Music/Features

Unravelling the social neurosis of Billie Eilish

The record-breaking 17-year-old is impossible to look away from and forcing open a conversation on how we define pop stars in 2019.

May 9, 2019

It’s a puckish irony of our strange, anarchic times that our latest pop lodestar does not make pop music. At least, not really. Not pop as we’re used to it. Picture a wincing demon approximating a smile. It’s a bit like that. Or better yet: picture “pop music,” a genre in scare quotes. Billie’s “pop” — whispering, creeping, sputtering, spastic — evades the “purity,” or “orthodoxy,” or “bubblegum sensibility” of the early pop monoculture, which is fine, because, like the millions of angsty Gen Z teenagers who can’t stop talking about her, or dressing like her, or listening to her music, Billie Eilish prefers to avoid categorization.

The labels suffocate her. And anyway, she’s much more Plath than she is Perry — all thorns and no pep. In interviews, she says unusual things like, “People are terrified of me, and I want them to be.” In music videos, her eyes leak black sludge; her nose leaks red. Her first EP is called don’t smile at me, but her likeness, she says, is intended to provoke the gaze. Naturally, adults are staring — staring and squinting, gawking, gasping, returning home and rifling through the private debris of their children’s bedrooms, searching wildly for forged drugstore prescriptions or signs of allegiance to some illicit cult. The cult, perhaps, of Billie Eilish.

But Billie doesn’t do drugs. Or smoke. Or drink. In fact, despite her image, she’s incredibly reclusive. Still, headlines are stylized like dispatches from anxious helicopter parents, as in, “BEWARE THE POP PRINCESSES ROMANTICISING DEATH,” or, “BILLIE EILISH’S [ALBUM] GLAMORIZES MENTAL ILLNESS.” Caps mine; words theirs. It’s not exactly the Red Scare, but something about Billie evokes an exaggerated and urgent fervour, both in allies and enemies alike.

In any event, the social neurosis around Billie Eilish has, without a doubt, acquired a certain independent force. Her debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, made Eilish the first artist born in the 2000s to hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. As of this writing, she has 20.7 million followers on Instagram. If you Google “Billie Eilish,” you’ll find no less than 88 million search results, which is, naturally, far more than what you’d find if you Googled, say, the 36th or 38th Presidents of the United States. Lawlessness, it turns out, makes for great disciples.

Which seems perfectly fitting, since Billie has a penchant for insurgence. “I don’t fuck with genres,” she told a reporter for this website, around this time last year. Pop killed rock sometime in the mid-90s, and now, hip-hop has staged its own little coup. (Even musical genres, like everyone else, are fighting over hierarchical power.) In some ways, despite her resistance, Billie is algorithmic, like everything else under the sun: a synthetic byproduct of the cultural zenith. She’s also, by the same logic, a parable. If the pop star as we know it has been killed, has been impaled on the twinkling blade of our weird, postmillennial culture, then Billie Eilish, our precocious and prodigious blueprint, has sprung from its mangled carcass, fully armoured.

Or else completely exposed. And what’s more personal than, say, cloning your bedroom — where you still fall asleep — for a sensory exhibition about your brain? Part of the obsession with Billie Eilish seems to be entwined with desperate questions of honesty and vulnerability, so much so that she has, on several occasions, been accused of being an “industry plant.” “Universally, women with personalities are hated,” she said in an interview with Genius’s Rob Markman. “It’s so ugly to me. I would rather die than be artificial.”

“Fake” is the most vulgar industry pejorative, and Billie has become a matrix for its tedious discussion.

“Artificial,” that historical word that recalls a spiteful charge. “Fake” is the most vulgar industry pejorative, and Billie has become a matrix for its tedious discussion. Is she “real?” What does that mean? As far as we know, she has no stylist, which is how the personal inclinations toward the “ugly” — the “anti” — appear. What makes us any less synthetic? Billie has lived in the same house, in Highland Park, California, her entire life. She still makes music in her brother’s bedroom. Every cell, every pixel in her image seems to argue in favour of her “authenticity.” Even her nihilism, perhaps inherited from her native California, makes some case for “realness”: “You don’t have to fit anything, because we all die, eventually. …So it’s like, why the fuck try to be something you’re not?”

What does this make Billie, this 17-year-old girl with blue hair and bored eyes? Certainly, she hails from a generation of artists — SoundCloud kids who are, in fact, the new pop stars — whose social antennae are carefully tuned to the entropy of adolescence, the atomization of the teenage wasteland, the sudden and brutal understanding that things do, as Didion writes, fall apart. Throughout her album, Billie reveals herself as a sensitive, introverted teenage girl, somewhat incapable of her own distress, darting across a localized range of teenage problems. Insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, love, loss, night terrors that bleed into the daylight — it’s through this thorny, juvenile vegetation that Billie guides her listener, making note of obstacles or pitfalls along the way.

Billie is a guide, then; a hall monitor. Not a conscience — moral distinctions are scarcely the province of the American nihilist — but the girl who shares her experiences and hopes you glean some insight, like, say, how to make it through adolescence. Take “wish you were gay,” for example, a bruised-pride anthem chalking up an unreciprocated crush to a difference in sexual orientation. Or “xanny,” a polemic sung from the wearied perspective of a kid who doesn’t share her peers’ predilection for partying. Even “8,” in which a high-pitched, childish voice sings of high school heartbreak: “Do you even feel anything?”

But there’s also a lyrical self-awareness that indicates a certain kind of wisdom. Billie’s popular ascendance began in 2015, with the release of “ocean eyes,” but it wasn’t until “bellyache,” in 2017, that Billie Eilish became Billie Eilish. “My friends aren’t far/ In the back of my car/ Lay their bodies,” she sings, with a sinister cool. Death stalks the shadows of her music. She talks about dying the way girls her age talk about boys, and sometimes, she talks about boys who also happen to be dying. “I don’t want my friends to die anymore,” she told The Guardian.

The soundtrack the American youth is, obviously, melancholic. You can see it in the charts. It’s all Juice Wrld and Ski Mask and Post Malone. Sometimes, it’s XXXTentacion, but that’s another matter. Billie has been compared both to Lana Del Rey in affect, and to Lorde in severity. (Really, her North Star is Tyler, the Creator, the black appropriator of white horrorcore.) What joins them, really, is a mood — an urgent sense they are all incredibly dejected. So extravagant is this great American sadness that, if music industries could erect monuments, those monuments would be pharmacies, and those pharmacies would be swarmed and smashed and raided for tourists in search of barbiturates and diazepam.

“Are you excited to turn 18 later this year?” a reporter asks, on the Zach Sang Show, in late April. She’s wearing all red — a red, spiked collar; red shades; a red, studded hoodie — and talking about her age.

“Yes.” Billie hesitates. “But also no, because it’s cool to be young. Not like, it’s cool to be young. But like, you’re an adult for so long. But you’re a kid, and it’s like… done. It’s weird. Why isn’t it half and half? That’s what I don’t understand. Why aren’t you a kid for half your life, and an adult for half your life? You’re only a kid for like… I don’t know when the kid cutoff is…”

REPORTER: Different for everybody.

BILLIE: That’s true.

REPORTER: Would you say you’re an adult now?

Billie pauses. It isn’t a long pause — two seconds, give or take — but it’s long enough to be called a “hesitation.” She screws up her mouth. Billie is 17. She arrived to us so young, a preteen with a wide eyes and a homemade song. So much has happened since then. Life has happened. Fame has happened. Friends have passed. Everything has become an event, like getting dressed, or her leaked home address. Older kids and taller kids are looking up to her. How does that work? Being a “role model” — is this what makes you an adult? What social matters mature the mind, the body? Would she say she’s an adult now? Billie pauses.

BILLIE: My life is.

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