By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ocean Eyes’ is a well-known song by Billie Eilish. However, this lyric isn’t a self-penned composition, unlike many of Eilish’s other hits. Instead, it was actually composed by her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who wrote it for his band, The Slightlys. But he let Eilish record a version of it, and it has become world-famous as a result.
A classic ballad with haunting lyrics and a simple musical arrangement, ‘Ocean Eyes’ is about falling in love with someone with mesmerising eyes – and a beautiful mind.
‘Ocean Eyes’: song meaning
The poem is a love song which acknowledges the dangers of falling in love. The person to whom Eilish sings the song has blue eyes that she can get lost in, like the vast expansiveness of the oceans. There is something mesmerising, even bewitching, about this person’s eyes: she cannot stop staring into their eyes.
There’s a suggestion that this person knows the effect they have on her, too. They are capable of making her cry by turning their ‘ocean eyes’ on her and reducing her to a blubbering, emotional mess.
Eilish confesses she has never fallen this far before. It’s as if she is falling into an ocean when she looks into their eyes – with the unspoken follow-up being that she is in danger of drowning.
But the second verse of the song moves beyond – or behind – those ‘ocean eyes’ of the song’s addressee, to their ‘diamond mind’ behind the eyes. If eyes are a window to the soul, they are also a mirror of the mind, reflecting what we’re thinking. The addressee’s mind is sharp, clear, solid, but also precious, rare, beautiful – all qualities we’d associate with diamonds.
‘Ocean Eyes’: analysis
Song lyrics aren’t always renowned for their ability to utilise coherent imagery, but the central imagery of ‘Ocean Eyes’ might almost be regarded as a conceit, in the tradition of metaphysical poetry. Eyes, blindness, crying, watching, staring: all of these things combine in this song and reinforce its central focus on looking but also being looked at; on being the object of the (female) gaze and the subject doing the gazing.
Although comparing Billie Eilish to John Donne may seem something of a leap, and the lyrics are far from being Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’ (‘Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string’), there is a pleasing internal unity to the song’s language and imagery, which of course we should credit to O’Connell, as the songwriter responsible for the lyrics.
This internal unity stems from the song’s focus in eyes: not just the ‘ocean eyes’ of the song’s addressee but the (variously staring, crying) eyes of the singer herself; and then there is the whole world that has gone ‘blind’ according to the second verse of the song.
Similarly, whereas the singer is watching her lover’s eyes in the first stanza, she is thinking about his mind in the second. Watching-eyes; thinking-mind: there’s a sense that he is influencing her at every turn, his eyes encouraging her to look at him, and his mind inspiring her to think of him.
But the other notable aspect of the song is the violence of the images it uses. ‘Ocean Eyes’ may sound like a soothing ballad about falling in love, but the lyrics contain sharp edges, we might say. Consider the reference to ‘napalm skies’ in the first verse, which, when twinned with burning cities, conjures up a landscape of warfare and (more disturbingly still) attacks on civilians.
Are those burning cities a description of the singer’s own hopes and dreams which she knows she is burning to ashes by allowing herself to come under this person’s spell? Are those flares a sign of flaming passion or – as in distress flares – a call for help?
In other words, there is something explosive and perhaps tempestuous about the singer’s adoration – but also, something dangerous. She sees trouble when she looks into those ‘ocean eyes’, but she cannot stop looking.
And there’s a sense that the relationship is not a healthy one. The owner of those ocean eyes knows how to use them to seduce and win round the singer; there is something manipulative in the way they use these prize assets to sway and shape her emotions, even if it makes her unhappy.
‘Ocean Eyes’ was part of Eilish’s debut EP, Don’t Smile at Me, which was released in August 2017 when she was just 15 years old. Indeed, it was the track that brought her to the world’s attention: it was after she and her brother uploaded ‘Ocean Eyes’ to SoundCloud and the track went viral that thinks took off for her, and soon after that the name Billie Eilish would become a household name.