By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Happier Than Ever’, the title track from Billie Eilish’s second studio album released in 2021, has rapidly become one of her most talked-about tracks. But what is the meaning of this song, and whom is Eilish addressing in the lyrics?
‘Happier Than Ever’: song meaning
Originally titled ‘Away from Me’, ‘Happier Than Ever’ was the first track on the new album which Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell worked on. This working title for the song gives us another clue to the track’s meaning: it is about being inordinately happy about being rid of someone who had become an annoyance in the singer’s life.
When we say ‘the singer’, we’re using this term in a general sense: although many of Billie Eilish’s songs appear to be autobiographical in their origins, there’s always the possibility that Eilish is adopting a persona (which we might call ‘the singer’, or ‘the speaker’) in her songs.
That said, in an interview with NPR, Eilish described ‘Happier Than Ever’ as one of the most important songs she had written, suggesting that the song has personal roots. How deep those roots go perhaps only Eilish (and maybe her song-writing partner, O’Connell) can say for sure.
Nevertheless, when we examine the lyrics to the song, it’s clear that it’s about saying goodbye to a former lover who was no good for the singer. She celebrates the fact that she’s ‘happier than ever’ since she got shot of him (assuming the implied ex-partner is male?) from her life.
The singer tells this ex-partner that although she has difficulty putting her new-found happiness into words, and even regrets the way things turned out – she wishes it wasn’t true, as she admits in the first verse – she is happier than she has ever been when she and her ex are apart.
She wonders if this ex-partner reads the interviews she gives, or whether they consciously avoid her house when they go past. She then gives us an insight into the former partner’s behaviour: they couldn’t be trusted with the things the singer told them, and they often directly ignored her requests or wishes.
As a result of this, she ended up feeling afraid – and miserable.
The picture that emerges in the rest of the song makes us convinced that the singer is better off without this person: a drink-driving individual who drunk-calls her, made her feel afraid (and perhaps continues to), and who never respected her enough to listen to her (the ex could only be ‘reined in’ by his friends; she had no power to influence his behaviour, we gather).
Despite the way he treated her – disrespecting her, failing to show up on time for her, and making her fearful – the singer doesn’t say bad things about this ex online. This is partly because she feels embarrassed that this person was once everything to her. There’s a suggestion that she just wants to move on – but has she already, or is she still dealing with everything he did to her?
‘Happier Than Ever’: analysis
As we remarked above, ‘Happier Than Ever’ sees the singer address an ex-partner who was no good for her. She celebrates the fact that she’s ‘happier than ever’ since she removed that toxic person from her life.
However, what makes the song more lyrically and musically interesting than a mere replay of the ‘I Will Survive’ brand of ‘farewell, useless lover’ song is the way the song is, effectively, two songs in one.
Or, to put it another way, ‘Happier Than Ever’ begins with an almost lullaby calm and serenity, but culminates in an angry, primal-scream-inspired grungey climax which makes this track probably Billie Eilish’s loudest yet.
Of course, this raises the question: how ‘over’ this former partner is the singer in the song? Is she truly happier than she’s ever been now she’s bid farewell to her ex, or is she – at least to some extent – putting on a show of being over that person?
After all, she is addressing the ex-partner directly in the song. And the singer wouldn’t be the first to put on a front of being happy and cured of any past hurt, even though, in truth, she is still working through some of the fallout from that difficult relationship.
Another aspect of the song’s lyrics which make it a more thoughtful and complex track than something of the ‘I Will Survive’ variety is the fact that the singer regrets the fact that she is happier without her ex-partner than she was with them. She says she wishes it wasn’t true. If only things had been different, they could have been happy together.
It wasn’t through lack of trying on her part. ‘Happier Than Ever’ is, in the last analysis, a hybrid piece which proves that, if it takes two to tango, it also requires two to make a relationship work.