At the 2020 Grammy awards show on January 26th, one artist won big. That artist is Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old who is already more successful than most will ever be. She won so many awards this year that, probably fearing fan backlash, she begged the universe (AKA The Recording Academy) to not award her her fifth award of the night (Album of the Year for “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”). Alas, she won that fifth award, and became the first female artist to sweep the four major Grammy categories. And her doubly-awarded song “Bad Guy” just has to be talked about, especially in a year with as much competition as 2019.
In 2019, mainstream music changed noticeably. This is reflected in the Recording Academy’s nominees for Song of the Year. “Old Town Road,” as much a meme as it is a song, smashed the Billboard record for consecutive weeks at number-one (17), and combined two disparate musical genres to make a song nobody could escape for a good chunk of the year.
“Truth Hurts” also achieved this level of ubiquity. Lizzo’s breakout track was almost painful by the end of the year, but not for lack of quality. It became the “I don’t need a man” and “I’m going to love myself” track, simultaneously. And, of course, it quickly established Lizzo as pop culture’s queen of positive self-image.
Between two of the last decade’s most surprise-attack smash singles, “Bad Guy” emerged and made Billie Eilish – not totally unknown but not yet a superstar – a household name.
What makes “Bad Guy” more deserving of Song of the Year than “Old Town Road” or “Truth Hurts” or even “Lover” by Taylor Swift (please know that, as T-Swift’s biggest fan, that’s a big concession to make)?
“Bad Guy” deserves Song of the Year because of its irreverence to the status quo of pop music, and its inventiveness of sound design.
In Rolling Stone’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Bad Guy,” Billie’s brother Finneas O’Connell reveals that the ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka beat underlying the song’s chorus is a distorted recording of an Australian crosswalk signal noise. A crosswalk noise! The usage of everyday sounds to create percussion is a prominent feature throughout “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” and it creates that rare “I’ve never heard this in a song” feeling.
Generally speaking, musicians follow trends when creating their songs. In today’s mainstream music, we know how most songs will be structured: first verse, first chorus, second verse, second chorus, bridge, and third chorus. We have come to expect vibrant vocals from pop stars, and almost every artist sings primarily about love and relationships. This isn’t anything new, and Billie herself sings plenty about love.
But “Bad Guy” ignores all the trends in modern music.
The structure of “Bad Guy” is, loosely, first verse, first chorus, second verse, second chorus, and finally…an outro. No bridge. No third chorus. I would be very challenged to name even one other chart-topper hit in the 21st century with this song structure. I might expect this choice from a more seasoned musician, with a dedicated following and little to lose. But at 17 years old, Billie chose this song as a lead single from her brand new album.
This is the type of musical choice that encapsulates Billie as an artist, who is known for being unconcerned with fashion trends as well (clock her baggy t-shirts, hoodies, and sweatpants, even at fancy awards shows). Billie is here to make cool music, period, with little concern for modifying her oddball style to fit the typical pop-star image. This authenticity is incredibly endearing, and “Bad Guy” serves as an honest first introduction to Billie’s style.
Behind the scenes, Billie shares that the lyrics are written as a tongue-in-cheek response to anyone acting like a “tough guy,” and that she can pretend to be some big bad guy, too, if that’s the game they’re playing. She does not, in fact, believe that she’s the “make your mama sad type” or the “might seduce your dad type.” However, this doesn’t detract from the cold delivery of her lyrics. Billie’s a performer with no desire to sound like an angel all the time. She’s capable of singing beautiful tunes like “Ocean Eyes” and “When The Party’s Over,” then turning around and rhythmically mumbling about the bruises on her knees and the lyrics her mom might not like so much.
“Bad Guy” is bravely unconcerned with what pop music should sound like. It doesn’t want to talk about love. It doesn’t want to have any lyrics in its chorus. It doesn’t want a bridge. “I do what I want when I’m wanting to” may have been a joking self-reference by Billie’s alter ego, but it describes the song perfectly. “Bad Guy” does what it wants, when it wants. We’re just lucky that it did it so well.