A few nights ago, some of my coworkers were discussing the song “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, the video for which has collected more than half a billion views. Some of them think the song is very clever, some think it’s okay, and others feel it’s pretty lame. I fall into the latter category.
Comments ranged from, “I don’t like it, but I get it,” to, “I don’t like it and I don’t get it,” to, “How is this a song when there’s no melody?” to, “This is not music.” Indeed, Eilish’s vocal barely spans the range of a few notes and is little more than a whisper. I have a two-sided reaction: On the one hand, it is pretty lame, but on the other, I wish I had thought of something like this to foist upon the unsuspecting masses. Then I could be cashing the checks that come along with 500,000,000 plays.
“Bad Guy” comes from the album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Great line for a lyric. As is often the case these days, the recordings were made at home (in her brother’s bedroom studio), and it sounds it. Nothing sonically spectacular, and all of it clearly computer-generated except for Eilish’s voice—though even that is subject to quite a bit of processing. Love it or hate it, it’s a huge splash.
After my colleagues viewed the video for the studio version of the song, a live version popped up on the YouTube playlist, which they also watched. Eilish steps onto a massive stage, greeted by a huge audience of screaming fans at an outdoor festival. The audience knows all the words, and they sing as loud as Eilish does. In fact, they’re probably singing louder than Eilish because it’s fairly obvious that, not only is she lip-synching, but the musicians and instruments are little more than props. It sounds just like the record because the record is exactly what the audience is hearing.
I totally get the idea behind lip-synching lead vocals when a performer is simultaneously singing and dancing or doing acrobatics, a situation in which they might not be able to catch their breath to belt out a line. Sometimes a performer has a cold or sore throat and needs a little help, though some faithful fans might prefer to hear it warts and all. Other times it’s a high-pressure situation where there’s no room for error (think National Anthem at the Super Bowl). This is nothing new, but a lack of any live vocals or instruments still rubs me the wrong way.
The following day we played The Big E (Eastern States Exposition) in West Springfield Mass., and shared a stage with Brynn Cartelli. (Think that’s an odd pairing? You shoulda been at the show we did with KC and The Sunshine Band!) In case you’re not familiar with Cartelli, she was the winner of Season 14 of The Voice, and if you haven’t heard her sing, you’re missing out on something special. In contrast to Eilish, Cartelli performed with a live band and sang her heart out. No tracks, no lip-synching, and no one running a computer doing what amounts to playing a record over a very large stereo system. As you’d expect, she was very well received and earned every bit of it.
It’s a tale of two very different worlds of music performance: one authentic and one not-so-much. Call me old-fashioned, but my money is on the performer who doesn’t need to play karaoke tracks when she performs.