbie’ song

“This is kind of dark,” Billie Eilish says, “but recently I was reading Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.” The 21-year-old pop superstar is snuggled on a sofa at a Los Angeles studio — black pants, black and red hair — and sets down the acai bowl in her hands to explain.

“It’s horrifying. I mean, all of it is the most tragic s— I’ve ever heard. He was such a pure person and talent,” she says of the late Nirvana frontman, “and I feel so much deep, deep, deep sorrow for him and his life and where it went. In the letter he’s like, ‘I have everything in the world, and I absolutely hate it.’ He was so ashamed that he wasn’t enjoying it.

“And I get why he was feeling that way,” she adds. “It’s just not what you think it’s going to be.”

Eilish didn’t wake up this morning burning with the desire to complain about being a world-famous celebrity, which is what she’s been since her 2019 debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” went quadruple-platinum and made her the youngest person in history to sweep the Grammy Awards’ four major categories in a single night. Even as someone hailed for bringing a welcome element of gloom to the bubbly Top 40, she knows that whining from a place of privilege can be a bad look.

But because I’ve asked her to, Eilish is describing the emotional circumstances that shaped her latest single, the bleakly gorgeous “What Was I Made For?,” in which she sings about having forgotten how to be happy over the saddest-sounding piano chords in the world. Cobain, who died in 1994, comes up as an artist she and her brother-producer, Finneas O’Connell, look to frequently for his understanding of the loneliness of success.

“It’s that existential-crisis vibe where you could be sitting in a room with people you love,” she says, “and you’re like, Oh, my God, what the f— is going on with my life?”

Should it come as a surprise that this ballad of a young woman’s disillusionment arrived as part of the Hollywood juggernaut that is “Barbie”? Greta Gerwig’s pretty-in-pink blockbuster is loaded with music, including streaming hits by Dua Lipa, Charli XCX and the duo of Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. Most of the movie’s songs share its frothy spirit and sleek surfaces; yet “What Was I Made For?” is different: smaller, slower, infinitely more introspective.

Gerwig says she asked Eilish and O’Connell to write “Barbie’s heart song — the song that is deep inside her core that she doesn’t even completely know is there but that she starts to hear more clearly throughout the film.” 

The director recalls receiving the siblings’ demo, with just Eilish’s vocals and O’Connell on piano. “It totally wrecked me,” Gerwig says, adding that she immediately played it for her partner, Noah Baumbach, with whom she wrote the movie, and for others involved with the production. Their verdict? “We all cried.”

They’re hardly the only ones with whom the song has connected. A nine-week No. 1 smash on Billboard’s alternative music chart, “What Was I Made For?” has racked up more than half a billion streams on Spotify and YouTube and just earned five Grammy nominations including for record and song of the year. Now it’s in the running to compete for original song at the 96th Academy Awards in March.

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