On synesthesia and understanding the genius of Billie Eilish
Understanding the Genius of Billie Eilish
When I first heard Billie Eilish’s music, I hated it.
The eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter became a staple on the airways of my local LA Fitness in early 2019, upon the release of her debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? I chose to ignore the grab-bag rotation that pumped through the speakers, favoring my own pop hit playlist. The blasting mix from my AirPods allowed me to tune out the grunts of weightlifters and the scratchy rubber of treadmills. But the heavy bass of Eilish’s “bad guy” always penetrated my musical blinders with great force, tearing me out of my pop-meditation.
I usually love the deep booming pulse that brings life to electronic music and rap songs, the kind that vibrates under your shoes at concerts and bounces around your chest. But the thumping dun-dun-dun-dun that kicks off “bad guy” made the floor feel unstable and sucked the air out of my throat. It was menacing, monotoned, and riddled with Eilish’s airy hums. Her riffs morphed into lyrics with the same flat voice. I heard an aloofness and a distance in her tone characterized in her whispery vocals and unintelligible words that seemed to say, If you can’t understand me, you’re not meant to. What I could understand was the cracked, distorted “I’m the bad guy,” which was drawn out in a monster-like morph along with her arrogant, flat exclamation of “Duh!”
What followed was my breaking point. The flat, unenthused bass switched to an annoying, bouncing synth layered with a chorus of snaps and tinged with an eerie, childish air like that of a haunted doll. I found it unlistenable but not in a nails-on-a-chalkboard sense, where I cover my ears and shake the tingling sensation from my spine; instead, the sound was a disturbing and aggravating jabbing in my back that I could not escape. “bad guy” was an irritating, itchy tag that I could not reach and loathed for existing in my comfy pop-blanket.
The TVs above the stretch mats would play the music video at the same time, something which further dragged me into Eilish’s odd and off-putting world. The visuals were as indecipherable as the song, a series of starkly-hued sets that Eilish made into her own personal playground. I watched her stick her slimy Invisalign into the hands of a stoic bodyguard, only to thrash around him and the bright yellow backdrop like a child trying to crack the solid manner of a guard outside Buckingham Palace. Her “Duh!” came as she rode down a suburban street in a red, child-sized sports car, trailed by an entourage of boys aboard tricycles. To the tune of the grating synths, she contorted her body as she rolled around a hypnotic swirled rug and sat idly on a stoop as the floppy bellies of three men flopped around to the beat. Eilish’s conflicting childish mannerisms, manic movements, and into-the-void stares left me confused and disturbed. What was this girl’s deal?
My staunch avoidance of Eilish continued outside the gym and into the coming months, when she conveniently became the biggest pop star of the year. Her album cover made me shudder when it popped up on the playlists I perused, a terrifying, possessed image of a white-eyed Eilish slumped over on a bed, flashing a toothy demonic grin. Her sulky eyes judged me from magazine covers. Videos for “bury a friend” and “all the good girls go to hell” threatened to play next when I was on YoutTube, their possessed thumbnails mocking me.
From a distance, as I watched the album bank over 15 billion streams and Eilish become a global fascination, I could not help but wonder if I was missing something. She was being heralded as a voice for Generation Z, with an ethereal soprano range that echoed a brutal and disillusioned view of the world; with an astonishing quality, she crafted her brooding metaphors and sinister synths with only with the help of her brother, Finneas, in their small childhood bedroom. She was pop’s rule-breaking game changer, outfitted with a universally acclaimed first album and a mass of fans who worshiped the ground her oversized Gucci sneakers walked on. As a champion of pop music and a fellow member of Gen Z, I felt obligated to like Eilish and almost angry at myself for not being able to. I was experiencing the rise of a prodigy and missing out on savoring her work in real time. I felt like the one guy who avoided the opening night of Beethoven because he could not understand the hype. Was I, in the same ignorant way, missing out on an important moment in music history?
When I slid the August 2019 copy of Rolling Stone out from my mailbox, Eilish’s cold façade and gangly legs met my eyes along with a headline in bold white letters: “Billie Eilish: Triumph of the Weird.” When I decided to read it, I did so out of my end-of-summer boredom and, admittedly, a slight curiosity: What did Billie have to say?
I flipped to a four-page spread riddled with family photos and shots of Eilish midair on stage, performing to packed festival crowds. I sat wedged in the landing of the upstairs hallway, sarcastically relaying parts of the article to my mom as she put away laundry. I scoffed at Eilish’s flippant and disengaged attitude. I read her quotes aloud, mimicking in a sassy teenage attitude, “‘Did you know broccoli is a man-made food?’”1Really? This was the voice of my generation?
But a sentence that started with, “She also experiences synesthesia” halted my mocking. Right there, something clicked in my head: Wait, she’s just like me.
For most of my life, I thought that everyone felt temperatures and textures when they heard music. I thought it was normal to match songs to the daily weather forecast or curate playlists based on objects. But when I had recently asked my mother if she felt a humid breeze and plush grass while listening to Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” I quickly found out that, for most, this is a rather unfamiliar set of sensations.
Thanks to an influx of vocal synesthetic musicians such as Lorde, Pharrell Williams, and Dev Hynes, it did not take me long to figure out that I had synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that links one or more senses allowing for an involuntary, multi-sensory experience in the presence of certain stimuli such as sounds or visual cues like numbers.
Sean Day, an anthropologist and former President of the American Synesthesia Association, reports that 3.7 percent of the population has synesthesia and estimates that there are at least seventy-three varieties, some more common than others. Grapheme-color, the association of letters or numbers with colors, accounts for 61 percent of those synesthetic experiences, and many artists attest to having the variation. However, most synesthetic musicians report experiences with chromesthesia, the association of sounds and colors, which affects 25 percent of the synesthetic population. Other varieties link sound, touch, taste, smell, numbers, letters, colors, time units, and even emotions together in highly individualized, cross-wired visions and responses.2
I am one of the 0.09 percent of synesthetes who experience temperatures in association with a musical stimulus. My synesthesia sparks an involuntary association with degrees and weather patterns ranging from bitter cold to burning hot, from windy to rainy; while I cannot necessarily feel a particular temperature on my skin, my mind links the sounds with the precise conditions. Music also evokes tangible objects and surfaces. Some songs sound soft like carpet or hard like wood. Others are more attuned to the qualities of glass or rubber.
When Eilish described her synesthesia, I got quiet and read on with focus. “And her song “bad guy” “is yellow, but also red, and the number seven,” she says. “It’s not hot, but warm, like an oven. And it smells like cookies.”3
Warm like an oven. Suddenly, I had a partner in the 0.09 percent.
This newfound common ground ignited a change of heart inside of me. I no longer saw Eilish as my eccentric, aloof musical bane but as my familiar, a kindred spirit in my synesthetic circle. She saw music the way I did, in a multisensory blend across our skin. While she had several forms of synesthesia that opened her to colors, numbers, and smells, we overlapped in temperature—and, as I would find out, touch as well (she describes “bad guy” as chunky, solid, and hard).4
Whatever frustrated desire I had before to finally understand Eilish was quelled by the opportunity to get inside her head. Maybe this was the key to understanding her and her music—to quite literally feel her songs. I devoured the rest of the article with a fervent passion and walked away resolved to listen to her album in full. And I started with “bad guy.”
Without the impediment of my headphones and my disdain, my synesthetic effects came through loud and clear. I had felt bits of coldness radiating from the gym speakers during “bad guy,” especially during the initial pulses of the dun-dun-dun-dun bass, but during my second listen they turned frigid like the deep-cold days of December. They were bitter and thick, like the stagnant air that condenses breaths into foggy gray clouds. Eilish’s voice was light and airy in its own right, sticking in the smoky air. I could now hear the playful dynamic of her rhymes—“White shirt now red, my bloody nose / Sleepin’, you’re on your tippy-toes”—and her articulate alliterations—“Make your mama sad type / Make your girlfriend mad tight / Might seduce your dad type.”5“Duh!” became a comedic follow-up to her pronouncing herself the “bad guy;” it said to the listener, “Couldn’t you tell when you looked at me?”
The synthetic break I held so much disdain for before also changed in form, becoming rubbery and circular almost like mini multi-colored bouncy balls. The once-aggravating beats became mischievous and whimsical. I was able to grab on to them in ways I could not before in an almost tangible manner. They were not piercing my back anymore, unshakeable and unreachable; now, I could hold them in my hand and marvel at their simple power.
As my senses made way for a more palatable version of “bad guy,” I was determined to see what insights I could gain from feeling what Eilish could. As I read more about Eilish’s synesthesia, I began to see a clearer path into her world and creative process. While she creates, she harnesses the numbers, colors, smells, temperatures, and feelings that come to mind and filters them into the song and her visuals. In an interview with Urban Outfitters, she talked about creating songs that sound the way smoke or velvet feels, stating that “If you just let it happen . . . instead of thinking, ‘How can you hear something that sounds like a feeling?’ You can. If you let yourself.”6
So, I let Eilish lead me through “bad guy” and allowed myself to sink into her feelings. While we differed in our temperature perceptions, I could sense a comforting, closed off heat in her words lit by a bassy fire burning underneath. I could see a distinct color shift in the main song versus the choppy percussive outro, still staying in the realm of warm tones but morphing from a bright yellow to a deep red. The outro itself, once a mismatched tail to the song, became an integral part of its structure to show a full spectrum of hues. Even my bouncy-ball synths became more joyous with their newly found color. When I imagined the smell of fresh-baked cookies that Eilish described, the song’s once creepy veneer seemed to melt away for good.
The once-perplexing world of the “bad guy” music video became a synesthesia treasure hunt, one that signaled a detailed coherence and predetermined logic. The mustard backdrop behind the Invisalign-holding bodyguard. The cherry-colored mini-car she rode around in. The swirling red and yellow carpet. The bright hues of blood dribbling out of her nose. The crimson overlay as she sat on the back of a shirtless guy. Her pouring milk into the open mouth of a catatonic man (hopefully with cookies to follow). These were all things she felt while making the song, laid out for us to see.
Rolling Stone’s article is not the first to label Eilish as a musical intruder with a word like “weird.” Vogue named her “The Outsider.”7 Billboard called her the “Rebel with a Plan.”8 Words like “rule-breaker” and “anti-pop pioneer” frequently crop up beside her name—to which Eilish asks in a February 2020 interview with Vogue, “What rule did I break?”9
For me, it is not a question of whether Eilish is breaking the rules but whether she is creating new ones. Is she setting a new precedent for music to not just stir our psyches but excite our sensory systems?
Music allows listeners to get into the head of another person, presumably the artist themselves. Musicians trust audiences with their creations, knowing that a universal understanding of emotions and human experiences will help their stories be widely understood. But Eilish asks listeners to go a step further and do something different, uncomfortable, and unprecedented: suspend their beliefs and senses to feel sound the way she does. And she does so, knowing that no two people perceive the world’s stimuli the same way.
I never believed that I would have anything in common with Eilish, the over-confident cool kid on the block with her now-you-see-me neon-printed ensembles. I listened to her music and heard something I could not understand and refused to get to know. Perhaps what prevented me from liking Eilish from the start was exactly that: my inability to see things from her perspective or even want to try.
The sense of commonality I found with Eilish in our shared synesthetic abilities gave me an emotional entry point to her music that allowed me to break through my preconceived notions of what her music was meant for. Her list of visual and sensory cues allowed me to leave the shelter and limitation of my insights and expand into her cognitive logic and cues, giving me access to “bad guy,” and the rest of her music, for what it was built for: feeling.
Feeling opened me up to a song I once vehemently rejected because of its odd, off-genre sounds, something that shut off my ears before I could even unlock my own full synesthetic response. When we do not like or understand something, it is much easier to dismiss it entirely than to open ourselves up, potentially learning from an experience that isn’t our own. It may be that “bad guy” represents a new way of categorizing music not by the way it sounds but the way it feels—a universal genre accessible to anyone with a nervous system and a willingness to challenge the conventional.
I now understand that this is the genius of Eilish, a singer who works with a fervent and meticulous passion to construct her visions and, in turn, asks the world to work just as hard to understand who she is. She opens her brain and dares us to come find her. I am now deep inside the mind of Billie Eilish, feeling the sparks of her neurons with every sound, for I no longer listen to her; I listen with her.
- “Billie Eilish: Triumph of the Weird,” Josh Eells, Rolling Stone, 2019.
- “Demographic aspects of synesthesia,” Synesthesia, Sean A. Day.
- “Billie Eilish: Triumph of the Weird,” Josh Eells, Rolling Stone, 2019.
- “The Billie Eilish Experience — Virtual Tour,” Max Finn, YouTube, 2019.
- “bad guy,” track 2 on Billie Eilish, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, Darkroom/Interscope Records, 2019.
- “Billie Eilish Attempts the Puffer Jacket Challenge — Open Up,” Urban Outfitters Television, YouTube, 2018.
- “How Billie Eilish Is Reinventing Pop Stardom,” by Rob Haskell, Vogue, 2020.
- “Why All Eyes Are on Billie Eilish, the New Model for Streaming Era Success,” by Lyndsey Havens, Billboard, 2019.
- “How Billie Eilish Is Reinventing Pop Stardom,” by Rob Haskell, Vogue, 2020.