At just 17, Billie Eilish O’Connell (known as “Billie Eilish”) has become a force to reckon with in an industry defined by its revolving door. Although Eilish’s base is comprised mostly of younger fans, her music has captured the attention of a diverse cohort of listeners for its ability to unabashedly wrestle with more mature—and often darker—topics.
Eilish rose to the music scene in 2016 after her single “Ocean Eyes,” written by her brother Finneas, went viral on SoundCloud. Since emerging, she has signed a contract with Interscope Records, amassed nearly five million followers on Spotify, released 22 singles (including remixes), and produced a full album titled “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” set for release later this month.
Her voice has a haunting lilt, reminiscent of the effortless distinctiveness that catapulted Lana Del Ray to stardom. Eilish has less of the relaxed rasp that defines Del Ray, but with much greater vocal range.
Like the artist herself, Eilish’s music evades categorization, showcasing how truly dynamic she is. Her 2016 song “Ocean Eyes” is a smooth mix of alternative rock, with subtle R&B undertones. Other songs, such as “Bury a Friend,” have a pure pop feel, while “Bellyache” flirts with the folk genre before chiming in with hints of dub step.
While Eilish’s relaxed voice pervades each ballad, the content of the lyrics is often quite dark, displaying a gruesome understanding of how humans both satisfy and resist their inner demons. Despite the cheery disposition evoked by “Bellyache,” the lyrics are written from the first-person perspective of a young girl who has just killed her friends and is awaiting the arrival of the cops. She thought the crimes would make her feel better, but was left with only a bellyache, the whimpering, ironic, and uninspired end to a grim tale.
When discussing the creation of “Bury a Friend” with UMusic, Eilish elaborated on the song’s meaning, explaining the lyrics were “from the perspective of the monster under [her] bed.” The words themselves are a simple series of question—“What do you want from me?” and “Why don’t you run from me?”—but as Eilish maturely reflects, “I confess that I’m this monster, because I’m my own worst enemy. I might be the monster under your bed too.” The transformation of one’s own nemesis from an external figure to an internal figure is a perpetual theme within Eilish’s music.
Combing through Eilish’s interviews reveals a startling depth that largely matches her music. Eilish is aware that the content of her songs may be deeply unsettling, but she tries to locate a purposefulness in her lyricism.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Eilish elaborated on the creative process that she and her brother Finneas engage in when crafting music: “Finneas and I like writing from other people’s perspectives. Half the songs are fictional and half are things I was going through, and no one will ever know which is which…Kids use my songs as a hug. Songs about being depressed or suicidal or completely just against-yourself— some adults think that’s bad, but I feel that seeing that someone else feels just as horrible as you do is a comfort. It’s a good feeling… It’s someone to scream with.”
Such connectedness helps to explain Eilish’s appeal to younger audiences. She is unassuming, almost approachable. On any given day, her hair may be dyed a pastel or gray hue, tousled into a messy bun with minimal makeup or covered with a beanie. She often sports baggier, casual, and outlandish clothing, even for concerts and major events (she has said that jeans make her feel “out of place”).
In interviews, she comments on the weirdness—and awfulness—of fame, the sort of wisdom about celebrity that you might expect from someone who has spent years within the industry. But her recognition of the pitfalls of fame never detracts from her appreciation for her fans: “When artists take their fans for granted it’s like, ‘What are you? They are the reason you’re a person.’ I love my fans so much, I try to devote all my attention to them, whether it’s on social media or when I see them in person. I spend as much time with them as I can and make connections with them ’cause they’re people.”
Eilish is famous not only for her music but perhaps also for the sort of “realness” or substance she represents to a generation eager for something genuine. Generation Z is a squad that came to age amidst the phenomenon of a “filtered reality,” in which the many facets of individual existence are constantly curated, edited, and refined. The gloomy frankness of Eilish’s music—and of her music videos—seems a bulwark against the halcyon imagery that often pervades contemporary media production.
Like poetry, Eilish’s music invites exploration—there’s this impetus to determine what the meaning of each elusive verse is. Her capacity to infuse music with such complex storytelling reveals a sort of wisdom beyond Eilish’s years. To echo a common refrain, it is hard to believe she is only 17.