Books & Culture

“Everything I Wanted:” Billie Eilish’s Sad Songs to Cry Yourself to Sleep

I think about all the things I wanted when I was a child. I wanted roller skates so badly I tied my brother’s Hot Wheels cars to my feet. They cut my soles when I skated in the living room but they made fine roller skates. Later, I wanted roller blades, but my parents couldn’t afford them, so I checked out an instructional video on how to roller blade from the library. Week after week, I watched it on repeat, wearing out the VHS tape until I could spin with my eyes closed. I wanted a computer, but my parents couldn’t afford one, so I tried to figure out how many candy bars I’d need to sell before I could afford a computer and figured out it was way too many. I wanted breasts when I was 14, but they came too late to result in any high school dates. I wanted money so I could buy food at the mall on the weekends and not have to go stall-to-stall in the food court hawking samples until I was full. I wanted to go to college, but my mother wanted me to stay home, get married, and have babies. I wanted a mom who wasn’t mentally ill. I wanted a normal family. I wanted. I wanted. I wanted. It’s strange still to think about all those years of want because I also have received so much. As much as I think about the want, I think about the gifts want brought me. When my grandmother saw me skating with hot wheels on my feet, she bought me a pair of blue Smurf roller skates. My parents saved up money and when they finally could afford to buy me the roller blades, I knew all the good techniques. I got the computer much later, in high school, after I’d spent many days in the library printing homework assignments out on the slow computers. I got the breasts in time for college. I worked an after-school job, so I could afford college registration and I got a scholarship to the University of Florida. My mom didn’t get better, but she got disability, and she calmed down. My family remained crazy, but they made me, and I am grateful. I went to college. I got everything I wanted, eventually, but nothing came without its cost. And all of this makes me think about Billie Eilish, sitting in some room with her brother in the aftermath of her stratospheric rise to fame, writing the song, “Everything I Wanted,” a song about satisfied desire, depression, and the failure of reality to live up to the dream. “Everything I Wanted” is a song to cry yourself to sleep. It’s also a song about how desire fashions us, how desire makes us into the people we are, the people we become.

The song opens with disturbing lyrics. Eilish sings about thinking she can fly. So she jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. The song takes us through a musical rise here, with the sense of flight that must be felt in the initial moment of falling, followed so quickly by the nightmare of gravity, the inertia of the ground pulling the body back down to Earth. Isn’t this the reality of all our realized dreams, how they begin with flight, followed by the gravity of reality? I thought everything in my life would be beautiful if I could just leave home, only to discover that things got better in some ways and harder in others. Eilish quickly informs her listeners that the dream sometimes becomes a nightmare. Flight becomes fall.

Eilish’s song a play on the many possible meanings of the word “want?” The word “want” can mean desire, but it can also mean, “to lack.” Think of a Victorian school headmistress telling the parents that Harry Potter will want for nothing at Hogwarts. To want for nothing is to be given all.

Eilish’s song follows in the tradition of contemporary poets writing about want. For example, Mary Jo Bang’s poetry book, Apology for Want has haunted me far more than I realized in this way. When I read it while in graduate school, I dismissed it, finding a poem here and there I admired, but mostly disliking the dream-logic of the lyrics, finding them a little too ethereal, a little too random. But I look again and find lines like “Among animals; we’re the aberration.” And indeed we are. Humans are the only animals that want more than what survival dictates. We are singularly greedy. If you really want to cry, you need only read her poem “Putting Down a Cat.” Want is a state of pain, with various shades of intensity. Bang writes: “In a 9.7 moment of pain / we all become expert, ancient, cousin / to simple persistence.” Bang is concerned with pain and how it forms us. “Through small but audacious acts of theft / the I becomes a self.” I disagree. It’s not theft. We become ourselves through what we desire. Mary Jo Bang flirts with Eilish’s themes in Apology for Want. In her poem “The Fall,” she writes: “If only the terror of the next step / were not so absorbing, we might see more. Falling / is remarkable.”

I’m on a bit of an Eilish kick, especially after her recent Grammy win for best record for “Everything I Wanted” and for her luminous presence in a documentary about her rise to stardom in “The World’s a Little Blurry.” Eilish is the contemporary answer to 90s goth. She brings to goth a bad girl vibe, a hip hop style, and a commentary on depression that could only arise in the digital age. Eilish plays the range of emotion well. Her album, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go, will take you from denial to bargaining to anger and grief and back again. “When the Party’s Over” is a song that haunts like a smoky room at 3 a.m., long after everyone’s passed out and gone home. I can feel the chill of the open window, and hear the sleepy sounds of Brooklyn below in Eilish’s siren song. I also hear the undercurrents of joy that ripple beneath the song’s dark surface. There’s joy in receiving, even if what we are receiving is pain.

To receive everything one has wanted is to be given a gift. But sometimes the wanting itself is also a gift.  

Wanting Fetus. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Wanting Fetus. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

The best art I’ve experienced is a little thrilling, like a love affair. That’s because it is love. As Maggie Smith writes: “Love is not something you earn. Love is a gift economy, like poetry. Give it away and receive graciously.” Receiving can sometimes be hardest of all. I listen to Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted” and feel like I’m receiving something. Isn’t that enough?

If you have been having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 wherever you are. Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the lifeline’s website from the link above to chat with someone online or learn more.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.