If you still have not heard of Billie Eilish, let me enlighten you. She is an eighteen year- old from Los Angeles who has been making music with her brother in her bedroom. About four years ago they put out a song on social media. About a year ago her first album was released. Since then she has won five Grammy awards (including Song of the Year; Album of the Year and Best New Artist – the first time anyone has had this haul since 1981) and has released (together with her brother) her latest song – the new James Bond Theme. Right now, her Youtube channel has 27.3 million subscribers (for comparison, John Piper’s Desiring God channel has under half a million). So, at the stage most teenagers are wondering what to pack for their first term at University, Billie Eilish is negotiating with designer labels which want to clothe her and magazines which want to feature her. And, as this is the 21st century, she’s also facing all kinds of trolls who want to attack her.
Teenage stars are nothing new, of course. Judy Garland was 16 when she starred in The Wizard of Oz and much more recently Taylor Swift (see my article…) was the same age when she became a global name. What is new, however, is Billie Eilish’s defiant persona. Wherever it comes from, Eilish seems to approach the world with a gutsy, often cynical, playfulness we might normally associate with older, male musicians.
This posture is saleable and also defensive. Her choice to wear baggy clothes, putting on cartoonish designer labels, crazy long painted nails and boldly dyed hair sets her apart and protects her; she refuses to be a starlet, but her bolshie anti-style makes her a kind of idol. At first sight this looks like a very 21st century up-yours to the world of manufactured, sexualised bubble gum pop. She says, “I never want to have a sound…I don’t want to be one thing. I want to be everything in one”.
That’s ambitious, and perhaps naïve, because Eilish does have a sound. It’s been described as ‘anti-pop’. Her voice is breathy and at points tremulous – she’s certainly not an Adele or Shirley Bassey, whose powerful voices have belted out Bond songs. Instead, her sound is intimate and often delicate and behind it we most often hear sometimes a carefully produced simple piano, or synth and bass or an occasional acoustic guitar (though the Bond theme differs from her usual output, including some soaring strings, heavy synth as well as piano). But none of her songs are simply soft or small. They are successful because enough of them are memorable and danceable, and also because a combination of surprising turns – pauses and swift changes – and witty, ambiguous, frequently dark lyrics makes them interesting and unsettling. Of the material, her brother Finneas said, “we wrote an album about depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being a bad guy, whatever that means”.
That might make parents of teens panic. There are tracks about tears and unrequited love, boredom, rebellion and self-disgust. But hasn’t pop music very often been about these things? And, it has said, that most of Eilish’s lyrics are ambiguous, and often they present a more palatable outlook that of many other sexualised young stars or gloomy heavier rock bands. Her track ‘Xanny’, for example, is about how the heavily prescribed (and abused) tranquiliser makes her friends boring; and ‘Party Favor’ defiantly tells a (boy?)friend ‘If you don’t stop I’ll call the cops’.
In this way Eilish’s music neatly represents the experience of teens now. They live in a scary world of financial and ecological uncertainty; there remain few boundaries to rebel against; the vocabulary of mental health and personal rights dominates the media. This is an anxious and an extremely self-conscious age, with awe and wonder largely absent. How is the Church to connect? Perhaps the answer lies in agreeing with them, in part. They see that world is dark and broken and that humans are very vulnerable. That much is true. One next step is to help them see their generation’s complicity in this disorder, but also to shout out for beauty. The defiant anti-beauty of Eilish’s look and music (though it has an ethereal quality) represent a rejection of materialistic ideas of perfection; Christians must insist that beauty, that glory can be known, that it has entered and still shines in this brokenness. We must be prepared to sing of the beauty of Christ.
Sarah Allen read English at Cambridge and now works part-time as an English Teacher as well as being involved in ministry at Hope Church Huddersfield where her husband, Lewis, is Pastor. She has written a children’s book about Hannah More, and contributes to the FIEC website and EN, as well as speaking at women’s conferences.