It is difficult to recall a time Billie Eilish wasn’t one of the biggest pop stars on the planet but that moment was a mere four years ago. In the summer of 2018, there was widespread bafflement as it was reported this relatively unheard of singer, with her green-tipped fringe, brooding gaze and oversized hoodies, had clocked up one billion plays on Spotify. “Billie Who?” was the question on many lips.
Eilish’s status as the world’s largest cult artist would quickly be upgraded, however. And as she prepares to play her first stand-alone Irish dates, in Belfast and Dublin this weekend, she has indisputably ascended to the status of generation-defining figure – one of the first true superstars of Gen Z.
What’s strange about the 19-year-old’s rise is how uncommercial her music can sometimes feel. Her 2018 break-out single, Bury A Friend, for instance, drew on the clanking industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails and featured a video in which Eilish undergoes a body-horror nightmare in which she is injected with needles.
Nor has fame smoothed out her grittier textures. On her second album, Happier Than Ever, she didn’t hide the angst she felt over her rapid journey towards celebrity. This was a disturbing journey to the dark side of pop– as far away as is possible to imagine from the pool party retro rock of Harry Styles or the mannered indie Taylor Swift has veered into during the lockdown.
Eilish isn’t the highest-selling artist of her era. And yet something about her music – its angst and its baroque wonkiness – feels significant. It’s pop with a heaviness in its marrow. One of the first to recognise that quality was David Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters who perceived her angst-shrouded songs as having the same revolutionary reach as grunge in the 1990s.
“Billie Eilish is the Kurt Cobain of this generation,” he said. That prompted much eye-rolling among Nirvana fans. But as Eilish become more and more famous, so he was vindicated. Years hence, when people think back to pre and post-pandemic culture, the music that will spring to mind is Eilish’s. It will in all likelihood go down as the soundtrack to our shared trauma.
As Happier Than Ever demonstrated, Eilish has always been open about the challenges bound up with celebrity. She was feeling the weight of it as far back as early January 2018 when I spoke to her for Hot Press.
With her career already taking off she lamented having to skip the coming-of-age rituals her friends could take for granted. And she was frustrated when those same friends were unable to understand why she couldn’t meet up at weekends or come to their parties.
“People do not understand what they f**k comes with it,” she said “You can’t have a normal life and be famous, It just doesn’t work that way. Unless you did something horrible and that’s why you’re famous. But like, if you really want to be known for something good and people look up to you – you have to work [at your craft]. That [people’s misapprehensions about fame] pisses me off so much, I can’t even tell you.”
Eilish was born in Los Angeles in December 2001. Her father, Patrick O’Connell is an actor while her mother, Maggie Baird, is an actress and musician.
“Eilish” is her middle name and comes from a documentary about Donadea, Co Kildare conjoined twins Katie and Eilish Holton that her parents saw one evening. Early in her career, when people would frequently mangle “Eilish”, she was gratified to meet Irish fans.
“I’m Scottish and Irish,” she she told me. “I can’t tan AT ALL. For years nobody had ‘Eilish’ even in their vocabulary. Literally the other day somebody stopped me in the street to take a picture and he said that his girlfriend’s first name was ‘Eilish’. I was like, ‘Oh my God’. I’m excited to go to Ireland and not be the only one. I like being unique and everything, but I would also like to be somewhere people can pronounce my name correctly.”
Great musicians are transcendental figures. Kurt Cobain was bigger than rock ’n roll while the philosophy that informed grunge – be suspicious of authority, don’t conform – went beyond the music industry and could be applied to everyday life. Eilish’s influence similarly extends past pop, with her baggy style becoming the defacto Gen Z look.
“Her look is not about vanity,” Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and brand strategist told the New York Times. “She is flipping the idea of beauty to something surreal, something influenced by gaming and the cyberculture.”
What’s perhaps most impressive is that Eilish has done all this while staying musically relevant (although some may single out her gloomy Bond theme, No Time To Die, as a rare fumble). Happier Than Ever, in particular, engaged with one of the most cliched subject in music – the high price of fame. And yet out of that hackneyed topic Eilish and her brother and songwriting foil Finneas O’Connell created something vital and fascinatingly ambivalent.
“I’m glad people like it,” Finneas told me last year. “We had such a dream scenario to make it in. We were hanging out. And had no deadline, had no pressure. We just sort of made it until we felt like we were done. So it was fun.”
And now, 12 months later, Ireland finally has an opportunity to experience that music firsthand. Eilish concerts specialise in sensory overload – headlining Coachella this year, she arrived on stage accompanied by a hurricane of strobe lighting.
But the real energy is that between artist and audience. And, as Eilish fans count down to the weekend, there is every possibility her Dublin concert could be Ireland’s first great arena show since the end of the pandemic.
- Billie Eilish plays 3Arena, Dublin, on Saturday and Sunday, June 4-5
- Olivia Rodrigo: Nineteen-year-old Rodrigo owned 2021 with her hit Driver’s License and songs that suggests a mash-up of Taylor Swift and Paramore. She kicks off her European tour in Cork in June
- Lil Nas X: He spearheaded the genre of country-rap with his 2019 hit Old Town Road. The Georgia rapper has since made history of the first gay black artist to win a Country Music Association award.
- Clairo: A pioneer of the introverted “bedroom pop” genre, Claire Cottrill recently worked with Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff on the bucolic Sling album – one of the best records of 2021
- Phoebe Bridgers: Seen hanging around Kinsale early in her relationship with Normal People actor Paul Mescal, Bridgers has bridged the divide between alternative music and superstardom with her thoughtful post-emo anthems – and become a megastar along the way.
- Harry Styles: A comparatively ancient 28, the former One Direction singer has introduced a new generation to the joys of Seventies tinged soft-pop and emerged as one of the iconic artists of the era.
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