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Bury a Friend, Build a Career

Arts & Culture | April 22, 2019

Cw: Mentions of abuse

One hot August evening, I joined thousands of other music fans at Grant Park, Chicago and waited for the next act to grace the stage of the Lollapalooza music festival. Eventually, a gray-blue-haired figure in oversized neon clothing walked out and was greeted by the sound of high-pitched teenage shrieks. Despite not being one of the most well-known artists at the festival, the crowd was infatuated, singing along to every word as she jumped around on stage. Her name? Billie Eilish.

            By the time I started listening to her 2017 EP Don’t Smile at Me, Eilish had already made a name for herself in an increasingly competitive music scene. The 17 year-old star could only exist in the age of the internet; she went viral after releasing her first single “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud at age 13. Originally, she only posted the song so her dance teacher could hear it, but the recording managed to catch the ears of thousands of fans and multiple record labels. The internet-first approach paid off; since then, Eilish has grown in popularity with the release of Don’t Smile at Me, and her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The album’s immediate success made her the youngest female artist to get a Number One record in the UK, and the first artist born in the 2000s to reach Number One on the Billboard 200 chart. It also became the most pre-saved album on Apple Music of all time. She has become a successful star in an age where an ever-changing culture and constantly-shifting music tastes make longevity seem impossible.

Since the internet has made creating and accessing new music possible instantaneously, almost anyone can become famous based entirely on popularity online rather than industry backing. However, this often makes performers’ fame unpredictable. Someone who has a viral song one day may become irrelevant the next. Already, Eilish has outlasted the potential of being written off as a one-hit wonder by remaining at the forefront of the music scene for the last three years. Her quick rise to stardom has everyone asking who she is and what exactly made her so successful among Generation Z.

One explanation is Eilish’s unique and unusual style. She has embraced an aesthetic that mixes a 2013 goth Tumblr blog with Soulja Boy circa 2009. Her Instagram (@wherearetheavocadoes) offers a wide variety of photos depicting Eilish wearing her signature look: oversized t-shirts and shorts, interspersed with images in the style of her latest album’s dark and horror-esque cover. It is unlike anything you would see on the feed of other 17 year-olds, especially that of one with close to 17 million followers. Eilish curates a style that is instantly recognizable but near-impossible to replicate. It’s an American Horror Story episode with a trap beat. In fact, the show just used her song “Six Feet Under” in a teaser for its ninth season. Her aesthetic choices consistently toe the line between badass and just plain bad. First-year Tyler Whitaker, who was a fan of Eilish back when “Ocean Eyes” only existed on Soundcloud, thinks that she crossed this line long ago, saying, “she got famous on social media, and she went off the fucking deep end.”

Eilish and her brother and writing partner Finneas O’Connell frequently tackle different characters in their songs rather than writing from her own perspective. In interviews, she has spoken about how the characters are often people the two make up entirely, but also take after real people in their lives. The intense topics of her songs, which range from murdering her friends to burning people’s cars, help Eilish stand out against standard pop songs. This technique often makes her seem older than she actually is, making it easy to forget that Eilish won’t be old enough to vote until December.

Despite this aura of adulthood she gives off, Eilish is undeniably a product of our generation. She talks about being in love with Justin Bieber as a kid. Her album samples from arguably one of the best episodes of The Office. Her first single from When We All Fall Asleep took its title from a Sherlock quote. Although it may seem odd that Eilish is only a year younger than current college freshmen, her membership to Gen-Z seems to inform every musical move she makes.

But some say that there’s another element of Eilish’s persona that has brought her so much idolization from thousands of teens. “She’s living the life that a bunch of kids currently in high school want to be living,” Whitaker said. “She is their age, famous, and considered hot. She’s got money to spend, she’s got people that love her that don’t even know her, and she’s got one of the biggest social media followings and what middle schooler or high schooler doesn’t want that right now?”

It’s true—in many ways Eilish has given the angst of our youth a novel twist by writing songs that capture a pain that could only fit on someone’s finsta. In a generation where social media is often seen as only celebrating (and exaggerating) the highs of life, this honest transparency speaks to people.

“She is so open about everything,” sophomore Maya Velasquez said. “ I think that what she talks about and how she addresses the fact that you don’t need to be of a certain age to do things or know things or say things.”

Eilish is shouting her pain into the void for the sole reason of writing it down, not because she expects anyone to reply. Perhaps this is because she simply doesn’t think anyone cares enough to do so. In an interview with NME, Eilish notoriously said, “The world is ending and I honestly don’t understand the law that says you have to be older to vote because they’re going to die soon, and we’ll have to deal with it.” Despite how disheartening this sentiment might sound, in many ways it does accurately reflect the fears of a generation that stands to earn less than their parents and wrestle with the disastrous effects of climate change.

Even though she has gained a somewhat mythic status among Gen-Z music fans, Eilish has still broken some of the cardinal “rules” of the generation; some aspects of her behavior have crossed a line into problematic territory. Last June, many called Eilish out after she posted a memorial tribute to rapper XXXTentacion, who was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and domestic battery by strangulation before his death. She, like many other celebrities, seemed to ignore these realities, and later wrote and performed a tribute song to him. When asked about her decision by the New York Times, Eilish simply said that she should be able to mourn her friend, and didn’t mention anything about the abuse charges.

More recently, her song “wish u were gay” ran into controversy after she was accused of queerbaiting—a term used to describe the actions of artists who lead fans to believe their content contains queer representation when, in reality, it doesn’t. While many fans initially thought the song title was referencing a woman and Eilish was potentially coming out, she later revealed that the song was about a man who she wished was gay to explain his lack of interest in her. Besides seeing this sentiment coming off as arrogant, many also accused Eilish of using someone else’s sexuality for her own gain. Others argue that, though she may seem mature beyond her years, Eilish is still just a 17 year-old and thus should be given the space to grow and realize the problems with her behavior. However, even following backlash from her fanbase, she still has not issued an apology.

It seems odd that a singer from a generation that has put so much stake into “cancelling” artists has yet to apologize for her problematic behavior. Furthermore, Generation Z might just be the queerest generation yet, and undeniably has been a vital part of the #MeToo movement. It is hard to say how much responsibility a 17 year-old with such a large platform should hold, and at what point they deserve to be “cancelled.” But it is undeniable that Eilish has gone against a standard that her own generation has set: apologizing for actions that are deemed controversial or “problematic.” And, in spite of it, she has retained her popularity.

No matter what you think of her, there is no denying that Billie Eilish has redefined teen stardom. She makes it obvious that she is the one in control of her narrative; everything from her clothes to her visuals to her lyrics and production are fully under her agency. As sophomore Danny Gur put it, “she’s representative of a talented young person who doesn’t fit the mold of [an artist] that is produced by these large entertainment conglomerates.”

Truly, Eilish is light years away from the bubblegum Disney and Nickelodeon-run pop stars of the 2000s. Former teen pop icons like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez had much of their careers manufactured by industries prior to breaking away and crafting their own personas. This was once a fairly standard path for many rising pop stars, but Eilish has defied the norm by deciding who she is for herself. In an age where decisions that greatly affect the lives of young people are being made by elected officials they may not have voted for, Eilish’s command of her own music is a refreshing change for her fans.

In sophmore Harry Binder’s words, “She’s clearly doing her own thing.”

There seems to be a new wave forming in pop, one filled with stars who are content to let  the internet be the main determinant of their popularity, and Eilish is riding its crest. As Binder said, “she’s the new norm.”