Billie Eilish’s irresistible brand of dreamy, macabre anti-pop has made her into a new kind of hit maker...
The Coachella music festival, not necessarily known for its adorable moments, offered up the pop equivalent of two baby pandas playing when, under the pink arena light and to the accompaniment of the cheering and frantic uploading of a thousand teenage witnesses, Billie Eilish met her idol, Justin Bieber, for the first time last April. The scene, touching as it was, begged consideration of its broader culture significance. Here were two pop prodigies, ages 17 and 25, at rather different points in their career arcs.
But the totality of her effect on the pop landscape – from her whispered anti-anthems to her bloblike anti-fashion to the sense of it’s- really-me relatability she provides to her fans – has made her immediate predecessors seem almost passé. “This whole time I’ve been getting this one sentence,” Eilish says, “like, I’m a rule-breaker. Or I’m anti-pop, or whatever. I’m flattered that people think that, but it’s like, where, though? What rule did I break? The rule about making classic pop music and dressing like a girly girl? I never said I’m not going to do that. I just didn’t do it.”
On a cold December morning, Eilish is at home in the two-bedroom house she grew up in and still shares with her parents in Highland Park, an East Los Angeles neighborhood where gentrification seems to have stopped short of this particular block. Eilish, whose full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell (Billie for her maternal grandfather, William, who died a few months before she was born; Eilish, the name of an Irish conjoined twin whom her parents discovered in a television documentary; Pirate, which her older brother, Finneas O’Connell, began calling her before she was born; followed by her parents’ surnames), tugs at her white gym socks. She wears white basketball shorts and a white hoodie, and the roots of her hair are her favored hue of slime green. Though her clothing’s proportions accentuate the smallness of her stature, Eilish’s presence feels outsize, even in the corner of the kitchen, where she has claimed a slant of sunlight, catlike.
“Maybe people see me as a rule-breaker because they themselves feel like they have to follow rules, and here I am not doing it,” she goes on. “That’s great, if I can make someone feel more free to do what they actually want to do instead of what they are expected to do. But for me, I never realized that I was expected to do anything. I guess that’s what is actually going on – that I never knew there was a thing I had to follow. Nobody told me that, so I did what I wanted.”
Though she is playful in person, the mood of her art has thus far been pretty unrelentingly dark: Eilish rose to fame, after all, at age 13 singing of burning cities under napalm skies in her breakout single, “Ocean Eyes,” written by her brother. Her videos brim with the macabre: black tears sliding from her heavy-lidded eyes, tarantulas creeping out of her mouth, needles shot into her back, and cigarettes being extinguished, one after another, on her cheeks. But then Eilish’s generation was born to a surfeit of grim realities. The 9/11 attacks occurred three months before she was born, and the threat of climate change and school shootings has only been amplified by the particle collider of the internet.
Many of her contemporaries not called to action have opted to hide out in their bedrooms. Eilish speaks to these folks, too, in her giant I-won’t-grow-up pajamas. It’s probably not surprising that her fervent fans, who last year made her the first artist born in the new millennium to achieve a number-one song (“Bad Guy”), as well as the first to achieve a number-one album, see a teenager whom they resembled, in the old manner. This audience has neither the time nor the appetite for boyfriend songs – conventional ones, anyway.
For all the encroaching gloom, Eilish’s childhood was a happy and loving place in which all manner of artistic expression was encouraged. Her brother, a songwriting prodigy and Eilish’s best friend and constant collaborator, certainly paved the way. “Music was always underlying,” she explains. “I always sang.” She wrote her first song on the ukulele at age seven, and she soon taught herself how to play piano and guitar from watching YouTube videos. She was willfully independent, never pushed to the stage. Eilish and her brother were homeschooled for a variety of reasons. Their father, Patrick O’Connell, had read an article about the Oklahoma sibling band Hanson and was drawn to the idea that homeschooling had given them the freedom to focus on their artistic interests. Her mother, Maggie Baird, is from Colorado, where the Columbine massacre had taken place two years after Finneas was born, and they were both older parents who liked the idea of spending as much time as they could with their kids. “I’m so glad I didn’t go to school, because if I had, I would never have the life I have now,” Eilish says. She has enormous amounts of energy, which her parents sought to dissipate through dance class, gymnastics, and horseback riding. There were countless activities, and Eilish had scores of friends. But because the O’Connells had little money, her parents would barter their time: Patrick did handiwork in the gymnastics center, Maggie taught Music Together class, and Billie brushed and bridled horses at the San Pascual Stables in South Pasadena. She remembers the looks that the rich girls gave her – not mean but strange – a lesson in the ruthlessness of class that her own outsider identity began to form around. “I was never bullied,” she says. “It’s just a vibe you get. You can tell somebody doesn’t like you; of course you can. I had an entire childhood of that, and now it’s interesting, because I’ll meet fans where I’m like, if I was in class with you when I was 11, you would have hated me.”
Eilish’s participation in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was the true formative musical experience of her childhood. It was strict and serious: Choristers could not touch their faces or look at their phones. She learned music theory, and she learned to stand still. Like every other girl, she wore a red sweater vest and tights and a skirt and flats and had her hair pulled back and tied in a black bow. “I hated that,” she says. “But I can’t lie. Chorus was my favorite thing in the world.” Eilish didn’t make the chorus’s prestigious chamber singers when she was 13, which effectively ended her tenure there just as her professional career was beginning. “It was really emotional for me. I knew that if I left, everybody would form new friendships without me. When I think back to me crying about it then, I was crying about the future and what I thought would be, and you know what? I was totally right. You can’t stop people from moving on when they have to. When you go on a trip, you can’t expect people to sit still until you get back.”
It would be an error to regard as contradictory Billie the grounded girl with a happy family and Billie the artist with a head full of demons, when these may simply be the poles of modern teenagerdom. In any case, her songs are never strictly autobiographical. She and Finneas enjoy developing characters and writing from the perspective of those characters: the monster under the bed in “Bury a Friend”; a girl who has just killed her friends and is grappling with guilt in “Bellyache.” Eilish notes that many artists she admires – Lana Del Rey, Tyler, the
Creator; Marina and the Diamonds; Aurora – have created dark alter egos in their songwriting. “Just because the story isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t be important,” she explains. “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story.”
Although she insists that her songs have never glorified death, fans who are suffering connect to these grim lullabies, which for a young artist can be a burden and an almost overwhelming responsibility. “People tell me at meet and greets, ‘My daughter was hospitalized five times this year, and your daughter’s music has been the only thing that kept her going,’” Maggie explains. A young Finnish fan once sent a letter to the house explaining that she had a ticket to an upcoming concert but wasn’t sure she would survive to see it. Maggie was able to connect with her through social media and ensure that she got help. “These are girls for whom Billie is their lifeline. It’s very intense.”
Eilish connects her own depression to a concatenation of events in her early adolescence, including a dance injury, a toxic friend group, and a romantic relationship with someone who treated her poorly. But above all, she was pained by her appearance. “I just hated my body. I would have done anything to be in a different one,” she explains. “I really wanted to be a model, really bad, and I was chubby and
short. I developed really early. So my body was going faster than my brain. It’s funny, because when you’re a little kid, you don’t think of your body at all. And all of a sudden, you look down and you’re like, whoa. What can I do to make this go away?” She engaged in some self-injurious behavior that she does not elaborate on. She thought of suicide. But by June of last year, after some changes in her life that she prefers to keep private, the fog began to lift. “When people ask me what I’d say to somebody looking for advice on mental health, the only thing I can say patience. I had patience with myself. I didn’t take that last step. I waited. Things fade.”
This whole time I’ve been getting this one sentence, like, I’m a rule-breaker. Where, though? What rule did I break?
Though her repertoire of capacious leisurewear began simply as a strategy to obscure or distract herself from the body in which she felt uncomfortable, Eilish always loved fashion. At 13 she started thrifting and picking through the racks at Target, cutting up her purchases and sewing them together in new and strange shapes. She disassembled sneakers and wrapped the tongues around the soles. To this day, she would love to take the green dragon-print curtains in her brother’s bedroom – where the two of them wrote and recorded her entire album – and turn them into a dress. Except that she doesn’t wear dresses. “I just wanted to invent stuff, so I did,” she explains. “When I look back at myself at nine or 10, my style was unbelievable terrible. But it was exactly what I wanted to wear. I was committed to it, I wore it, and I was happy.”
With an arsenal of toxic colors, chaotic prints, and ersatz European luxury-brand emblems (to which luxury brands, sensing her visual power, have responded by sending her the genuine articles), Eilish seems always to be flouting the proprietary or predatory gaze. But while we might wish to politicize it as post-#MeToo dressing that has wrested skater style from the dominion of men and boys, Eilish makes clear that her look is not a protest against anyone. In a V Magazine interview with Pharrell Williams last summer, she told him, “The positive comments about how I dress have this slut-shaming element. Like, ‘I am so glad that you’re dressing like a boy, so other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts.’ That’s basically what it sounds like to me. And I can’t overstate how strongly I do not appreciate that, at all.”
500 000 tickets across North America, South America, and Europe within an hour of its announcement last fall. (Eilish has sold out every tour over the last four years.)
In my dark places I’ve worried that I was going to become the stereotype that everybody thinks every young artist becomes, because how can they not?
Though her mood is improved, and though touring, once arduous for her, has become an increasing pleasure, as her fame grows it gets easier for Eilish to imagine herself as a casualty of the pop machine – or in any case to identify with those whom fame has disfigured. “As a fan growing up, I was always like, What is wrong with them?” she recalls. “All the scandals. The Britney moment. You grow up thinking they’re pretty and they’re skinny; why would they mess it up? But the bigger I get, the more I’m like, of course they had to do that. In my dark places I’ve worried that I was going to become the stereotype that everybody thinks every young artist becomes, because how can they not? Last year, when I was at my lowest point during the tour in Europe, I was worried I was going to have a breakdown and shave my head.”
Eilish turned 18 in December. She had a small birthday party, with ski ball and foosball, a bouncy house, a piñata, and – baked by her mother at Eilish’s request – a vegan chocolate cake with vegan cream cheese frosting and peppermint candies. By pop-star standards, she has exited childhood with relatively little tarnish. She will be voting for the first time this year, and she has made a habit of engaging her fan base around the causes that are meaningful to her. Since seeing David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change – The Facts last spring, Eilish has become a champion of environmental causes. She has used her Instagram Stories to alert followers to the perils of global warming, and in the video to her single “All the Good Girls Go to Hell,” she appears as a winged creature stuck in an oil spill, as fires rage around her.
The doorbell rings, Maggie answers it, and she can be seen through the kitchen doorway setting something down on the dining room table. “What is that?” Eilish shouts. “Somebody sent you some fruit,” her mother calls back. It’s an edible arrangement fastened with a Mylar happy-face balloon. Maggie opens up the card and reads it aloud: “Sorry you’re bored at home.” A few hours earlier, on Instagram, Eilish posted a photograph of herself singing in a vast arena illuminated by thousands of cell-phone flashlights whose effect suggested a densely starry sky. She captioned it, “missing you tour… being home is boring.”
“Ugh, that is so creepy,” she says of the unwelcome gift. “They’re being nice, but there’s a line they just don’t see. Sometimes they’re like, ‘I know this is wrong, but I just wanted to leave this letter.’ And I’m like, If you know it’s wrong, then why do it?” The erosion of Eilish’s privacy has been weighing heavily on her. For now, she has no intention of leaving her parents’ home. “Luckily I love my parents. I love this house. My brother comes here all the time because he wants to, and he likes us, too. So at this moment there’s a pretty good balance of…”
She pauses to consider her circumstances, which are not so different from those of any teenager, craving independence but still in need of a parent’s watchful eye. “No, there isn’t a balance; forget it. I’m fine here. Whatever. I have a car. A car is enough.”
Originally published on Vogue.com