Wearing a huge, gem-encrusted silk suit in a mix of sickly and neon greens, on 26 January the 18-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish repeatedly ascended the stage to accept five Grammys, sweeping the four biggest awards – for best record, song, album and new artist. (This makes her only the second artist, and first woman, to take home all four – and the youngest ever artist to win album of the year.) By their fifth trip, she and her 22-year-old brother and producer Finneas O’Connell looked faintly embarrassed. Having just accepted their last award, the siblings walked out from backstage rather than their seats, laughing and crying. They said only two words: “Thank you.”
Eilish’s rise has been unlikely: as a teen with a viral song, you’d expect her to have been swallowed up by an industry hoping to exploit her for quick hits. But Eilish and O’Connell were encouraged to take their time with their daring, dark pop album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? This minimalist, gothic record of whispered vocals and hip-hop beats might seem simply too weird for universal acclaim, but it topped the charts in the US and UK (Eilish has even been announced as the singer of the next Bond theme). As O’Connell said when accepting the award for album of the year: “We wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change… We stand up here confused and grateful.”
Some are less confused. The New York Times pop music reporter Joe Coscarelli tweeted: “If you’ve spoken to anyone working in the music business in the last 12 months, a Billie sweep makes sense: to major labels, she’s THE only reference point.” The Grammys simply reflect her existing influence; Billie Eilish is already shaping the pop of the future – with a bang and with a whisper.
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out