Anatomy of the Hit: Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”
TFW you’re driving and you hear a new song on the radio that makes you pull over to hear it better? I’ve had it three times. The first time was Eminem’s “Stan” in 2000. I just had to know how it ended. The second was in 2013, when I thought Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a 1970s disco classic I’d somehow missed. And the third was Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” partly because the production was so original, but mostly because the vocal was so, well, disturbing.
Thematically, the song is about relationship power dynamics. For all the machismo of the “you” character, and that upsetting opening violent abuse image in the first line, Billie herself is the titular “Bad Guy.” She can out-scare and out-dare him. If he wants to “take control,” she’ll go along with it, up to a point, but she holds all the cards: if he steps out of line, there will be mama-disappointing, girlfriend-antagonizing, dad-seducing hell to pay. The production throughout supports this theme, balancing the scary and the ironic as Billie’s vocal performance veers between threat and disinterest.
INTRO (8 bars)
The door to producer (and brother) Finneas’ soundworld opens into a tiny claustrophobic room: heartbeat/kick drum pumping at a grimly frenetic 135BPM, and nothing but the bassline outlining the 8-bar chord loop that is to be our companion throughout.
The aural bleakness is joined in bar 2 by Billie’s double-tracked vocal singing along with fragments of the bassline (listen on headphones for a separate Eilish in each ear). Here, and throughout, the voice is almost completely without reverb, and that almost-whispered delivery style adds to the feeling that she’s getting inside your head.
VERSE 1 (16 bars) [0:14]
White shirt now red, my bloody nose / Sleeping, you’re on your tippy toes
Creeping around like no one knows / Think you’re so criminal
Bruises, on both my knees for you / Don’t say thank you or please
I do what I want when I’m wanting to / My soul? So cynical
More voices are added to the double-tracking, first picking out the lyric imagery in two-part harmony (“bloody nose”/ “tippy toes”), then splitting into three-part on “creeping around…” as the sense of approaching menace builds. There are finger-snaps where the snare drum would be, and like everything else in the song, the mix pushes this sound super-close to the front, with a single moment of reverb on the fourth snap at the end of each 2-bar lyric phrase. A distant door-slam? The footsteps of an intruder?
CHORUS (10 bars) [0:42]
So you’re a tough guy / Like it really rough guy
Just can’t get enough guy / Chest always so puffed guy
I’m that bad type / Make your mama sad type
Make your girlfriend mad tight / Might seduce your dad type
I’m the bad guy, duh
Here’s the groove now, picking up the pace, with an off-beat shaker sample in the 8th note gap between each kick drum. The rhyme scheme hits us at twice the speed, replacing the verse’s unsettling visual imagery with urgent quick-fire adjectives (tough/rough/enough/puffed), doubling some words with sinister whispers and mocking singsong countermelodies.
And then, at what would be the peak high point of any pop song chorus, the whole arrangement stops completely, leaving only that vocal hook “I’m the b.a.a.a.a.a.a.a.d.d.d.d… g.u.u.u.u.y.y.y….”
That gritty stutter processing slices the voice up into tiny ~64th-note audio fragments, adding a flanger effect on the upper frequencies, and giving us no doubt about the character’s gleeful lack of emotional stability. Twenty years ago, “Baby One More Time” famously used a guiro, low in the mix, to add a percussive scrape to Britney’s Louisiana-California vocal-fry croak, and the “Bad Guy” digital effect works here as a sort of cyber-parody of the ubiquitous 2010s affectation. Is Billie the Anti-Britney? Is she trying to subvert pop?
RIFF (8 bars) [1:00]
If the chorus was the cure for melody, this synth riff is the disease. This one-bar, seven-note gliding mono-synth phrase cycles relentlessly throughout the section, following the chord changes. It’s instantly memorable after the second listen, giving the extra repeats a manic redundancy that says “dance floor fun” as clearly as it says “I know what you did last summer.”
VERSE 2 (16 bars) [1:14]
I like it when you take control / Even if you know that you don’t
Own me, I’ll let you play the role / I’ll be your animal
My mommy likes to sing along with me / But she won’t sing this song
If she reads all the lyrics / She’ll pity the men I know
Verse 1’s sexual understatement is abandoned in this section in favor of full disclosure, and the vocal production supports the increasingly explicit sex/power narrative. The whole verse is sung in three-part harmony, still with that anechoic in-your-brain dryness. Billie’s breathing adds a percussion-like effect here — listen to that super-loud intake of breath exactly on beat 3 of the bar after “even,” “own me,” and “I’ll be” — it’s like a dream of a half-remembered cymbal. At bar 9 (“my mommy”) the kick drum and bass drop back in, propelling us powerfully toward another chorus.
CHORUS 2 (10 bars) [1:42]
Is it just me, or does that “duh” that leads us into the chorus make a reference to AWOLNATION’s 2015 Vine-bothering meme song “Run”? The “Duh” comes on the same beat, the tempo is about the same (138 vs 135 BPM), and it gives the listener a similarly disquieting vibe. I guess you can’t copyright a feeling…
RIFF (16 bars) [2:00]
I’m only good at being bad, bad
Halfway through this double-length section, Billie’s vocal steps it up with more three-part harmony “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” which bouncea around the left-right of the headphone mix, adding laconic vocal bends “I’m only good at being baaaad…. Baaaad.” The clean bass sound of the intro is full-on distorted here, and it’s only during the 5 full beats of silence at the end that we realize they’ve been quietly turning up the reverb throughout this section. Padded cell becomes abandoned warehouse, maybe.
OUTRO (10 bars) [2:32]
I like when you get mad / I guess I’m pretty glad that you’re alone
You said she’s scared of me? / I mean, I don’t see what she sees
But maybe it’s ’cause I’m wearing your cologne
I’m a bad guy / I’m a bad guy
Bad guy, bad guy, I’m a bad –
Name your top five songs with a tempo change. How about your top three? The idea of slowing down at the end, especially a dramatic fall-off-a-cliff like “Bad Guy”s 135 to 60, is almost unheard of in pop singles, and with good reason. They’re jarring for listeners, disruptive for dancers and distract attention from the story.
Here, that’s kind of the point (the video reinforces the emotional jolt, with Billie sat dominantly cross-legged and spike-collared in a low-lit boudoir-dungeon, atop a guy doing pushups). The hi-hat’s 16s and trap-style 64th note triplets are so slow that we can hear every one separately, as the backing vocal literally laughs in the face of any dancer who enjoyed the post-chorus riff a little too much. The narrator builds to a nursery-rhyme-horror-movie melody for the payoff “I don’t see what she sees / but maybe it’s ’cause I’m wearing your cologne.” I think we all see what she sees, Billie. In fact, I’m starting to regret stopping the car altogether…
Music notation and lyric excerpts are reproduced here under Fair Use terms, for the purposes of commentary and criticism.
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