Simone Williams looks under the bed to uncover the macabre asymmetry of Billie Eilish, and examines her power of androgyny, which unceasingly leaves its claw marks in modern music.
Have you ever wondered what happened to that kid in primary school who always used to scare you by turning their eyelids inside out? Well, she just released the first single from her first studio album: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
To be fair, I didn’t know much about Billie Eilish’s music before this year. I couldn’t name any of her songs, and unfairly relegated her to the obscure triple j area of my temporal lobe.
I didn’t get caught up in the hype about a potential pop prodigy, even as Facebook exploded over getting tickets for her Australian tour this May. But I kept a close eye on her, because I hadn’t seen anyone like her before – a cocooned coming-of-age star, yet to choose a path between the reductive options of ‘girly’ and ‘tomboy.’
Her first name is typically masculine, her biological middle name is ‘Pirate,’ and her instagram handle is not on brand – although @wherearetheavocados is an existentially millennial question. She can usually be found decked out in the dull browns of Louis Vuitton merchandise, the type of fabric usually only acceptable on a handbag.
Her first name is typically masculine, her middle name is genuinely ‘Pirate,’ and her instagram handle is not on brand – although @wherearetheavocados is an existentially millennial question.
She wears bucket hats, bandanas with her own name on them, Nike slides and Gucci socks. It is an odd display of wealth that is typically favoured by the SoundCloud generation, the platform where she first premiered her single, ‘ocean eyes’.
She loves to wear high-end pieces, but in arrangements that are jarring upon first glance. Almost as if she wants to make beautiful things, and twist them into garish, cartoonish caricatures of themselves, taking down a system, from the inside out.
Eilish might be in uncharted territory for a young female musician. At her gigs, you will see a relatively even spread of both genders. She’s never released a perfume. Aggressively traffic-cone-orange garments typically found on an ex-boyfriend’s clothing rack can be found amongst her merch.
The two interviews that she gave to Vanity Fair (who were asking the same questions, but a year apart) showed no butterfly glow-up from 2017 to 2018. There is a new snarl of acne on her chin, a noticeable amount of root regrowth, and her eyelids are even droopier.
But she looks like us. She looks like someone I can recognise. Here she is, the singer with the spider in her mouth, staring down the camera without flinching.
She poured ink in her eyes, for real (“just so y’all know how real that video was. shit stung like a mf”). She is herself, on her own terms.
Growing up Eilish seems idyllic, the way she frames it: spending a majority of time with her brother, actor Finneas, in Highland Park, north-east of Los Angeles. A creative family, a bedroom recording studio – the sparks simply had to catch, didn’t they?
‘ocean eyes’ and its success on streaming services was almost an accident – her dance teacher, Fred Diaz, knew about her vocal talents and requested that she throw something together so he could choreograph a new routine.
Finneas wrote down lyrics and a then-13 year-old Billie sang. The product was an unnervingly haunting ballad, that sounds like something that the sirens would sing to lure a sailor to their death.
The product was an unnervingly haunting ballad, that sounds like something that the sirens would sing to lure a sailor to their death.
It was strength to strength from there: she released a debut EP, don’t smile at me, and her track ‘when the party’s over’ enjoyed its reign over the long, hot Australian summer, clocking in at Number 8 on triple j’s Hottest 100.
Soundtracks, collaborations, a current world tour. She is the 32nd most listened to artist on Spotify, worldwide. But if this sounds like your usual young artist narrative arc, it’s not.
Her music is intricately crafted, with sweeping strings and deliberate piano riffs. If you pull the vocals, some of these songs could be played at a dinner party for your parents and their friends, but instead of combining these objectively beautiful arrangements with lyrics in a similar vein, she opts for something entirely different.
She is thrillingly macabre, fragile in her delivery but horrifying in her content.
She relishes in the horror of a young person, singing about murder and broken hearts and blood and death – because who else is doing that? They say that there are two emotions that motivate us, love and fear – and art mainly gets produced focussing on the former.
She relishes in the horror of a young person, singing about murder and broken hearts and blood and death – because who else is doing that?
Eilish is firmly on the side of horror – and she wants you to know about it. “Everything that I do / the way I wear my noose / like a necklace” she smirks at you, in ‘bellyache’. “I wanna make ‘em scared” she shudders. Listening alone in an empty room, I look over my shoulder.
‘bury a friend’ is in the same vein. Her latest release glitches and messes with your perception, as it cuts out around the one minute mark – interspersed with screeches like that of a particularly angry owl.
The repeated refrain of “I want to end me” speaks to this generation’s sharpened appreciation of irony and their love of using hyperbolic death in casual conversation.
She is thrillingly macabre, fragile in her delivery, but horrifying in her content.
The current tsunami of success in the shallow pool of pop music belongs to Ariana Grande, who has her strange side explored in numerous interviews. “She is actually a self-professed weirdo,” confesses British Vogue. Rob Sheffield, recapping her stellar 2018 for Rolling Stone, says that “Grande is gloriously weird at heart – watching her now is like the scene in the horror movie where the prom queen whips out an axe.”
Grande is trapped in a common feminine pop snare which means that while she privately can embrace all things zany and horrifying, she still has to hide that from the world; to protect the image, the sponsorship, the brand.
What we see with Eilish is that she personifies the internal warp of so many pop stars, with the freedom to not have to sexualise herself for her audience. She is who they are afraid to be, because of what they would lose.
In the time where women are more vocal about the various disparities in the music industry (pay, harassment, power, quotas, masculine dominance), Billie straddles the line of how to self-preserve. She’s staring at the two options: uber femininity, or the drift into masculinity.
Has she been confronted, yet, with the choice between duly entering the royal court as pop’s new princess, to play by the rules that snapped Britney Spears clean in half? Or has she instead turned to face the alternative of highlighting her more masculine traits, like St. Vincent or Grimes?
She is who they are afraid to be, because of what they would lose.
And why is it, exactly, that female artists have to choose how their sexuality manifests, in the eyes (and ears) of their consumers? Because the value that society places upon female artists in the public eye remains in their image. Not who they really are, as such, but rather who do you look like you could be?
Could you be coquettish, a tease, who hides the word dick in the word Peacock like Katy Perry? Or perhaps you could fit into the mould of fetishised exotic beauty who comes to America and hustles until Jay-Z takes her under his wing like Rihanna?
These women aren’t being judged by wider society on their merit, or their talent – of which both of these examples have in spades. They are judged on the money that they can bring in, through the appeal of the stereotype that they are required to act out in public.
Both of those examples – among many, many others, including Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Adele, Selena Gomez – have also been judged on the talent of the men in their life. Their art and their lives are interpreted by the media to be relevant on the terms of the men they have dated, married, looked at once, and especially the men who brought them to the table. As if to say: if Jay-Z never took a chance on you, Rihanna, then who would?
Billie Eilish doesn’t have a man in her life, other than her brother. She’s 17, but with no Emma Watson countdown clock, thank god (remember when The Sun in the UK marked the day that she was legal?!). We’ve seen her younger contemporaries, other women attempting a career in the smoky haze of Soundcloud and upload-rap, start to drop off.
When you google Noah Cyrus, a similarly sullen teen with a knack for sad rhymes, you are given a million different timelines of her relationship with Lil Xan, rather than any declarations of her being “the most talked about teen on the planet,” which is Eilish’s interview bread-and-butter now.
And to make that clear – that has nothing to do with Cyrus, and everything to do with a society that has to fit women into a solar system where they orbit the men in their life.
Does that answer the question about why Billie Eilish is such a force in music right now?
Because she is a solo act, dresses unisex, and is singing about something different to falling into or out of love? Because she is single? Because she sets up endorsements with companies such as ICEBOX, which is a ‘Men’s Fine Jewelry’ store, where many male rappers purchase their diamond studded Cuban chains?
Billie’s performance of gender blurs the lines of the typical binary, so much so that the music is what you notice first, her appearance, second. Is it possible to have music without linking it to sexuality?
She didn’t choose between femininity or masculinity. She simply stayed there, happily exploring the broad spectrums of gender. She is completely whoever she is onstage as when she is alone. That is the strength – making it all about the music.
The idea of a female-identifying artist being her complete, true self, in front of an audience, and dressing how she wants, singing about spooky stuff and not brushing her hair or waxing her ‘Cara Delevingne I don’t give a fuck what you think eyebrows’ is nearly foreign to us.
Billie Eilish is truly taking the advice of every self-help manual out there, and she knows the key to success is to be herself. Unapologetically, brashly, frighteningly herself. Not “herself” as instructed by her label, and not “herself” as dictated by the hungry consumers who buy her albums.
She walks a lonely road, littered with stars who fell when the veneer slipped and people decided that they didn’t want to look at what was really behind it – the unlovable vulnerability of a human being.
Is the fall of the pop star the fault of the artist herself? No, not at all. Every artist approaches their form with a sacred dedication to the craft, but that becomes murky when money and contracts and hits and views become involved.
They morph to suit the demands of the consumer – be better looking! Be funnier! Go on Jimmy Fallon and laugh and play fun games that we can watch on YouTube! And that twists and turns until the voice gets smaller, and the crowd gets smaller, as they move toward whatever is new and shiny.
Am I blaming female artists for transforming themselves when they become famous, like glittering butterflies who then will die after one day in the sun? No – I am referring to a morally bankrupt society who want sex and drugs and rock and roll, and can’t stand the sight of a caterpillar behind a microphone.
The end result and the end goal are not always the same, and right now, Billie Eilish is a caterpillar that is not being forced to become a butterfly. In fact, she’s quite happy to deny us all of that expected transformation, and simply become a moth, beautiful in its own dark and unexpected ways.