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Billie Eilish, the neo-goth, chart-topping teenage pop star, explained

From SoundCloud to Coachella, Eilish has paved her own path to become a generational icon.

Billie Eilish stares at the camera against a yellow background.
Billie Eilish is the latest teen topping the Billboard charts — but that’s all she has in common with her fellow pop stars.
Billie Eilish on Facebook

In 2016, 14-year-old Billie Eilish, a Los Angeles-based dancer and musician, uploaded her first song, “Ocean Eyes,” to SoundCloud late one night. She had only intended for one person to listen to it: her dance teacher. When she woke up the next day, the song had gone viral on the streaming platform.

It inspired myriad, unofficial remixes, some of which caught the ear of the recording industry. The teen who had recorded a song for fun in her bedroom had suddenly signed with Darkroom and Interscope Records. From there, things took off. In the spring of 2017, her song “Bored” was featured in the first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and in August, she dropped her critically acclaimed EP, Don’t Smile At Me.

Now, a mere three years since that fateful SoundCloud upload, she has just released her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and dominated a night at Coachella with a performance critics called “a triumph.” Now 17, Eilish has already crafted one of 2019’s most critically and commercially successful releases. Even months after its release, her song “Bad Guy” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, displacing Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” from the top slot after a 19 week run at the top of the charts. Eilish is a certified teenage pop star — a part she has had zero interest in playing by the rules since day one.

Billie Eilish is the first artist born in the 21st century to top the Billboard 200 — and she’s reinventing what chart success looks like

Eilish is full of contradictions. Her music is both brooding (“When the Party’s Over”) and bitingly satirical (“Wish You Were Gay”). It blends disparate styles: pop, EDM, industrial, trap, and even jazz. Its eclectic palette is surprising, yet cohesive, held together by her distinctively quiet vocals and irreverent delivery. Even without fitting neatly into any category, her debut album broke multiple records in just one week: Most notably, 12 of the 13 songs from the album are charting on the Billboard Hot 100, the most ever for a female musician. And she has the second-highest first-week album sales of 2019 — behind industry titan Ariana Grande.

That Eilish is hot on Grande’s heels reads as ironic. Unlike Grande and other millennial pop stars — Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez — Eilish was never a child actor backed by a television network. Instead, she relied on the independence of user-generated platforms, which have offered new trajectories into pop stardom for the first generation of kids to grow up in the digital age.

Take YouTube, for example: Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara, and Charlie Puth all amassed early, dedicated fandoms by posting covers to their personal channels, gaining viral traction through their sheer, unadorned musical talent — and these digital fanbases minted each of them a record deal. Eilish got her start on SoundCloud, a platform primarily known for giving rise to DIY hip-hop artists, like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD. It is atypical for a pop act to find overnight success on SoundCloud. But Eilish isn’t a typical pop star.

Pop artists signed to a major label usually work with teams of songwriters and producers. Eilish, who was born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, instead co-writes and produces music with her 21-year-old brother, Finneas O’Connell. O’Connell, who was homeschooled with his sister throughout childhood, thinks their brother-sister connection helps their music stand out.

“We come from a place as outsiders because we’re still in our childhood bedrooms making music,” O’Connell said of their dynamic in a recent episode of Vox’s podcast Switched on Pop, which I co-host. He described their process as “extremely blunt”; as siblings, they can speak directly to each other about without having to step around an outside producer.

For Eilish, this creative freedom is essential. “What the hell would the point be if I was just creating something that somebody else wanted me to create that I had no say in?” she told Vanity Fair in a 2018 video interview.

Photo of producer Finneas O’Connell.
Eilish’s brother, co-writer, and producer, Finneas O’Connell.
Teren Mabry

Eilish’s music subverts genre, musical form, narrative perspective, and even gender roles

In an extremely nonscientific poll we conducted on Switched on Pop, three Billie Eilish fans, ages 9, 12, and 16, all had the same thing to say about her: “I love her, she’s so different.” That’s the perfect word to use for her, O’Connell said; the siblings actively cultivate that sensibility through omnivorous music consumption, drawing inspiration from countless artists.

“We’re listening to everything — all genres, new music, old music, and it all just gets sort of synthesized and boiled down into a broth that we make,” he said. “Rather than try to imitate any individual sound, O’Connell describes their songwriting process as a sort of alchemy, saying, “If you are inspired by something, and you try to do a little bit of it, and it sounds like a mistake, and you double down on your mistake and do something different, that stuff’s really exciting.”

The result does sound “different,” but understanding how requires engaging with Eilish’s music.

The most striking characteristic of Eilish’s music is her voice. She often sings in a muted whisper, with a quiet confidence that has the confessional quality of a teenage LiveJournal. At other times, she croons verses or belts her chorus, her voice always filled with melancholy. O’Connell explains that he produces their music to emphasize Billie’s unique sound: “It’s all low end, with no instruments overlapping with her voice.” Letting her voice ring out is key to her appeal.

Eilish’s voice is always shapeshifting, as are her songs. She frequently sings from changing points of view. “Bad Guy” finds her mocking toxic masculinity — “So you’re a tough guy [...] chest-always-so-puffed-up guy” — and then reverses roles by contorting into a villainous baritone.

And in “Bury A Friend,” she sings from the perspective of the monster under her bed: “Why aren’t you scared of me? Why do you care for me? / When we all fall asleep, where do we go?” The unsettling lyrics are set against a broken song form with strange alternate verses and a bridge placed untraditionally after a verse, rather than immediately following a penultimate chorus. The effect is destabilizing, and yet still accessible to the average listener — the song has been streamed more than 300 million times between YouTube and Spotify.

But Eilish’s music contains more than caricatures. Part of her appeal is that she speaks to the common anxieties of her generation. In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Eilish gave her assessment of the present: “It’s been pretty dark lately — the world, I mean.” Her album addresses the existential fear of climate change (“hills burn in California”); the scourge of teen suicide (“The friends I’ve had to bury / They keep me up at night”); and the teen sobriety trend, which she rejects in the song “Xanny”: “I’m in their secondhand smoke / Still just drinking canned Coke / I don’t need a Xanny to feel better.”

She challenges normative expectations of what a female pop star can sound like, look like, and publicly say

What truly solidifies Eilish’s status as a sneering generational icon, her music aside, is made clear by her social media feed. Her Instagram captions can be sinister (“every inch of my tar black soul), flippant (“buy this shirt or die”), and nonsensical (“i feel like half a pistachio shell”). Eilish doesn’t care to impress, instead sharing her thoughts as if on impulse, no matter how crass or controversial. (She doesn’t use Twitter or Facebook much — though perhaps that’s fitting for a teen these days.)

In an interview with Galore, she described her philosophy toward social media as, “do whatever the fuck you want; don’t care, I mean care a little bit, but don’t; post whatever you want … bad looks good; [and] as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, do whatever the fuck you want.” And it’s working: Her Instagram following has grown from 250,000 to more than 15 million followers in just over a year. She (devilishly) follows exactly 666 people, using the medium itself as a canvas for a cheeky in-joke.

Eilish’s personal style is what is most disorienting and subversive for a Billboard chart-topper: ever-changing shades of blue hair paired with a skater streetwear-meets-haute couture tomboy look, which she describes as “super-cheap meets fancy.” Wearing baggy pants, spiked necklaces, and neon Louis Vuitton tracksuits, she rejects the sexy selfie cliché that can dominate Instagram feeds. Eilish is her own, disaffected-punk stylist, combining fashions to complement her genre-bending music — another label she rejects, even telling Billboard, “I hate the idea of genres.”

Her peculiar look and sound have garnered far-reaching attention beyond that of music fans. She’s collaborated with Japanese artist and tastemaker Takashi Murakami on apparel and music videos, including her latest: a haunting, slightly grotesque CG-animated interpretation of “You Should See Me in a Crown;” and Spotify worked with her to curate the Billie Eilish Experience, an interactive pop-up art event that coincided with the launch of her album. This physical manifestation of her music was curated, fittingly, by Billie Eilish herself.

But her highbrow collaborations are balanced with teen-friendly pop culture references. The song “My Strange Addiction” is composed of multiple sound clips from The Office, beloved by the Netflix generation. “You Should See Me In A Crown,” which boasts about taking the pop throne while subverting the male gaze, lifted its title from a line in the BBC show and Tumblr phenom Sherlock. One of her earliest songs, 2015’s “Fingers Crossed,” is about a zombie apocalypse, inspired by The Walking Dead. Horrific sound effects are major elements of her music: slashing knives, buzzing drills, and the somehow haunting sound of a child’s Easy Bake Oven bell.

She brings these horrifying and pop references to life in her video for “When The Party’s Over,” her most-streamed song on Spotify. The video, inspired by a piece of fan art, is set in an all white-white psychiatric ward, like the sterile hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Eilish is seated in a metal chair, also wearing white, draped in blue hair and silver chains that hang from her neck. She sings quietly along to a delicate piano waltz, mourning the loss of her relationship with grim metaphors: “Tore my shirt to stop you bleedin’ / But nothin’ ever stops you leavin’.”

And then, the video shifts from discomforting to outright shocking: Eilish picks up a glass, full of black ink, and gulps it down. She begins to cry, as black tears roll down her face. They begin to form a river that runs down her neck, staining her shirt with Rorschach-like inkblots. We now have only more questions about Eilish: Did she really drink down that ink? Is she okay? Did she ruin her vision?

Eilish doesn’t care about following trends, but they still play a part in her rise to fame

Any subject is game for Eilish. Love and depression, high fashion and fast fashion, pop and hip-hop; Eilish blends all of these into her music and image to reflect a postmodern society, which her generation remakes on the daily. As much as she comments on contemporary life, she is also a product of it. Only in the last decade could a teenager have a home studio with the capacity to make radio-ready recordings, distribute songs for free online, and even interact directly with her fans through her phone (she responds directly to covers of her songs on YouTube).

There are countless aspiring teenage musicians producing remixes on SoundCloud or uploading YouTube videos in their bedrooms, but Eilish’s disregard for conventions in music and fashion is exactly what has captured the attention of Generation Z. There is plenty of spectacle to her art, but it’s tempered by her self-conscious lyrics and young, intimate vocals. Eilish comes across as an honest manifestation of the candid, sometimes twisted, interior life of a teenager in 2019, not a subversive lifestyle brand produced by a marketing team.

When the New York Times asked her, on the heels of her first album release, what kind of music she wants to make going forward, she was blunt: “Billie Eilish music, the other kind of music.” What comes next for that genre? We’ll just have to see when the party’s over.

Charlie Harding is the co-host of Switched on Pop, Vox’s podcast about the making and meaning of popular music. It’s available on all podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Listen to Switched on Pop break down Billie Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and speak with Finneas O’Connell about the making of her latest single, “Bad Guy,” here.