Who is the “Bad Guy”, exactly?

or, “Does Billie Eilish realise how this song hits adult listeners?”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Billie Eilish lately. I love her sound, her ability to set a mood, the essence of her music. But when I listen to “Bad Guy”, her biggest hit, one lyric in particular keeps jumping out at me:

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

(emphasis mine).

Will she? Let’s read all the lyrics the way Billie suggests we do, and see what they’re saying. One thing I want to highlight before we continue, however: Billie Eilish was 17 when the song was released (and presumably 17 or younger when it was written). Keep that in mind as we read:

  • Billie was wearing a white shirt, but it’s stained red from her nosebleed, and she is now asleep. The song doesn’t expand on whether this is a natural nosebleed or someone hit her. The Pop Song Professor suggests that this implies a virgin innocence now stained with blood from sexual conduct, and I’m not inclined to argue given the context of the rest of the song.
  • “You” are sneaking in, whether to be with Billie behind your girlfriend’s back or back to your girlfriend after being with Billie. It’s implied from context of the song that “you” are a male and Billie’s (cheating) lover. It’s also implied here that someone (or everyone) knows you’re doing this, as you only “think” you’re getting away with it. If the nosebleed was unnatural, you may have been the one to punch Billie in the face, though that’s a bit of a stretch read given it might just be the loss of innocence listed above.
  • Billie has bruises on both her knees “for you”. Again, given context, this implies she’s giving blowjobs (perhaps frequently), though alternate readings exist where she’s just a fan of doggy style or perhaps BDSM.
  • The next line has two possible readings depending on the elided subject. Either Billie doesn’t say please or thank you, implying she’s rude; this would be the first “bad” act in my book in the song performed by Billie, who certainly doesn’t control whether the man she’s with cheats or not. The other reading is that she’s ordering “you” not to say please or thank you, giving off an air of machismo: the type of person who dislikes “please” because it shows weakness and dislikes “thank you” because it means they’re doing a favor they don’t want to admit to doing.
  • Billie does what she wants when she wants, refusing to be controlled. Again, this is either a further refusal to be polite or a furthering of the machismo reading from the previous line.
  • “My soul? So cynical”. This line makes me smile every time. Not in a patronizing, “you’re only 17, what do you know of cynicism” way; Billie is Gen Z, a generation that is coming of age in (if possible) even worse conditions than we Milennials grew up in. No, the reason I smile is that 17 is a developmental age where it’s common to feel jaded or cynical due to the loss of childhood and being on the cusp of adulthood. Even the Boomers, who came of age in a very favorable time period, felt that cynicism and loss of innocence. However, ms Eilish probably wouldn’t thank me for pointing it out, as exceptionalism is also developmentally appropriate to 17. Put bluntly: every 17 year old thinks they’re uniquely jaded and cynical now as compared to their 13 year old past self, and they’re all probably right except for the “uniquely” part.

Now the stage is set for the chorus, the main theme that repeats throughout the song:

  • “You” think you’re tough, and really like rough sex, but (it’s implied) you’re not so tough after all, you just puff out your chest and act macho
  • Billie is “the bad guy” who will make your mother sad, your girlfriend angry, and perhaps seduce your father on her quest to fuck everyone and everything.

Billie’s “badness” here is so far entirely predicated on one thing: liking sex. Those of us who subscribe to the label of “ethical slut” refuse to judge her poorly for that. So what if she likes sex? It’s normal to like sex at 17! (It’s also normal to not like sex, given many people just don’t enjoy it, but that’s beside the point).

Are you pitying the men in her life yet? I’m not. Seems to me the cheater, the one with both Billie and some girlfriend, is the “Bad guy”, and Billie’s just doing what comes naturally to her. If anything I pity Billie for falling into the trap of assuming that women liking sex makes them villains while men are the hapless prey for these women to seduce.

To be entirely fair, here’s the readings for the rest of the song:

  • Billie likes to play BDSM games where she’s the “pet” or submissive partner and her partner pretends to own her, though she knows such games are pure fiction and she’s not owned by her partner
  • Billie is “only good at being bad” — her self-esteem and worth is low, thanks to her self-image as the “bad guy”.
  • Billie likes when her  partner gets mad. This line is interesting; it’s not uncommon to enjoy provoking a response out of a partner who is often stoic and somewhat controlled, making them lose that control and be more “real”. But it doesn’t speak of a healthy relationship.
  • “I guess I’m pretty glad that you’re alone”. I would normally read “alone” to mean “unpartnered” but that doesn’t fit the context of the song, so this must mean that he’s come to some location without his usual partner (in order to cheat with Billie).
  • The girlfriend is afraid of Billie, who doesn’t “see what she sees” but allows that maybe it’s due to the cheating aspect.

Now you could read this song of course as being a persona, an anonymous “bad guy” Billie’s made up for the purposes of the song. She’d probably like it that way, in fact, given her comment in-song about her mother enjoying her music. Who at 17 wants their mom to know they’re into BDSM? But you don’t write a song like this without internalizing many messages about female sexuality and a woman’s role in men cheating on their girlfriends. So in the end, I still pity Billie (and all young women growing up with these messages) rather than the men in her life.

Furthermore, I’d be curious to know if the men in the song are older than Billie; it’s often a powerful, “bad guy” feeling to be dating someone off-limits due to age or power imbalance, without realizing that you’re being taken advantage of and that the power you seem to have is an illusion. It twists and warps your perceptions of yourself in similar ways to the way the song seems to portray. Just a theory, though. I don’t know that much about Eilish’s life outside of what I can glean from her music.

How about you? Where do you fall on the song reading? Would you like more of this? It’s been a while since I did a song lyrics analysis. I still analyse songs offline, and talk about them with my family, but I happened to write this one down for you all.

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4 Responses to Who is the “Bad Guy”, exactly?

  1. Firedrake says:

    The impression I get from reading the lyrics straight through is that she’s going along with all this, playing the role of the bad girl and pretending to believe in the “tough guy” role that the guy is playing, because… because that’s the best she’s met? It make be fake but at least it’s something.

    • yamikuronue says:

      I could see that, but it’s still predicated on the same basis: that “bad” for women means “sexual” while for men it more means “machismo” and maybe hitting your partner (if that first line is meant to imply violence).

      • Firedrake says:

        Indeed. But that’s the societal role she’s conforming to, the bad (sexual) girl with a bad (violent) boy. It’s just that she is aware she is conforming to it but has no reason to think anything better exists, and knows that “you” isn’t aware.

        (That’s “she” as in the presumed narrator of the song; I have no opinion on how that may relate to Eilish.)

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