I first heard Billie Eilish’s new single, “My Future,” released late last month, while I was moodily poking at avocados in the supermarket. My girlfriend and I were stocking up in preparation for a new wave of COVID-19 restrictions here in northern England, and I was completely bereft.
Even though a part of me always knew that, in many localities around the world, easing restrictions would eventually lead to a steady rise in new coronavirus cases — thus necessitating everybody close up shop and quarantine all over again — I still wasn’t at all emotionally prepared for the reality of another lockdown. Everyone I know has been telling each other that life under a pandemic would mean we wouldn’t be “going back to normal” anytime soon (if ever), but I think a lot of us have still struggled to reckon with the fact that months, even years, of our futures have collapsed into endless uncertainty.
Eilish’s hauntingly lovely voice managed to pierce through my depressive fugue state in the vegetable aisle, and when I paid attention to the lyrics, I started to cry into my already sweat-dampened face mask. “‘Cause I, I’m in love / with my future / Can’t wait to meet her / And I’m in love / But not with anybody else / Just want to get to know myself.”
It doesn’t take much to get me to cry these days; I was already a pretty weepy person before these months of crippling anxiety about the health and safety of everybody I do and don’t know. But there was something about hearing this 18-year-old’s love letter to her future self during such a dramatically unstable time — wistful, but ultimately full of hope — that put me over the emotional edge in a way nothing else has in a long, long time.
And it appears as though I’m not alone. The track just debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — Eilish’s third in the top 10 and her highest-ever debut. All this just a few months after she became only the second artist in music history (and the first woman) to sweep the top 4 Grammy categories (Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist). Since then, the singer has been keeping a relatively low profile, aside from posting about Black Lives Matter on her socials. Now she’s returned with her “most uplifting song to date,” according to Rolling Stone — one of many strong critical reviews.
I’m not only jealous that Eilish, like Taylor Swift, has managed to create something beautiful and lasting during a period when I’ve struggled to write so much as a grocery list. And she and her brother, Finneas, accomplished this feat “in like two days,” she recently told Apple Music. "This is the most we've ever worked in one period of time. But we record — we wrote it like a month into quarantine probably. And it was pouring rain. We were in this like... Oh, it was such a perfect setting. And then we recorded the vocal in Finneas's studio, which is just in his basement in his house... For me, I'm sure you know, I take fucking forever to get a vocal take that I like, and I do like a billion takes. And this one... I just, I don't know, there was something about this one take that I did, and I was like, 'This is the only way that it can be.'"
“My Future” is deceptively simple. What begins as a soulful ballad changes direction about halfway in, when a percussive beat kicks up the tempo and the song gets a little cheerier, a little groovier. In the accompanying music video, an animation directed by Andrew Onorato, a cartoon Eilish lying in the woods in the rain sees the forest come alive when the sun comes out. She’s singing, ostensibly, about an ended relationship: “But I know better / Than to drive you home / 'Cause you'd invite me in / And I'd be yours again.” The song “lands as something of an understated feminist anthem — an ode to being just fine by yourself,” writes Lisa Wright at DIY. (“I know supposedly I’m lonely now / Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone / But aren't I someone?”)
I feel incredibly lucky to be partnered right now, and living with either my girlfriend or my roommates; I can’t imagine going through lockdown alone. But regardless of our own particular circumstances — whether we’re partnered or single, childless or managing a household of kids — I think we’re all dealing with some degree of loneliness. I fantasize every day about when I’ll be able to hug my friends and grandparents again.
Living through all this has forced a lot of us to do some dark daily arithmetic. Yes, my situation is bad in X, Y, or Z ways. But I can’t complain, not really — not when there are others dealing with so much worse. My heart breaks in particular for young adults right now, so many of whom are essential workers themselves, dealing with exploded school schedules and disrupted plans while they’re also taking care of their families.
I’ve struggled to squint through the fog of impending democratic disaster, of who knows how many more rounds of lockdowns — and how many more deaths — to see the sunshine somewhere, anywhere on the other side. I find myself in the midst of a mental health crisis that feels no less personally burdensome even with the knowledge that I’m far from alone. And so I just find it incredible, and heartening, and humbling, to listen to a teenager fall steadfastly in love with her own future — to really believe in it — when the past few years of political turmoil and ever-mounting climate doom shouldn’t have given her much reason to believe that her generation has much of a world to inherit at all.
Sure, Eilish is a celebrity — and a wealthy white one, at that — who has a better chance than many of her peers of building a real life out of whatever emerges from all this. And I can get a little wary of the (well-meaning) assumption and frequently deployed meme that “Gen Z will save us all.” As Charlie Warzel notes at the Times, “The kids aren’t all right. They’re fed up.” And we’d be abdicating our own social responsibilities to expect younger generations to clean up this mess, even the parts of it that we millennials also inherited. Still, I can’t help but feel, when listening to young artists and activists, the tiniest kernel of faith.
“The future feels uncertain and crazy right now,” Eilish wrote in an email to her fans announcing the song. “But I think we need to be ready to put the work in, and if we do that, we should be hopeful and excited for our future. I have to keep reminding myself that the future is ours, and I know we want to do everything we can to make it better for everyone in the world, and for the world itself. … It’s up to us to change things now. Not only for us, but for future generations. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Wear a mask. Drink water. Stay hopeful.” ●