Can we stop trying to make Billie Eilish a hero who’s here to save music or teens? It’s an exaggeration, and it’s doing the talented 17-year-old a disservice.
With the extra room, we could appreciate what she does offer: versatile songwriting ability, a gorgeous voice and an intuition for commanding a crowd that is scarier than the subject matter of her songs.
Eilish’s show Tuesday night at American Airlines Center was packed to the rafters, mostly with teenage girls wearing her signature style, which is halfway between goth and early 2000’s hip-hop star.
Fog poured out from the wings of the stage onto a sea of green hair, beanies, Day-Glo green bandannas, mesh shirts, oversized shirts, dark lipstick and tiny, pink sunglasses. But there were also plenty of preppy girls in mini-skirts taking selfies and even the occasional adult double-fisting concession stand daiquiris.
Along for the review was wise preteen and occasional Observer
contributor London Wulff
, who helped us understand what we were witnessing. Wulff appreciates the variety in Eilish’s music as compared with other radio heavyweights like Ariana Grande, whom she also likes. The fact that Eilish still lives at home also makes her more relatable, Wulff says.
Billie Eilish is this generation's most avant-garde performer. What does that mean?
The vibrating crowd held back most of its energy during opener Duckwrth. His art school rap was a perfect amuse-bouche for Eilish’s gothy electropop, but he had a tough gig performing for people who didn’t know him and were clearly counting the seconds until the main course.
As his set concluded, the crowd had their phones poised, expecting a seamless transition from one performance to the next. After a minute or two passed they lost hope and chatter resumed, with intermittent squeals and chants of “Billie! Billie!”
During the 30-minute break between performances, we heard a very young girl, perhaps 9 years old, chatting with another girl who could have been an older sister’s friend. “How are you liking the show so far?” the older one asked. “There’s a lot of cussing,” she replied bashfully.
The audience you seek isn’t always the audience you get. And already it was clear that Eilish’s material is a lot more mature than most of her fans.
The set for Eilish’s Where Do We Go? tour consists of four giant LED panels that come together in a triangle-like configuration, with one panel being the floor. There’s also a catwalk that extends midway through the crowd.
Eilish has been painted as a radical alternative to her female contemporaries.
The design is sufficiently impressive for an arena show, while also suiting the minimalism of Eilish’s touring band, which includes herself; her brother, producer and writing partner Finneas O’Connell on keys and bass; and drummer Andrew Marshall.
The lights went dark right on time, around 9 o’clock, and a black and white, paper doll-like avatar of Eilish took over the screens. The avatar rose and fell into flames and did various other spooky things, a theme that would continue throughout the show, which also featured imagery of spiders, sharks and various Slender Man-esque figures.
The crowd was briefly distracted by the spectacle but when they did spot Eilish, the roar was deafening. And the screams didn’t stop, only mutated into lyrics, as Eilish launched into “Bad Guy.”
It’s her biggest hit, so it was a bold choice for set list header that demonstrated faith in the rest of her material. It also presented an early opportunity to observe one problematic aspect of the singer’s public image.
Eilish has been painted as a radical alternative to her female contemporaries. The reasons why are various, including that she writes her own music, is close with her family, speaks openly about her struggles and dresses in a manner that, while provocative, is not overtly sexual. (Last night she wore what was essentially a Gucci-designed prison uniform.)
Not only is this portrayal forgetting a lot of performers like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, with whom she has many of those things in common, it’s also a bit denigrating to the Grandes of the world who also have talent and should be allowed to do their own thing.
It’s even harder to buy into this PR nugget when you hear the girls around you at the Billie Eilish show yelling that they’re the “I might seduce your dad type.” Eilish shouldn’t be condemned for the sexual nature of her lyrics any more than Grande should — kids parroting and even seeking out inappropriate lyrics is nothing new — but it’s just another clue that Eilish is not here to save us from the current Top 40 landscape, instead she’s a very interesting part of it.
Isn’t that good enough?
Eilish’s performance Tuesday was inspiring in its confidence. Even wearing an ankle boot from a recent sprain, she bounced around the stage, popping and locking and seamlessly blending genres from pop to goth, R&B, electro and hip-hop.
Her set was well organized, covering most of the material from her 2019 studio debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
and effectively balancing clubbier songs like “You Should See Me in a Crown” with softer, acoustic jams like 2017’s “Bellyache.”
The crowd knew all the lyrics to at least a third of the songs she played and sang them at full volume, which tended to drown out Eilish’s delicate, whispery voice on the softer tracks.
At times Eilish teased the audience, ordering them to perform her choreography with her. “Now, listen. I can see you all,” she said. “Yesterday somebody’s bum ass dad would not bend down no matter what I did. Don’t be that dude. You have knees.”
At other times she cultivated intimacy, singing while laying down on the floor and speaking to the audience as a trusted friend. (“When the beat comes on will you jump with me? Promise you will?”)
One highlight of the show was the ballad “I love you,” which prompted the only real set trick of the evening: a white bed that descended from the ceiling. “We wrote it like this at 2 a.m. in my bed so I want to perform it the way we wrote it,” Eilish said, inviting the audience into her and O’Connell’s world.
Eilish’s most popular songs have zeitgeisty flourishes, like the effect of her vocals fading in and out and the spontaneous-seeming “duh” in the middle of “Bad Guy,” but many of her songs have timeless qualities and would fit naturally in the repertories of other established singers. “I love you” could be covered by Adele, the somewhat silly “Wish You Were Gay” by Swift.
Which is to say, there’s nothing completely new about Eilish’s current routine. Her life-affirming messages are a little bit Logic and Lady Gaga, her aesthetic borrows from American Horror Story
and Aaliyah, and her singing style has echoes of Lorde and Lana Del Rey. But she and O’Connell interweave these diverse influences with finesse that shows the possibility for their career are wide open.
Watching Eilish’s enchanting performance at the AAC Tuesday, which she wrapped up with an encore performance of “Bad Guy,” it was easy to believe the best is yet to come as she finds and develops a voice that is truly original. If only we can give her the room to do it.
My Strange Addiction
You Should See Me in a Crown
When I Was Older
Wish You Were Gay
All the Good Girls Go to Hell
Bitches Broken Hearts
I love you
When the Party’s Over
Bury a Friend
Billie Eilish's whispered voice was barely audible in a crowd of screaming fans.
See more pictures from Billie Eilish's show here