For pop star Billie Eilish, the best thing about turning 18 last December was that she would get to drive her car—a matte black Dodge Challenger—past 11pm. “All I have ever wanted to do was drive,” she gushed in an interview with TV host Jimmy Kimmel in November. Getting to drive her own car seems like the clichéd desire of every teenager in the Hollywood high school dramas of the noughties. In many ways, Eilish fits the role perfectly. She peppers her speech with words like ‘dope’, ‘trash’ and ‘badass’, asks her mother to sleep with her when she has nightmares, and hates cleaning her room.
But in other ways, Eilish is far from your typical teenager. At 18, she became the youngest singer and the first woman to win the Grammy’s big four awards—for record of the year, song of the year, album of the year and the best new artist. She rose to fame at the age of 13 with her song Ocean Eyes, written by her brother Finneas O’Connell. The song, which was uploaded on SoundCloud, went viral, spawning many remixes and catapulting her to pop superstardom overnight. Her first album—When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?—debuted at number one on the Billboard charts last year.
So what can explain her phenomenal rise to fame? Perhaps her description on her driver’s licence gives a clue: Name: Billie Eilish O’Connell. Eyes: Blue. Hair: Other. Much like her songs, her hair colour keeps changing—sometimes the roots are dyed a metallic blue and, at other times, lime green. Eilish does not just embrace her ‘otherness’, she celebrates it. Her songs are gritty, dark and, often, sinister. She sings about serial killers, death and monsters under the bed. Even love and heartbreak are not treated in a cotton-candy manner. She elaborates on the themes of toxic masculinity, power struggle, isolation and bleak, unrequited affection. Some of her videos are downright scary. In one, her eyes drip black ink, in another spiders creep out of her mouth, and in a third, cigarettes are extinguished on her cheeks.
Her anti-fashion, too, is a clean break from the traditional. She typically dresses in shapeless and psychedelic clothes. Unlike her contemporaries Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, she does not roll out a rosy, pseudo-sexualised version of herself. Using words like ‘cute’ or ‘perky’ to describe her would be an insult to her. At the Grammys, she looked dressed for a black metal concert while most other women were dressed for a princess-themed kitty party. She wore an oversized bowling shirt with matching baggy trousers, a patterned face mask and long, green nails. Grande went for tulle and Demi Lovato, satin.
It is not just her music that she is selling, it is her whole persona. She is no-frills and unapologetically authentic, and Gen Z is eating it up. “Her voice is beautiful but it is her brand that has helped elevate her status,” says Nidhi Abraham, 21, an Indian student majoring in psychology and criminology in Australia. “She is pretty open about her struggles with depression and what she stands for. In this day and age, that openness is appreciated.”
It probably says a lot about Eilish’s generation, which is the first to be raised in the era of smartphones and social media. They were born into an age of economic uncertainty and climate change. “I definitely think growing up in a time of hardship, global conflict and economic troubles has affected my future,” The New York Times quoted a high-schooler in one of its stories. “I think I can speak for my generation when I say that our optimism has long ago been replaced with pragmatism.” According to a Sparks & Honey trend report on Gen Z, this is a generation which places a lot of importance on being “mature and in control”. This is reflected in their music preferences as well. They prefer music that might be radical but is also rooted, as exemplified by the songs of musicians like Eilish, Lil Nas X and Cuco.
“Today, when even the concept of dating is so fluid, people are moving away from flowery and girlish songs about relationships,” says Bhargavi, a law student at Christ university in Bengaluru. “They want to listen to songs about the demons they are dealing with.”
Ricky Kej, Indian composer and Grammy award winner, says Eilish is original. “She will not do something because that is what is trending or is what everyone else is doing,” he says. “She is only expressing herself through her music. It is a testament to her talent that she was able to produce a quality album from her bedroom and get it heard by the right people.”
But the thing about digital natives like Eilish is that they also have dual personalities. This clash of selves—an uncertainty in their inner lives masked by a confident, almost brash outer projection—can be detected in Eilish’s social media feeds. Her Instagram page, which has more than 15 million followers, is full of the emotional ups-and-downs of someone whose personality has not quite caught up with the image she is trying to project. Some of her posts are nonsensical (“a bitch is a bitch but a dog is a man’s best friend”), some of them confessional (“Sometimes I can’t breathe, I think too much about the things that are happening around me”) and some refreshingly child-like (“I can’t wait to go home and eat taco bell again”).
In that way, she is the perfect torchbearer of her generation. Millennials, for example, lived in an ambiguous world. They were divided on issues like homosexuality, gender equality and multiculturalism. For the Gen Z-ers, who live in a post #MeToo and post gay rights world, things are much more black-and-white. As a result, in many ways, there are no longer any rules to follow. Everything goes. “I’m the bad type/ Might seduce your dad type,” Eilish sings in her most famous single, Bad Guy. “Blood on a marble wall/ I like the way they scream,” she sings in You Should See Me In A Crown.
There is much that is showy and exaggerated in Eilish’s music, but it is interspersed with a strain of vulnerability and brutal honesty, like when she sings about crying a million tears (“if teardrops could be bottled there’d be swimming pools filled by models”). Or about broken relationships (“if our grave was watered by the rain, would roses bloom?”). This duality in her is what makes her music a movement. Because it is the same duality that her fans see in themselves. It is what defines them.