Billie Eilish has a pleasing knack for confounding the gatekeepers of the music industry. The 17-year-old, who writes her own songs with her older brother, has amassed an enormous auidence over the past three years: she has more than 17 million followers on Instagram (just a casual million for every year she’s been alive), and the kind of fans who queue for days outside her concert venues. But her appeal is razor-like in its precision. To outsiders, she seems constructed of a baffling mix of styles and genres. With her long, light blue hair, heavily-lidded, soporific eyes, and sparse, trap-influenced sound, she exudes the lazy, masculine grunge of the Nineties, the pastel-coloured emo of mid-Noughties, a light smattering of health goth and a whole lot more in between. Those of us raised on Tumblr in the early 2000s might experience a sense of déjà vu when encountering Eilish’s brand, but her music is unarguably cut from the cloth of the present.
Her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was released in March. Thee cover sees Eilish perched on an oversized white bed – but it couldn’t be less sensual or inviting: in white joggers and thick white socks, the creepy, pupil-less whites of her eyes pop out against the dark.
This record clearly owes a debt to Lorde’s Pure Heroine (released in 2013 when its singer/songwriter was 16), a minimalist, moody record hovering somewhere between hip hop and pop, full of insightful lyrics about youth as though glimpsed from the edges of the party. Her influence is most obvious on “You Should See Me in A Crown”, where Eilish mutters “Bite my tongue, bide my time” over the sound of sharpening knives, before a heavy bass drop leads us into a growling, swaggering chorus: “Watch me make ‘em bow / One by one by one”. On “Xanny”, Eilish is at a remove from her peers as she sings about her lack of interest in drugs. “What is it about them? I must be missing something,” she whispers. “I’m in their second hand smoke / Still just drinking canned coke”.
But Eilish’s brand of generational observation is wrapped in layers of irony: from the jangling over-enthusiasm of “Wish You Were Gay”, interspersed with sitcom audience reactions, to the exaggerated “Duh” in the chorus of “Bad Guy” and the audio clips from The Office (US) that litter “My Strange Addiction”. Her sense of humour nicely undercuts the dark aesthetics of a record that is full of playful mischief, daring you to join the bad kids’ sleepover.
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure