‘Happier Than Ever’ is the best album of 2021

I was a teenager when the Spice Girls had taken over the world. A new single seemed to come out every month, they were on the cover of every magazine, interviewed on every TV show, they had a movie out and not a day went by without hearing or seeing something from them. This total domination of the popular sphere was held not simply by the fact they had some good tunes and were a charismatic bunch, but the ‘tip of the spear’, as it were, was the ill-defined but potent slogan of ‘Girl Power’ that they carried with them wherever they went. Though it was purely a corporatised bit of branding, it did reignite an inactive feminism that seemed to have been drilled into complacency since whatever the hell Wave had last been appeased by some pathetic morsel of equality from the patriarchal powers-that-be. Suddenly women of all ages were much more vocal, present and — crucially — a more ‘liberated’ consumer demographic, but with the smooth comes the rough. This not-particularly-radical form of emancipation was quickly dubbed “Ladette” culture by broadsheets and red-top rags, who saw women speaking up for themselves and enjoying a night out the same as men as being beyond the pale. Because of this it quickly became clear the Spices and those they inspired had perhaps “gone too far” and Girl Power essentially died with the band not long after Geri ‘Ginger Spice’ Halliwell left. During their time in the spotlight, in an effort to nerf the movement, it was also made clear they were “just girls” too. Overtly sexualised at all times (Geri’s boobs were highlighted whenever possible, notably after the 1997 Brit awards) and accused of never being particularly deep (a criticism I never heard of Boyzone at the time), the Spice Girls were stupid and vacuous to the male dominated spheres as much as they were objects to lust after. As a Sonic Net review once said: “[an] effervescent combo that could be counted on for enough hooky innuendos to excite pre-teen girls and dirty young men alike”. This is what bled through to me at the time. Regardless of the fact I was (and still am I think) able to sing along to the entire of Spice and Spiceworld, I was reliably informed by the men around me the Spice Girls were sexual objects and nothing more.

Spice came out 25 years ago this month. I remember being at school and watching the girls do dance routines to whatever the latest Spice Girls single was that week. Internally I never had an opinion on this but watching the other boys point, laugh and roll their eyes clearly meant this was something to be derided. To be derided because 16 year old girls loved it. Later, I remember being told, in blunt terms, that Sylvia Plath was childish nonsense. Childish nonsense for 16 year old girls. To this day, if an audience for anyone or anything is described as being for the nebulous yet precise demographic of “16 year old girls”, it must be treated with contempt because it is of little-to-no public, personal or emotional value, only economic. It is interesting, then, that much the same thing was said about the Beatles in the early 1960s…

I was not aware of the rise of Billie Eilish until around the release of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? And saw her, now annual, Vanity Fair interview where she answers the same questions as last time to see how she’s changed. In her first interview she was 15. I rolled my eyes. Who was this girl with purple hair and strange clothes? She’s just another pop-star, plucked too young from obscurity to be the face of a major music label’s push for more wealth. Poor girl. I mean she can’t be a talented artist, can she? She’s a 15 year old girl after all. And her audience are all teenage girls too. She’s just another sign of the torrid state of the music industry and culture at large, destined to be another one of its casualties like Britney et al. My 11 year old niece was also a fan. She listened to Eilish’s album, bought her merchandise, got tickets to see her (before the pandemic cancelled the tour) and generally idolised her as I so often saw young girls do but through the lens of patronising video features or articles in the Guardian. This prejudice was also helped along when I was initially introduced to her idiosyncratic vocal style as being “mumblecore”, sneeringly referred to as being “inaudible” and “not real singing”. Because of all this I was given to ignore Eilish and her music, despite the fact I was really intrigued by both the song and video for Bury A Friend when it appeared. So it was with deep anger and resentment that when I finally decided to give her debut EP and first album a try, I was flabbergasted.

Being truly excited by a new artist is a long dormant feeling in my cold, dead heart but it was something IDLES accomplished recently and was again when I sat down with my headphones on to listen to Eilish’s music properly for the first time. When We All Fall Asleep was an avant garde art piece with dazzling songsmanship. I honestly couldn’t believe it. The idea that the apocryphal 16 year old girl had made such an innovative, transgressive, strange, catchy, intelligent, aggressive, soulful work was not something I had been led to believe was possible. But there it was. With the help of her, admittedly older, brother, Eilish had created a true blue pop classic in my mind. Though she sounds nothing like them I immediately lumped her in with the Beatles as an example of an act capable of experimental pop artistry. And I might never have listened to her. Purely because I have been taught to never listen to 16 year old girls, because what do they know? AM I RIGHT LADS? No. No we aren’t right and it was a slap in the face to realise I was still ignoring the much derided “teenage girls” despite trying to be an ally for feminism as much as I can. It is this sort of thing that makes me realise how damaging our systemically macho society is to men when it robs us of finding something that can make us feel really good because it doesn’t conform to the relevant stereotype. So when Happier Than Ever was announced, you best believe I was first in the cue to purchase it.

Like the proverbial 16 year old girl, I waited on single announcements, watched the videos on repeat when they came out and delighted in any morsel of information I could glean prior to release. I haven’t done that in years. And it felt great. And it was all the more rewarding, then, that Happier Than Ever was as fantastic as I had hoped and did the thing I always want an artist to do and used their original sound as a jumping off point to develop into new areas. It’s a rare album in my collection that is without skips. Even my absolute favourites have the odd track I skip. So far, if I start Happier Than Ever I skip nothing. I could wax lyrical at length (and frequently do) about the album, about Finneas’ pristine and punchy production, or Billie’s remarkable vocal control, her expression, the sheer goddamn groove of the whole album, the versatility and facility with music on display, the ear for harmony she has, the confidence to go where the song needs not where the formula dictates, her and her brother’s lyrical ability that can range from sexual politics to downright filth, that the whole thing is just sexy as hell, the overall aesthetic — both visual and aural — of the album. I mean there’s even a spoken word piece proclaiming her independence from public surveillance and body shaming, something that Beyonce left to Warsan Shire on her own era defining classic Lemonade. Happier Than Ever is nothing short of a masterpiece to me. It isn’t as noisy, self-righteous, obvious or self-appointedly self-important as a lot of ‘big’ albums that come out today but it is all the stronger for it. It is not “more of the same” from an artist dubbed ‘The Voice of a Generation’ but something different. This is the work of a confident, assured, intelligent and capable artist coming into their prime. In short, it’s the work of an 18 year old girl.

I celebrated the 25th birthday of one of my favourite albums, New Adventures in HiFi, this month. Spice came out in that same month. One was widely considered by the connoisseurs to be a classic, an album of high-minded scope and artistic ambition, while the other was a bit of disposable pop nonsense. New Adventures is my favourite REM album but has faded into the background of their catalogue, Automatic for the People seeming to have got the laurels there. Spice on the other hand, when mentioned to my wife, was met with an enthusiastic cheer and the reaffirmation of “Girl. Motherfuckin’. Power.” Much as I still love New Adventures I think, yet again, the 16 year old girls knew something the 16, 25 and 48 year old men didn’t. That Girl Power, despite its origins, actually meant something, that popular art isn’t bad art, and most of all, that women — 16 or not — have a more discerning taste than mainstream thinking gives them credit for. In patronising this mythic “16 year old girl” we’re steam rolling over some truly great art in the effort to maintain outdated sensibilities. Looking back now, I’m realising how much I missed out on because of that.

The Spice Girls were pretty rad. Sylvia Plath is one of the greatest poets of all time. And Billie Eilish deserves her place in the pantheon of the greatest pop artists of all time. Come in boys, the water’s fine.

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Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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