Opinion

Billie Eilish and the Hell of Being a Teenager (Famous or Not)

Don't let the smile fool you: Billie Eilish carries the burdens of teenage hell with a signature stare.
Don't let the smile fool you: Billie Eilish carries the burdens of teenage hell with a signature stare. Mike Brooks
Billie Eilish’s greatest talent is undoubtedly her stare.

There’s a pretty good chance that even people who have never heard of Eilish or her music have stumbled upon her on TV or on the homepage of some search engine, omnipresent for the last two years: the girl with the green-and-black hair, face sullen and simultaneously expressionless except for her two sky-blue eyes, half-closed, carrying the palpable apathy of decades of teenage ennui — both her own and that of generations passed.

Aside from her exquisite voice and distinct fashion sense, that stare is likely her most defining feature, already so iconic that Entertainment Weekly recently used a photo of Eilish — from the eyes up only — to marquee a feature about her. If looks could kill, Billie Eilish would be a terrorist.

In the wild, that stare only naturally occurs in two places: on the faces of runway models who intentionally rid themselves of any excitement or emotions whatsoever, lest they interfere with spectators’ appreciation of their bodies and outfits, and in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Many of Kubrick’s most iconic characters wield the gaze in a much more menacing manner, with The Shining’s Jack Torrance, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, and Full Metal Jacket’s Lt. Pyle all succumbing to the stare as they clung to any semblance of sanity in their respectively mad worlds.

Despite the title of Eilish’s sophomore album, Happier Than Ever, one is inclined to feel her glare has more in common with those of the latter three.

What’s more surprising is just how normal Eilish is, or at least seems to be. Her steadfast ability to be unapologetically herself while becoming debatably the most famous person on Earth (the songs from her debut album, 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? were streamed more times in its first week of release than votes were cast in the 2020 election) is impressive to say the least. That ironclad normalcy and its incongruence with the sheer magnitude of the 19-year-old's fame are the central conflict of Happier Than Ever’s 56 minutes.

Pull up any random interview with the singer, and you’ll find a genuinely happy teenager, laughing, gushing, oversharing, wisecracking, publicly declaring her affinity for the taste of pennies and blood. She doesn’t seem like the same person who, two years ago, released a song called “Bury a Friend” with a hook repeatedly stating “I wanna end me.”

Mind you, the dichotomy between the seemingly insecure, depressed teen and the confident, manic teen is not an uncommon one, nor a new one (at Eilish’s age, Mary Shelley spent an unseasonably cold summer bonding with friends, and when it was over, she had written Frankenstein). However, few teenagers have been subjected to the burn of the spotlight as she has. An offhand comment about body positivity here creates four different headlines there. An incident involving demanding, overzealous fans leads Eilish to opt-out of taking pictures in public one night results in her having to apologize for it on Instagram.

These are minor inconveniences compared to what other teenagers in similar situations have been subjected to (such as when John Hinkley Jr. shot President Ronald Regan to impress a 19-year old Jodie Foster), but it’s still worrisome to see someone with such a seemingly good head on her shoulders being dangled over the Hollywood meat grinder.

Eilish’s candor about that pressure is the first subject she tackles on Happier Than Ever. On the album’s opening track, “Getting Older,” she coos, “There's a lot I'm grateful for, but it's different when a stranger's always waiting at your door, which is ironic, 'cause the strangers seem to want me more than anyone before, too bad they're usually deranged.”

She’s backed solely by her brother Finneas’ spare synths, which sound somewhere between a muffled alarm, a ticking time bomb and Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange.

Eilish's Dylanesque genius lies in her (and Finneas’) abilities to sculpt anxieties into candid cadences. Their lyrical expressions are direct and uncluttered. If Billie is feeling it, she’ll just say it. “Things I'm longing for, someday I'll be bored of. It's so weird that we care so much, until we don't,” she sings on “Getting Older.”

On "NDA" she sings: “I bought a secret house when I was 17, haven't had a party since I got the keys, had a pretty boy over but he couldn't stay, on his way out, made him sign an NDA," tackling a subject that most people in her position would normally shy away from.

When she recorded When We All Fall Asleep … Eilish was not yet a superstar, but a cult artist on rapid ascent.

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While Eilish is obviously experiencing a level of fame and its burdens that few humans other than Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Madonna have experienced, the weight of her personal hell is not exclusive to this album. Her debut also runs deep with these anxieties, not too far removed sonically from Happier Than Ever.

When she recorded When We All Fall Asleep… Eilish was not yet a superstar, but a cult artist on rapid ascent. That album was purely about the woes and ticks of being a teenager in 2019. Her subject matter was not yet colored by the weight of her fame but in hindsight still feels like it.

Maybe it’s because being a teenager is hell whether you’re famous or not. Maybe Billie Eilish is the first musician to stand up and make this declaration through the medium of their art in a way that doesn’t feel forced or overly dramatic. It is what it is. All past teen idols, the Britney Spearses, Leif Garretts and David Cassidys of the world, have been distractions from the world of teen angst. Most artists who successfully tapped into the brewing ennui of a generation do it with a fury, i.e. Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Slipknot. Even then, those artists are usually adults with adult problems.

The reason Eilish has become as famous as she has is not because of some conspiratorial industry push, but because she actually is the voice of a generation, believe it or not. She’s hitting a wavelength that few individuals in popular music get, an extended period of time in which to resonate. Billie Eilish is the sound of being a teenager in the 21st century. And if that concerns you, how do you think she feels?
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta