Billie Eilish Is The Class Of 2019's Weird Achiever

Dec 10, 2019
Originally published on January 30, 2020 10:31 am

What is the most urgent undertaking for an artist in 2019? Perhaps it is to find music in the noise oppressing the atmosphere, the (mis)information, static and chaotic emotion permeating people's heads. For example: Billie Eilish, the Los Angeles teenager who, with her 22-year-old brother Finneas, made the most streamed and talked-about album of 2019, was once getting her braces adjusted, listening to the whir of the drill shaving down their edges. "I thought it was so dope, and I pulled my phone out immediately and tried to record it," she later told New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli. Though Finneas found the sound "very horrible," he integrated it into a song the siblings were composing, a Studio Ghibli-style fairy tale told from the point of view of a creature living under Billie's bed. Skreeeee, goes the drill, in the mix transformed into a cute bestial scream. It's just one element smashed into the sonic shag carpet of "Bury a Friend." There's also the timer-ding of an Easy Bake Oven, shattering glass and something called Nightmare Horse. Finneas and Billie wondered if anybody would be able to hear the melody buried inside this monster mash, but it was a strong one, inspired by the musical theater numbers the siblings both knew from their homeschooling curriculum. A line from "Bury a Friend" gave Eilish's album its title — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — and became one of its most successful tracks.

The art of the O'Connells (Billie goes by her first and middle name) comes alive at the three-way intersection of the fantastic, the forbidden and the everyday. The most notable thing about their music is the way it borrows from not just hip-hop but video games, social media platforms like TikTok and Tim Burton movies to uncover the power of supposedly non-musical sounds. Eilish has a disarmingly intimate, unadorned vocal style born of a two-pronged education: a member of the soft brigade of Gen Zers who grew up posting bedroom karaoke videos on YouTube, she also learned technique in the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, where blending matters more than belting. Her vocal control distinguishes her from the hordes of young women (and some men) whispering unevenly into microphones right now. Add in Finneas's inventiveness in manipulating her instrument – fuzzy multi-tracking, pitch-shifting, sampling and multiplying inhalations and sighs – and you have songs that hit the listener like random musings, but still make the impact a pop hit requires. In the Lolita empowerment move "bad guy" or alienation tango "xanny" or heartache notes app "when the party's over," the hooks are made of sniffles and breath, not words or melody. Each phrase is a theater the size of an earbud. There, the O'Connells build dangerous emotions into dramatic narratives that are comprehensible, manageable. The songs evoke high school drama club, but also the self-talk scripts of the therapist's office, and the Instagram poetics of at least two generations that formed identities by constantly recording themselves.

Much of the best songs of 2019, from Brittany Howard's funk-soul road maps on Jaime to Lana Del Rey's neo-realist folk-rock montages, similarly dwell within the process of their own construction, reminding listeners that every act of self-expression is incomplete. This is the music of a human moment grounded, sometimes mired, in the indeterminacies of process. "I don't know where I'm going, but I know what I'm showing – feelings, that's what I'm pouring," Tyler, the Creator rhymes on "I THINK," from his career highlight IGOR, a song suite about the vicissitudes of a breakup that generates a flow of sound that, as one reviewer said, "feels like it is suspended in midair." This is the norm now for adventurous artists, pushing song forms to their limits and rummaging through synthesizer banks for new tones to better convey the oozy feeling of the unsettled everyday – the weird weather that jumps 30 degrees in an afternoon, the flattened thrill of Facetime sex chats, the creeping question of whether everyone from your friend who sends you a meme to our elected officials are making everything up.

And then there's anxiety, as common as a food-borne e. coli outbreak. What to do? Retreat inside? An orchestra lives there, constantly tuning, as Angel Olsen captures on her one-song symphony, "Lark": "Hiding out inside my head, it's me again, it's no surprise." (There were so many haunted albums this year, from Nick Cave's Ghosteen to Ariana Grande's thank u, next.) "I try, but I get overwhelmed," FKA Twigs yells and murmurs in "Cellophane," her voice careening off balance, enacting her words. In "Not," unable to clear her own static and possibly feeling that doing so might be a fatal compromise, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker entangles herself in the paradox of negative judgment – "It's not the room / Not beginning / Not the crowd / Not winning / Not the planet / Not spinning," she repeats in the chorus, chasing a resting point that will never come, finally giving in to the infinite echo of guitar feedback. In each of these cases the lyrics only signal what the songs are already doing: trying to accommodate ambiguities that seems to be filling every corner of experience, to express the pressing mood that has, in recent years, turned "overwhelm" into a noun – not a condition that can be alleviated but a total environment.

***

Of course a teenager is bringing this new human condition into focus. "The Triumph of the Weird," trumpets the headline on Billie Eilish's first Rolling Stone cover, as if popular music hadn't been home to Little Richard or David Bowie or Kate Bush or Ol' Dirty Bastard or Lil Peep. The weirdness of Billie Eilish's music, and the apparent improbability of her success, are marketing hooks that have helped pull her star upward. She's become a role model for kids who don't fit, whose presence in their schools or even their families is often defined as a kind of noise to be turned down and made harmonious. Increasingly, social institutions are working to accommodate such kids, and that's why Eilish's appeal works within the mainstream, rather than opposing it. Dimpled and given to winning chortles, displaying a genuinely close relationship with her brother and parents — the O'Connells are a "family business," the Etsy age's appropriately downsized Von Trapps — she projects confidence even as she admits to battling social anxiety and worse. (She has a neurological disorder that produces facial tics; she also looks like a young Scarlett Johanssen.) Unlike other musicians who've embodied the demons of their time, Eilish projects confidence and a healing sense of humor. She is the weird kid for whom there is a place in the world.

Billie Eilish performs at the American Music Awards in November. Eilish's music speaks for weird kids in the same way most of teen pop has spoken for idealized "normal" ones.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for dcp

Anyone who's been to an urban high school this year knows that a neon-haired girl in a baggy hoodie would stand out, yes, but very well might also quickly find her people. Summer camps for would-be punk rockers or Dungeons & Dragons wizards or anime aficionados align with school-based mental health clubs and alliances for queer, trans and neurodiverse kids to support young people who, in earlier times, had to form their own anarchic freak alliances. Reflective of tech culture's cult of the individual and reinforced by parents like Eilish's own, who have negotiated successful relationships with the capitalist system while preserving some countercultural ideals, the rise of the weird achiever is a reassuring development that also deserves some interrogation.

What helps kids thrive deserves support. But the mainstream discards certain elements of the weird as it absorbs it. In Eilish's music, this process surfaces in that non-musical, now musical noise. Her voice and the core of her songs are pop, just as she herself appears, at heart, to be a pretty well-adjusted young woman committed to the pursuit of conventional success. Then there's that fuzz, that noise: the deviance she also signifies. If in a culture of "creatives," rebelliousness has become disruption — a new kind of entrepreneurship, which adapts to norms instead of dismantling them — where does the truly unconformable go? To the place where we go when we all fall asleep? (The tension about what norms can absorb also surfaced elsewhere this year. On HBO's teen melodrama Euphoria, for example, impeccably screwed-up kids careened between self-actualization and overdose.)

At a recent Eilish show at Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville, Eilish and Finneas performed an acoustic set for a hand-picked room of musicians and other local scenemakers. The relaxed environment and minimalist set-up, which produced a live recording, allowed for Eilish to show off her poise. Her famous whisper-voice revealed itself to be supremely trained – her years in that children's choir taught her how to control her tone and pitch without resorting to sheer lung power. Stripped of most effects, the songs had the quirky charm of what used to be called "downtown cabaret" — which, like the drag queens who once dominated that scene, is now familiar, having already been conveyed to the top of the charts by Lady Gaga. The crowd murmured its approval, older folks noting the O'Connells' professionalism. Up front was a small crowd of teenage girls, dressed in vegetarian leather jackets and shiny purple or red leggings. This was Eilish's fan base – but it was also a gang of aspiring musicians, mostly graduates of Nashville's rock camp for girls. For them, Eilish is emblematic: a rebel who is also a popular kid, a mama's girl who can also be subversive, a loud cultural presence emanating from a carefully maintained private place.

Eilish's music speaks for weird kids in the same way most of teen pop has spoken for idealized "normal" ones: It both genuinely expresses their perspective and helps them imagine also pursuing what makes most people happy (romance, leisure, money, a sense of self-worth). She's hardly the first musician to occupy the space of the strange in a spectacular way, especially since the Internet made outsiderness so much more generally visible and audible. She has obvious immediate precursors like Lorde and Lady Gaga, but there are so many others — including, importantly, beloved fictional characters. The website for the shop-your-rebellion mall store Hot Topic reveals all: Eilish's fans were already into horror antiheroes like Chucky from Child's Play and Pennywise from It; the lovable grotesques of the Tim Burton universe; appealing villains like Harley Quin of D.C. Comics fame or Sherlock's Moriarty, whose voice Eilish invokes in her song "you should see me in a crown." The thing about these ostensibly evil characters is that their excesses invert the perfectionism that has constricted youth culture in the early 20th century. In stories, the mayhem these characters wreak is a norm-defeating form of play; totems of their power like cosplay costumes or figurines – or references in pop songs – safely borrow their freeing power.

***

Tricksters, like odd noises in pop songs, express and alleviate the tension of the overwhelm. Many Eilish champions welcome her inventive presence as a sign that the exhausting perfectionism of 21st-century middle class life may be abating. Despite the huge presence of one old-fashioned pop factory, the K-Pop universe, 2019 does point toward a greater fascination with celebrities who can make work seem like play, or, if the circumstances demand seriousness, at least an unruly passion. They might be comedians, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, spilling over with audience-pleasing subversiveness. Or actors like Keanu Reeves, readjusting his long-held heartthrob status to become a charmingly interactive, welcoming, moving meme. Or even activists and politicians like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, compelled to utter commitment by the urgency of a cause. Dolly Parton, whose work ethic is unmatched and whose sense of play is unrivaled, has emerged as the year's elder stateswoman, riding great songs and boob jokes into a new generation's heart. Newcomer Megan Thee Stallion won the summer with a bawdiness built around her declarations of insatiable appetite, reveling in joyful obscenity. Even Post Malone, the white rapper and singer whose success baffles most critics and other musical tastemakers, fits within this schema powered by transformative excess. With his Cookie Monster looks and a sad-sack persona constantly upended by the buoyancy of his melodies, he embodies white male privilege as a happy accident, a big kid frolicking through the pop charts as if just learning to run. Though his songs often vent frustration with women who are stronger or just more together than he is, he always offers them blithely. Post Malone is a mess, but his presence reassures; he'll be okay.

Only a few of these figures qualify as weird, but they tend to be excessive in one way or another – even excessively idealistic. Or, to use current parlance, they're "extra." "Extra is often also a way of saying "different," or "disturbing," or "not wanted." Popular culture, and especially music, often celebrates the extra as a way of pushing norms and symbolically reconciling difference. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once wrote, "The excesses of other people, and of ourselves, can make us think, rather than merely react. Indeed something as powerful as excess might — if we can suspend our fear — allow us to have thoughts we have never had before." He wasn't talking about "Hot Girl Summer" or Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, but the description fits.

In 2019, Lizzo released her fourth album, Cuz I Love You, and had two older songs, "Truth Hurts" and "Good As Hell" reach the top 5 of the pop charts.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Lizzo is Eilish's 180-degree twin, and, in some ways, Dolly Parton's rightful heir. She plays big and loud as a way of pushing norms, flirting with stereotypes with such presence and joy that she defeats them. A 31-year-old veteran of many musical milieus, classically trained in flute, mentored by Prince, born and raised in the rap capitol of Houston and further nurtured in the genre-agnostic indie scene, Lizzo has been a musical contender since before Eilish had all of her permanent teeth; but the roadblocks facing idiosyncratic women of color in music remain much more daunting than anything a white teenager might face. Lizzo's breakthrough album Cuz I Love You, her fourth release, is the fruit of her hard work, and as much a return to classic pop values as it is the platform for an exciting new voice. It is redolent of classic blues and old-school hip-hop, and full of jokes that soul elders like Millie Jackson would appreciate.

A plus-sized beauty whose songs celebrate sensuality and self-confidence, Lizzo associates herself with a complement of liberation movements: fat pride and body positivity, LGBTQIA+ pride and the more amorphous movement toward self-care. What makes Cuz I Love You exciting, however isn't its progressive cultural stance but the anarchic energy of Lizzo's vocal performance. She sings with an abandon that belies her skill, choosing to openly negotiate with pitch and push the edges of timbre to solidify her stance against anybody else's idea of propriety. Make no mistake — this is a political decision. Lizzo's songs powerfully insist on pleasure and the right to openly dwell in one's feelings. Instead of confining herself within a tragic role or merely occupying a comic one, Lizzo taps into the legacy of blues queens like Ma Rainey and soul transgressors like Jackson, who demanded to be acknowledged as fully human and emotionally complicated. Good-naturedly commanding the field where stereotypes of excess have historically plagued black women, Lizzo wins.

Lizzo's extra-ness, her noise, contradicts current trends in R&B music, finding more kin among rappers (including Megan Thee Stallion) than highly regarded singers like Solange, Ari Lennox or Summer Walker, heirs to the conversational style pioneered by Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. She has a multiracial audience, and has received some backlash partly because of her large white fan base – too many "thin white girls" identify with this large black woman, according to some critics. If extra-ness, the noise of identity, is fetishized, it can become not a wellspring of new norms but a vehicle for self-indulgence, including behavior that reflects thoughtlessness about racial dynamics, if not overt racism. A case in point: at a Kacey Musgraves show in Nashville this fall, Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" came over the loudspeaker between sets. The entire, nearly all-white Bridgestone arena erupted in a rap-along, with many thirtysomethings in chinos or Southern Tide dresses mimicking their idol with all the sensitivity of Kendall Roy doing "L to the O.G." on Succession. Is it problematic to have this kind of fun? Truth is, Billie Eilish has it, too: her patterns of speech are that of a teen raised in a mostly white but mildly interracial environment who's also probably watched a fair amount of 90 Day Fiance. She has picked up more than musical inspiration from her favorite Soundcloud rappers. Among the many things that remain in painful process in 2019 is the nation's understanding of its own racial history and current power dynamics. As always, music threw conflicts about race into harsh perspective while also sometimes obscuring them.

***

As much as she is a product of the culture of the weird achiever, Eilish is also a child of gentrification. Highland Park, the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood where she grew up — where she and Finneas made their album and where, in her cozy, pillow-strewn family home, she often conducts interviews — has been transformed in the 21st century from a (gang-plagued) home to working-class Latinx families to a hipster paradise. It may seem to anyone who follows her media presence that Eilish came from the lost Island of Free Time, where she and Finneas were homeschooled in creative play and fed spaghetti and broccoli by their loving mom. That's all true. It's also true that, despite frequently being lauded as a better teen choice than Britney Spears, Eilish is as much a showbiz kid as were her Mickey Mouse Club and American Idol forebears. Highland Park's aspirational bourgeoisie includes mid-tier movie folk like production designers and veteran actors like her own parents, making community with visual artists, café owners, academics and New Age-aware physical therapists. It's exactly the kind of milieu where weird achievers are deeply nurtured. Hollywood craft and knowledge, her inheritance, is part of what makes her a prodigy, and a pop star. Noise still hits the mainstream most successfully when it's well managed.

Billie Eilish (right) performs with her brother, Finneas O'Connell in Los Angeles in October. The pair write all of Eilish's music together and O'Connell produces it.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images for RADIO.COM

Eilish's success may not really be a triumph of the weird, any more than that of Miley Cyrus, another Hollywood wild one. What she has done more successfully than Cyrus, so far, is to maintain privacy as an important value – to incorporate quiet into her noise, and even make it one of her subjects. That murmur of hers that somehow incorporates the energy of a shout, reinforced and amplified through distortion and multi-tracking, has often been compared to the whispers of ASMR, that strange YouTube-based sphere where pretty people intone calming mantras while squishing marshmallows or brushing someone's hair. What Eilish shares with ASMR practitioners is an awareness that being extra quiet has as much power as being super loud. Her music somehow reconciles both extremes. This is how she is an heir to not just Lady Gaga, but James Blake and Bon Iver, and a peer of not just other ingenues like Clairo or King Princess but more openly avant-garde artists like FKA twigs. Her edge, in the end, is the rim of the private world, behind which she preserves herself, defying the 21st-century mandate to constantly perform or at least display oneself.

As the sample she grabbed at the orthodontist demonstrates, Eilish is remarkably attuned to the stray sound or phrase that seems to defy meaning but whose presence sharpens or rearranges the story it inhabits. She claims that she and Finneas both have synesthesia, the condition that medically defines this multi-sensory experience. But it's arguable that multisensory overwhelm is simply the nature of her world: the world of video gamers, anime-lovers, YouTubers and meme-makers, of kids with every sense turned on at all times. This is also, historically, the world of dancers, who channel sound through their bodies and interpret its effects through movement. Eilish's singing is very gestural, marked by phrases extended or interrupted by little trills and gasps and strange enunciations. Finneas's production plays up these quirks using doubling techniques, dropped beats and sound effects. And the lyrics they write together, often from notes Eilish has recorded on her phone or in her journal, emphasize the tactile, too: They are alliterative, and imagistic, and in love with rhyme.

Within those rhymes, Eilish imagines herself to be a bad guy, or a winged demon, or an addict, or a murderer. It seems that for her, these roles are fictions, which she can set aside as she further explores her imagination in years to come. In her music at least, after years of hard work and serious play, she has mastered her own excesses, and so she can let them run free. This is an ideal that proves deeply seductive in 2019, when so many kinds of excess feel threatening and disarmingly diffuse: the uncontrollable weather, the ever-expanding mess of partisan politics, so many epidemics, so much to worry about. Billie Eilish is the spirit of the moment because she shows how noise can be a signpost pointing toward something new: a life beyond the boundaries, where demons are revealed as friends, as our own inventions, our interpretable dreams.

: 1/29/20

In a previous version of this story, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's first name was incorrectly given as Alexandra.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.