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Happier Than Ever
At nearly 42, author Amy Shearn wonders whether she's too old to be obsessed with the new Billie Eilish record.
My YouTube Music app is worried about me. If it could talk it would say, “Don’t you know there’s other music besides Billie Eilish’s new album? You used to listen to classical music, like a grownup! Blast some Debussy, babe!” Happier Than Ever ends and the well-meaning app tries to nudge me towards something it thinks is similar, like Olivia Rodrigo, but I cut it off—get over it Olivia! You’re fine!—and hit restart for the 10,000th time.
I first encountered Eilish through my tween daughter, so I can’t shake thinking of her records as Kid Music. When I watch her documentary The World’s a Little Blurry, I find myself relating hard to her parents, who are struggling (so sweetly!) with letting their child spread her wings. But I also relate to teenage Billie, who vibrates equal frequencies of confidence and self-doubt, who’s both generous and petulant, who says at one point that she thinks people love her music because she’s so honest about how she feels, and why is that unusual, why aren’t we all like that all the time? And indeed, why not?
I guess I’d expected that, once single for the first time in my adult life, I would probably continue to feel ancient and exhausted, like I had been feeling for the preceding few years, as my marriage was petering out.
Happier Than Ever starts with a song called “Getting Older.” I’m getting older / I think I’m aging well / wish someone told me I’d be doing this by myself, sings Billie, a 40-something divorcee. Wait, I mean, a 19 year-old pop star. Why does this angsty teen’s music speak to my soul? I’m a cheerful-presenting mother of two, with a job and a 401(k) and a lot of floral dresses, writing this before I head to my son’s baseball game; I smile a lot; I’m aware that I appear to outside observers to be very wholesome and maybe even, I don’t know, #basic? (That descriptor came from a friend of my ex-husband but don’t worry, I’ll never forget it. Also, in the words of Billie, Just fucking leave me alooooooone.)
I’ve always felt older than my actual age, which is probably why I’ve never been too stressed about aging. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve long suspected my soul’s true age is somewhere around 60—almost two decades older than my current age. When I was an actual teenager, I worked at the library and befriended middle-aged women and stayed in on weekends so I could drink tea and work on my writing. I had an older boyfriend, which suited me well because while he was away at college I was left with a lot of free time to, you know, read books. I was married at 24 (!) and didn’t feel weird about it at all. Now I seem to have Benjamin Buttoned my way back to something more Billie-aged. Here I am, suddenly the world’s oldest teenager.
As you can see, I have an interesting sense of timing. True to form, I got divorced right before the pandemic (lol). I would say more about my marriage but as usual Eilish says it best: I don’t talk shit about you on the Internet / never told anyone anything bad / ‘cause that shit’s embarrassing, you were my everything / all that you did was make me fucking sad. So anyway, keep in mind that single life and pandemic life are very mixed up in my head. I know I’m not alone when I say that early quarantimes sent me into an unexpectedly teenagery place: lying on my bed talking to my friends on the phone, listening to grunge-y indie rock, texting crushes.
I guess I’d expected that, once single for the first time in my adult life, I would probably continue to feel ancient and exhausted, like I had been feeling for the preceding few years, as my marriage was petering out. But, well, as Billie puts it: When I’m away from you / I’m happier than ever... As it turns out, when I’m alone, I’m giddy with freedom; I live like a teenager, or maybe like unencumbered 20-something women are supposed to and I never did. I stay up too late and eat pizza like a Ninja Turtle. I get drunk with my friends and we talk too loud and think we are really funny. I scroll dating apps and hook up with, like, everyone. How ridiculous!—to be going on boozy dates with men and women and everyone in between, to sleep with a 30-year-old artist whose last name I don’t know, to the next night sleep with a 50-something comic whose last name I wish I didn’t know, to have a whole dating app-derived family in my phone’s contacts: Joe Bumble; Jack Bumble; Jane Bumble—it would be so sordid if it didn’t sound like an adorable crew of cartoon bumblebees. I’m pretty sure other women my age are, I don’t know, gardening? But what even is age, once you unhitch yourself from the normal progression of life events?
As it turns out, when I’m alone, I’m giddy with freedom; I live like a teenager, or maybe like unencumbered 20-something women are supposed to and I never did.
My divorced friends and I swap screenshots of dating profiles and workshop each other’s responses. We text so much that my phone gets hot. I’m still in the “dating is hilarious” stage, actively avoiding anything that has even a whiff of commitment or “real relationship” to it; I’m like the Bad Boy in a 90’s romcom but with cuter cardigans. My friends get it. And BILLIE gets it. Recently, during one of our text flurries a friend wrote, “This song speaks to my soul!” with a link to, of course, the Billie Eilish song “My Future.” I'm in love / with my future / Can't wait to meet her / And I, I'm in love / but not with anybody else / Just wanna get to know myself. I mean! A healthy enough response to being single, right?
So, if I’ve become the world’s oldest teenager (and calm down, I’m still a great and responsible mom, only now I can provide better crush-handling advice and the like), I guess it makes sense that the music I relate to is literally made by a teenager. She gets it much more than, say, the married moms who I chat with pleasantly at school drop off, you know? Billie’s been through a self-shattering breakup, the kind where you come out the other end muttering, thought you would've grown eventually, but you proved me wrong, and you ruined everything good, where you feel over the whole concept of partnership entirely and only want to hang out with your hot friends and roll around and eat chips; the life-moment when you’re fucked up and horny and feel like asking someone to have threeway with you and God. Look, iykyk.
Nothing in life is simple, and in the darkest, saddest moments, (as Billie sings in “Male Fantasy”) I’m hollowed-out and lonely and worry that this is how I’m always going to feel. But for the most part, I’ve come out of the tunnel of marriage singing along to “My Future”: I know supposedly I'm lonely now / I know I'm supposed to be unhappy / without someone / But aren't I someone? Maybe this stage of my life isn’t so much about my chronological age as about what I’ve been through and where I’m going, and, like when I was a teenager, it does really—thank goodness!—feel like bigger and better things are right around the corner, like I’m in love with the future.
Amy Shearn is the author of the critically acclaimed novels How Far Is the Ocean from Here, The Mermaid of Brooklyn, and Unseen City, which was awarded the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Gold Medal in Literary Fiction. She is a senior editor at Medium, where she works on the publications Human Parts and Creators Hub, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Real Simple, and many literary publications. She earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, has received a Promise Award grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and has participated in residencies at SPACE on Ryder Farm, the Unruly Retreat, and elsewhere. Amy lives in Brooklyn with her two children.