Clara Scott: The cult of Billie

Thursday, April 4, 2019 - 5:29pm

Billie Eilish

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Teenage girls have been the most misunderstood part of humanity since the beginning of time. Even their own understanding of alienation is made fun of, turned into memes of “mom, it’s just a phase” and a brand of self-deprecating humor that proliferates across teen and adult society, even infecting girls themselves. It’s no wonder this is true — our media consistently pushes those few teenage girls who are self-confident and genuine down to join the rest of their age group through unrealistic standards for everything from their bodies to the colors they are supposed to wear. We all know this, and many of us (including myself) have channeled their frustration at that pressure into classic existential angst. We pierce our noses, we dye our hair, we pick up the guitar or the cigarette, sometimes all at once. In avoiding one stereotype, we slowly move into another.           

There’s no better example of this kind of response to society than the mere existence of singer Billie Eilish. Eilish is a veritable unicorn in the music industrial complex — she’s a teenage girl, yes, but she’s missed the expected transformation and hypersexualization by a thread. She’s in charge of her own songwriting, often done with her brother and producer Finneas. Eilish is partial to pairing incredibly oversized sweatshirts and pants and has developed a fashion sense that literally only she could pull off. She’s not dancing in the hallways of a Catholic school in miniskirts, she’s collaborating with hypebeast fashion icon Takashi Murakami on Hot Topic-esque merchandise. Eilish’s trademark is a sense of angst that never makes it into eye-rolling territory, creating an enthralling case study in what the fusion of 2019’s feminist environment and the extant pressure of her industry can do. 

So it’s no wonder that the singer has accrued a devoted army of followers and fans, most of them teenagers like herself. Though it’s a surprise to remember after watching a few of Eilish’s interviews or music videos, she’s only 17 — and started making music four years ago. Despite her age, Eilish oozes a kind of beyond-her-years understanding of the world that many modern girls do, too. In a world that plays to their insecurities constantly, Eilish’s main audience sees a light in her music, one that tells them their jaded perception of society is ok and even cool. In this, the singer is under tremendous pressure to maintain her image as a perpetually bored and depressed beauty, languid in the spotlight of her own creation.

This is why the cult of Billie Eilish is more complex than it may seem. The legions of supporters she has garnered through her first EP and now her recent studio album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? expect a certain vibe from the performer at all times to mirror their own. Unfortunately for Eilish, that vibe is depressed and flippant. She’s real as hell, but at some point, that realness takes its toll. After all, the girl is only 17. Eilish may have escaped the more classic markers of industry control, but instead of those, she has now fallen into a different sort of trap. Just like those of us who left bubblegum-pink lip gloss for fishnets, Eilish has broken the restraints of Ariana Grande-style pop-stardom only to find herself in another box: that of the emo princess.

There are dozens of examples that show there is a way out of this image, namely, that of Hayley Williams, the lead singer of Paramore. Now in her late twenties, Williams has managed to shed her early punk teenager image for that of a more balanced woman, one that still makes incredible music in the same alternative vein. This could be the path that Billie Eilish goes down, but for now, it’s up for debate. Watching her talk about how even the last year of her life has changed in the wake of fame, in a side-by-side interview in Vanity Fair, it is worrying to see how Eilish’s dark stage persona has leeched into her real outlook on life. She represents a change in the industry towards a deeper understanding of the minds of teenage girls — but will that pressure to change drag her down? It’s hard to say right now, as she rides the wave of her album’s success this month. But in the next few years, I will keep a close eye on Eilish. She might transcend the constraints of her image, or delve deeper into their murky waters. Hopefully, she’ll swim.