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Billie Eilish - The Anatomy of 21st Century Angst

Why Billie Eilish? How does her subversion of what makes other artists successful work in her favor? How did she become the voice of our moment, and what do her music and persona say about our times?

TRANSCRIPT

There’s never been a pop star quite like Billie Eilish. The teenager with the heavy-lidded eyes and baggy clothes doesn’t conform to our usual expectations for female singers. Yet her songs have been streamed more than 15 billion times worldwide, and in the few short years since her 2017 debut, she’s become one of those rare, once-in-a-generation icons. Even more remarkably, her success can be attributed to the fact that it negates so many of these things we associate with pop stardom.

But negation, by nature, is also a definition. And the phenomenon of Billie Eilish also defines her era and, as The New Yorker wrote about her, the “changing face of pop” within it.

Billie Eilish: “I just want to create stuff that people can feel. Fame is irrelevant.” Billie Eilish - The Official Story - Told By Her

Eilish’s meteoric rise reflects how technology has made music easier than ever to create and distribute. Her casual style and offbeat persona speak to a craving for authenticity in an age when so much feels manufactured, as well as a rejection of the sexist standards of celebrity.

Billie Eilish: “Or is your opinion of me, not my responsibility?” - Billie Eilish Live From Miami

And the dark themes of her songs—which touch on topics like climate change, depression, and suicide—tap into not only the emotions of her young fans but also the universal angst of living in the 21st century.

Here’s our take on how Billie Eilish became the unlikely voice of our moment and created a new kind of pop star.

Billie’s Origins: Because the Internet

The phenomenon of Billie Eilish, like most things nowadays, would not be possible without the internet. Her first brush with fame began with an accidental viral hit at the age of 14, when Eilish recorded the vocals for “Ocean Eyes,” a song written by her older brother Finneas. When they first uploaded “Ocean Eyes” to SoundCloud, they had no intentions beyond sharing the track with Eilish’s dance teacher, and maybe a few friends. But “Ocean Eyes” became a runaway success, championed by music critics and radio stations alike.

Most of the songs on Billie’s 2017 debut EP, Don’t Smile At Me, as well as her 2019 album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, were still recorded and produced right there inside Finneas’ tiny bedroom within their family home. Their music still bears the inherent playfulness of a couple of kids just messing around.

Although critics have often tried to characterize Eilish’s music as “electro-pop,” she’s equally as influenced by SoundCloud rappers, EDM, trap, and even jazz. And the duo found other musical inspiration in the unlikeliest of sounds The chorus of her hit single “Bad Guy” includes a sample of the ticking sound made by pedestrian crossings in Australia.“bury a friend” features a recording of a staple gun, as well as the sound of Eilish’s actual dentist.

Billie Eilish: “You hear a drill shaving off my teeth and it was not a good feeling and it doesn’t sound like a good feeling.” A Snippet into Billie’s Mind - bury a friend

This kind of uninhibited free association is also found in her music’s many references to pop culture. While these juxtapositions may seem completely disconnected, they echo a type ofhyperlink thinking” that is the natural vernacular for a generation raised on memes and Wikipedia rabbit-holes.

And her relationship to her audience is intimate in a way that could only be fostered by the accessibility of the internet – and that’s also inspired by growing up as a Belieber herself.

Billie Eilish: “The only reason I wanted to be famous was to get closer to Justin Bieber.” DWDD Interview

Eilish reflects today’s online/ DIY era, too, by overseeing every detail of her creative output. On top of writing, producing, and performing her own music, Eilish also designs her own merch, creates treatments for her videos, and handles her own social media.

Billie’s Persona; Is My Value Based on Your Perception?

With her idiosyncratic vision and organic rise, Eilish is not a product of the fine-tuned, slick, militaristic machine of celebrity culture. She’s the polar opposite of say, K-pop stars performers, who, famously, go through rigorous training in special boot camps before they are selected and sorted into bands. Pop music, in general, has a long history of manufacturing stardom. It’s no secret that chart-topping songs are typically the result of collaborations between assorted producers, vocalists, and songwriters, hired to create the beats, find the hooks, and write the lyrics. From the Jackson 5 in the ’70s, to N’Sync in the ’90s, to One Direction in the 2010s, pop’s biggest acts typically launch backed by external capital, and controlled by ironclad contracts.

This is especially true when it comes to female pop stars, who have long been forced to cultivate some degree of sex appeal simply to exist. And even though this sexed-up persona has come to be expected of female performers, they’re often also critiqued for being too sexy.

Eilish’s resistance to being marketed or perceived as a sex object has led her to adopt a signature style of dressing that’s built largely around oversized tees and baggy shorts paired with high-top sneakers. The resulting get-ups make her look, as Tyler the Creator succinctly put it, “like a quarterback.”

Eilish’s insistence on wearing baggy clothing is partly a defense mechanism, but it’s also a form of empowerment. While her clothes hide her body, they allow her to be seen on her own terms. As issues like body-shaming, slut-shaming, and the over-sexualization of young women continue to plague the music industry, Eilish has become one of their most prominent critics, using her appearance as a way of confronting them directly.

This refusal to play to sexist expectations has made Eilish a role model to her young female fans, who recognize in her, their own struggles with body image and the pressures of conformity.

Billie Eilish: “If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut.” Billie Eilish, Live in Miami

But young girls alone don’t account for her billions of streams, or Eilish being recruited to sing the theme song for the new James Bond movie. So what is it about her music that speaks to so many, right now?

Billie’s Themes: Waking Nightmares of Modern Life

For a teenager, Eilish has a perspective that feels remarkably world-weary. This depth can be partly explained by the way Eilish writes lyrics from different points of view—and not always her own.

Billie Eilish: “You don’t have to be in love to write a song about being in love, and you don’t have to hate someone to write about that” - Billie Eilish – Documentary | Up Next

In “bury a friend,” she sings from the point of view of a monster under the bed. And she demonstrates how – just like a playwright – a musician can reflect more varied, universal experiences by inhabiting multiple voices and characters.

Born just three months after the attacks of September 11, Eilish is part of a generation that grew up amid a pervasive sense of dread, with up-to-date information about all of the world’s catastrophes at their fingertips. The anxiety, fear, and surreality of modern existence permeate Eilish’s art, whose defining characteristic is its haunted, ethereal quality—inspired, Eilish has said, by lucid dreaming and night terrors. Eilish has furthered this nightmarish feel in her visuals, from the creepy cover of When We All Fall Asleep to videos featuring imagery of syringes piercing her back and spiders crawling out of her mouth. Many of her songs are deliberately intended to be distressing.

Some of the anxiety Billie Eilish evokes could be characterized as classic teen angst. But her broad popularity suggests that the angst she captures isn’t limited to the young. There is a widespread sense in today’s culture that we are living in dark times, plagued by cataclysmic problems. And Eilish is able to capture this in music that pairs the horrors of 21st-century life with the timeless agonies of being young, singing about climate change and ghosting in the same verse:

Billie Eilish: “Hills burn in California, my turn to ignore ya..” - “all the good girls go to hell”

Eilish’s voice is its own eloquent statement. Unlike the typical sing-along pop anthems, many of her songs sound more like quiet laments, soaked in funereal sadness. Her work has even been criticized for being death-obsessed. But to Eilish, the themes of suicide and depression in her work are really about expressing the overwhelming nature of being alive.

Billie Eilish: There were all these radio people who wouldn’t play me because I was too sad and no one was going to relate to it. That was just funny to me because I was like everybody has felt sad in their lives and of course it’s important to promote happiness and loving yourself but not everybody does - CBS Sunday Morning

In stark contrast to so much pop music, with its emphasis on escapism and easily conveyed emotions, Eilish’s songs embrace many of the things that are the most difficult to talk about. In this, Eilish embodies a generation that has become increasingly restless about the threats facing the planet…

Greta Thunberg: “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth” - PBS NewsHour

… and tired of the complacency of those in power. Today it is primarily young people who have been leading the charge on issues like climate change, universal healthcare, and gun control.

Emma Gonzalez: “Six minutes and 20 seconds. In a little over 6 minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured and everyone, absolutely everyone in the Douglas community was forever altered” - The Guardian

It’s a moment that demands a different kind of pop star—one who doesn’t seem like an artificial distraction from all of these problems but offers an authentic reflection of them. Someone real, whose art revels in the weird, the uncomfortable, and the messily human. In her music and in herself, Billie Eilish has captured this latent, fervent desire to challenge the status quo and to give voice to all the tension and the darkness that so many are feeling inside. She is a star made by and for the 21st century. And she promises to cast a long shadow over pop music’s future.

Works Cited

Petrusich, Amanda. “The Loneliest Generation Embraces Billie Eilish.” The New Yorker, 23 Aug. 2019.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-loneliest-generation-embraces-billie-eilish

St. Félix, Doreen. “Billie Eilish and the Changing Face of Pop.” The New Yorker, 26 Apr. 2019.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/billie-eilish-and-the-changing-face-of-pop

Halls, Eleanor. “Beware the pop princesses romanticising death: Billie Eilish and the worrying rise of misery music.” The Daily Telegraph, 9 Apr. 2019.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/news/billie-eilish-lil-xan-worrying-rise-misery-pop/

Garvey, Meaghan. “Who’s Billie Eilish?” The Fader, 5 Mar. 2019.

https://www.thefader.com/2019/03/05/billie-eilish-cover-story

Coscarelli, Joe. “Billie Eilish Is Not Your Typical 17-Year-Old Pop Star. Get Used to Her.” The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2019.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/arts/music/billie-eilish-debut-album.html

Coscarelli, Joe. “A Staple Gun. A Dental Drill. See How Billie Eilish Made a Haunted Pop Hit.” The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2019.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/arts/music/billie-eilish-bury-a-friend.html

Harding, Charlie. “Billie Eilish, the neo-goth, chart-topping teenage pop star, explained.” Vox, 19 Aug. 2019.

https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/4/18/18412282/who-is-billie-eilish-explained-coachella-2019

Heifetz​​, Justin. “Inside the Intense Training Centers Where Young Girls Compete to Be K-Pop Stars.” Vice, 5 Oct. 2016.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8x49y3/inside-k-pop-training-centers-korea

Barlow, Eve. “Billie Eilish Has Already Lived a Hundred Lives—And She’s Only 17.” Elle, 5 Sept. 2019.

https://www.elle.com/culture/a28872999/billie-eilish-interview-october-2019-elle-cover/

Seabrook, John. “The Song Machine.” The New Yorker, 19 Mar. 2012.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/26/the-song-machine