When Billie Eilish announced she had new music coming right around the time that Taylor Swift was unexpectedly delivering “Folklore,” there was a split-second’s worth of “quarantine be damned: this is going to be the best July ever” pop sentiment before everyone realized that Eilish would be dropping a mere single, not a full made-in-lockdown album. But we take our Eilishian pleasures as they are dribbled out, and “My Future” certainly counts as one — about as subdued in its way as this year’s earlier “No Time to Die,” but with uncharacteristically upbeat lyrics that make 2020 sound like a fine time for her to live.
The rest of the songs in this week’s Fri 5 — Variety‘s roundup of five of the best or most notable new songs — are more topical in addressing the times. Jorja Smith has one that speaks to Black Lives Matter, Neil Young addresses the upcoming election and the Go-Go’s are all about a #MeToo moment that (guess what?) still hasn’t passed, amid these supposedly supplanting concerns. Meanwhile, the lovelorn new song from country-pop stars Dan + Shay may not seem that socially conscious on the surface — but we know it’s about the current lockdown, whether they did or not when they recorded it.
Billie Eilish, “My Future”
I can remember interviewing Taylor Swift when she was a teenager, shortly before she crossed over from country star to pop superstar, and the subject of her apparently then-non-existent dating life came up. She would turn to a boyfriend, she said then, when she found someone who interested her as much as her career. She probably didn’t always subsequently live up to that ideal — what man, in history, has ever been as interesting as Taylor Swift’s career? — but it was a good, high bar to be setting at 18. And it’s the one Eilish seems to be setting for herself at that same age in “My Future.” It starts off as a bit of a diss track: She’s speaking to someone who is only using her as “a mirror / You check your complexion… / I had to go.” But by the end of the song, it’s the entire world of relationship entanglements that she seems to be kissing off, as she sends a wave to all prospective suitors with the sign-off: “I’ll see you in a couple years.” There’s a bit of the flavor of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” in here, with the slight twist that it’s not herself Eilish needs to learn to love so much as the Eilish she can become if she maintains her singular, single-woman focus.
Is this the happiest song Eilish has ever recorded? Probably. And there may have been limited competition for that in her earlier LP and EP, but we’re faced with a still-adolescent megastar who seemed to have come out of the gate as a tortured soul and then actually had success make her more level-headed… possibly the first time that’s happened in the history of show business. Obviously Eilish has a great family support system around her, starting with brother Finneas, who of course contributed to this new track. And knowing that she seems personally in a good place accounts for why it’s easy to leap ahead and imagine her pop “Future” as something measured in multiple decades, not just years. Another thing that makes that an easy proposition is the easy-going sophistication of this track, which, musically, sounds like something a seasoned torch singer might deliver at the Rainbow Room, before the gentle beat kicks in. Lyrically, though, it’s nothing but acting her age. So here’s to awaiting a potentially sunnier second album— the avoidance of angst becomes her just as much as its presence did.
Jorja Smith, “By Any Means”
Smith doesn’t need any outside excuse or encouragement to write about the Black Lives Matter movement… or Black lives, generally. But she got some anyway in the form of an assignment to contribute to an upcoming Roc Nation compilation, “Reprise,” that is designed to speak to current social justice issues and benefit organizations that deal with victims of police brutality and other civil rights violations. As such, it’s very much in the tradition of earlier songs from the British singer like “Blue Lights” and “Rose Rogue.” The title alludes to Malcolm X, of course, and there’s plenty of the fiery defiance that would suggest to go around, as well as pride. “Go ahead and fix your crown, and watch it all burn in smoke,” she sing at the outset, alluding to the more literally incendiary side of this year’s protests. “See all this pain in the headlines / But I have cried for the last time / But know what happens, see / You would be blind if it was just an eye for an eye,” she warns those who wield society’s upper hand. While finding “redemption in the steps we take,” Smith never quite completely settles on a tone of either righteousness or indignation. Hers is a smoothly coiled fighting spirit.
The Go-Go’s “Club Zero”
The Go-Go’s have been no one’s idea of prolific as recording artists in recent years or decades, despite their intermittent reunion tours; the group’s last album, “God Bless the Go-Go’s,” came out in 2001, and that came 17 years after their previous full-length. But the new Alison Ellwood-directed documentary about the group, which premieres on Showtime this weekend, benefitted from a sign that the quartet could still work together creatively as well as retrospectively, even if they’re unlikely to jump back into the albums game as a full-time gig. “Club Zero,” their first new song in 19 years, hits the spot, first of all just on a stylistic level — it has some of the early punk spirit that the movie devotes so much time to, while not trying to pretend that the polish that shortly made them big never happened. Its real punkiness, anyway, occurs in the lyrics, in which the Go-Go’s finally overtly claim the feminism that wasn’t worn on their sleeves in the ’80s. Jane Wiedlin has described it as being about “zero f—s given” about what men have to say on women’s issues and/or their legacy. Clearly there are many f—s given, for the band to be able to reconvene for any purpose 40-plus years on from their beginnings. As it turns out, all these decades later, we will like them when they’re angry.
Neil Young, “Lookin’ for a Leader 2020”
Young does not wield his bludgeon with any particular subtlety in this anti-Trump broadside… nor, if you’re on his side, do you probably want or expect him to. “Lookin’ for a Leader” originally appeared with then-topical lyrics on his 2006 album “Living With War,” but it’s a different kind of war — a civil one — that the now-American citizen consumes himself with in this rewrite. The new version was first presented as a casual one-off in one of his web “Fireside Sessions,” but he’s broken the acoustic performance out on its own (although you can still only see it on his Neil Young Archives, you can listen to it on other streaming services). The lyrics are blunt and up to the moment: “America has a leader building walls around our house / He don’t know black lives matter and we got to vote him out.” He wants a landslide, too: “We got our election, but corruption has a chance / We got to have a big win to regain confidence.” Will the Trump campaign still blithely program “Rockin’ in the Free World” into the playlist at rallies — should there be such a thing again this year — after Young has savaged him this relentlessly? Eight-ball says: Sure, why not?
Dan + Shay, “I Should Probably Go to Bed”
This would be all the anthem anyone needs in the quarantine era even if it were literally just about hitting the hay, right? A golden age for pajamas demands its theme songs, too. But there’s something deeper that meets in the ear in this new piano-based ballad from the next-generation country-pop stars. The lyrics, on the surface, describe a familiar country music scenario: man goes to bar, man sees ex, man doesn’t know how to deal. But what if the woman Dan and/or Shay encounter down at the local tavern is… the off-again, on-again coronavirus itself? “All of my friends finally convinced me to get out of the house / To help me forget, to help me move on / Then I heard you’re back in town,” they sing, as if suddenly reminded about the curve being unflattened. “I should quit while I’m ahead,” they add, like every American who’s unsure whether to play it safe or resume the Old Normal. “Someone told me that you were comin’/So I should probably go to bed.” Dan + Shay, wittingly or un-, have come up with the great quarantine anthem of summer 2020.