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“What Was I Made For?” An anthem in search of a longing

Billie Eilish at 2024 Oscars

Billie Eilish | Fair Use via YouTube

Matthew Becklo - published on 03/12/24

Billie Eilish's Gen-Z anthem, made for the Barbie movie, is a work of existential longing, a plaintive cry for hope of the future.

At this year’s Academy Awards, “What Was I Made For?” — the Barbie soundtrack hit penned by siblings Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell — took the prize for Best Original Song. At one point, the brother and sister took to a fuchsia-colored stage to perform the song live with a full orchestra. 

I will admit that I didn’t see Barbie, and I didn’t tune into the Oscars. But I have heard this ballad, and quite a few times. Most of us flicking on the car radio this past summer have: It was on heavy rotation for weeks on end — the gentle piano chords and hushed, almost whispered lyrics a startling contrast to the usual pop-rock FM fare

And it’s a tremendously sad song. There is, of course, the surface sadness of the music: delicate, wistful, incomplete — the auditory equivalent of holding a childhood toy and feeling pangs of lost innocence. Then there’s the deeper sadness of the lyrics: a reckoning with the artificiality, uncertainty, and, yes, melancholy of age: “When did it end? All the enjoyment / I’m sad again, don’t tell my boyfriend.” 

Sehnsucht

But there’s a sadness even deeper still, one that can only be called existential. The entire song, and especially the chorus, searches out, yet only barely touches, a kind of Sehnsucht — the inexpressible pining for we know-not-what. The singer doesn’t just want to find her purpose; she wants to inhabit that nameless something that someday — somehow — will realize it. 

C.S. Lewis, the creator of the Narnia series, was captivated by this stirring of holy desire. Where does it come from? Why is it in us?

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them,” he wrote; “it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.” Sehnsucht is “the echo of a tune we have not heard.” 

Eilish — only 22 years old — has clearly struck a chord in playing this tune, especially with young people. The understated music video, which shows her shuffling through a collection of miniature doll outfits in wind and rain, has well over a hundred million views. 

Generational Ennui

But the sadness of this Gen-Z anthem — a deep, unmistakable sadness — isn’t so much in the Sehnsucht itself; it’s between the lines, as it were, in the culture permeating and surrounding it. This longing isn’t honored, but everywhere stifled. And not even that, since stifling would suggest some kind of confrontation; the still, small voice of Sehnsucht is barely shrugged at. 

It’s not fast or visible enough to really matter, even to many religious types. There’s no spiritual breadth for recognizing the unrecognizable; we’re all too “distracted from distraction by distraction.” There’s no inherited wisdom for naming the unnamable — only vague, fleeting flashes of knowing that things should be right, but aren’t; that we should feel happy and good, but don’t; that our identity should be rooted in something, but isn’t. In a data-engulfed world devoid of mystery — and therefore, as Rollo May said, of hope — longing is a plaintive cry. 

Power in Longing

But there’s power — and hope — in singing up that longing. And there is indeed a silver lining in the lyrics: the stubborn intuition that we didn’t just appear, but were made; that we weren’t made in vain, but for a reason; and that this reason isn’t sadness or frustration, but happiness and joy: “Think I forgot how to be happy / Something I’m not, but something I can be / Something I wait for / Something I’m made for.” 

Of course, this is precisely the message running back through the Summa of Aquinas, the Confessions of Augustine, and into the New Testament: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Christianity, for many young people, has been a pointless answer with no question. “What Was I Made For?” — which, as one WaPo writer puts it, “sounded like a lullaby but felt more like a prayer” — does the difficult work of posing the right question.  

Insofar as this Sehnsucht opens the way to God, it opens the way to happiness: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). But insofar as it retreats into anything else, it retreats, as Lewis came to see, into sadness:

“All that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

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