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Why Billie Eilish's party will never be over

Billie Eilish, who's won back-to-back Grammys for Record of the Year, controls her own narrative by making the internet her playground

Billie Eilish has had more success than most modern female pop stars in controlling her image and the trajectory of her career
Billie Eilish has had more success than most modern female pop stars in controlling her image and the trajectory of her career

Nineteen-year-old Billie Eilish, who on Sunday won Record of the Year at the Grammys for the second year running, was raised in a modest two-bedroom Los Angeles home but she really grew up on the internet. Her debut single, Ocean Eyes, a dream-like whispery menace of a song (a lover’s eyes are compared to “napalm skies”) became a viral SoundCloud hit before being re-released commercially, eventually amassing over 200 million Spotify plays. In 2015, when the song exploded online almost overnight, it spawned an entire ecosystem of remixes, today considered a marker of not just accomplishment but also influence. It led to the 14-year-old Eilish landing a massive deal with Darkroom/Interscope Records, the label that manages Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga.

Her songs have netted 15 billion combined streams worldwide according to Spotify, her YouTube channel has over 39 million subscribers, and the music video for Bad Guy has over one billion views alone. Simply put, over the last five years Eilish has cemented her vitality as an apocalyptic teen pop sensation and transmuted that cachet into becoming the defining artist of the streaming-era.

It’s perhaps why RJ Cutler’s observant Apple TV+ documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, insists on examining the hyper-awareness engulfing female superstardom that is a by-product of the internet. Shot over two years, it chronicles the creation of Eilish’s multi-platinum, award-garlanded and record-breaking debut album WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? and the reverberations of its rarefied level of success (it won 11 Grammys, including album of the year). Culled from hours of home-movies and concert footage, The World’s A Little Blurry is an absorbing portrait of how the landscape of pop stardom has altered since Britney Spears and Taylor Swift used to steer its course.

In that sense, Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is as invested in answering whether the most successful female pop stars are ever in control of their own narratives as the documentaries Miss Americana (2020)—streaming on Netflix—which centred around Taylor Swift reclaiming her reputation after a fraught period in her career, and Framing Britney Spears (2021), which dissects the rise and fall of the singer two decades ago. Unlike Spears and Swift, both of whom had to endure the brutal aftermath of not subscribing to the ideal image of a compliant popstar, the inimitable quality of Eilish’s fame hinges on her steadfast dedication to challenge the status quo.

Eilish eschewed the rote sexualisation of her body to fuel her pop mythmaking at the outset, a stark contrast to Swift and Spears, who employed their sexuality to define their pop star identikit. On stage, she is more androgynous than feminine; Eilish is famously averse to skimpy clothing and dresses exclusively in baggy T-shirts and shorts.

Her lyrical themes veer away from convention as well. The conflict in her songs does not stem from heartbreak or the casual indifference of men—central Swift and Spears themes—but is instead centred on the grimness of life: climate change (All The Good Girls Go to Hell), night terrors (Bury A Friend), serial killers (Bellyache) or an indefinable feeling of isolation from the world (When The Party’s Over).

The film busies itself in underscoring Eilish’s concept of artistic authenticity, which, as Cutler suggests, lets her wrest more agency over her own career than the world would have otherwise allowed her. The singer has never entered a recording studio, continuing to make music in her brother Finneas O’Connell’s old bedroom, along with him. She’s also in charge of her own music videos, conceptualising and directing them, effectively the creative director of her narrative. That Eilish toured sold-out shows even before she had a debut album to her name is a testament to her ability to relate with a younger generation disillusioned by the sanitised language of pop.

This is why even though Eilish’s body dominates more headlines than her music, she isn’t a pawn—as a pop star whose playground is the internet, the vicious nature of media scrutiny is inherently ill-equipped to alter public perception against her. That’s a stark contrast from Swift and Spears, whose trajectories were halted by a voyeuristic media ecosystem. A 19-year-old Swift was bullied into hiding for a full year after her much publicised feud with Kanye West, which in turn affected the reception of her album. The career-threatening public meltdown of Spears, on the other hand, was a direct upshot of the unrealistic expectations heaped on female pop stars, with cameras recording every move that went against it. The autonomy that Eilish has come to enjoy as a pop star then feels both like an anomaly and a reckoning—a counter to the forces that interfered with Swift’s and Spears’ careers (Swift has been forced to re-record her entire catalogue in order to regain creative and financial ownership over her own work).

The downside to this precise nature of Eilish’s fame is that it is entwined with an acute, constant paranoia of just how quickly social media can turn on her—these moments especially paralyse her when she is charting undeniable career-highs. Take, for instance, the fact that Eilish’s insistence on being authentic to herself. At times, that is shorthand for her crushing fear of being disliked. Early on in the documentary during the process of creating Eilish’s debut album, Finneas, who seems to buckle under the incessant pressure from Interscope Records to deliver a hit song, lashes out against his sister’s resistance towards being more accessible. “Her equation is that the more popular something is, the more hate it’s going to get.”

Another sequence towards the end of the documentary captures Eilish fretting over how unfavourably people online might perceive her interpretation of No Time To Die, the theme song she was enlisted to create for the latest instalment of the James Bond franchise. In her signature DIY bedroom musician approach, Eilish records the track on a parked tour bus under the supervision of her multi-hyphenate older brother and producer. The sibling duo carve out time for the track amidst a sold-out tour in Houston, Texas, as if it is a last-minute college assignment and not a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with an Oscar-winning composer. Eilish looks visibly exhausted when she gets down to singing the song, having just pulled off a demanding show. But she continues, stopping only when it appears that her attempt at belting, a singing technique which produces a high-intensity vocal sound, could be straining her voice. “I am gonna get made fun of by the internet when I do it,” Eilish complains, finally cracking under the pressure. “The internet is going to be mean if I do it.”

The internet wasn’t mean when she did it. No Time To Die racked up 90,000 chart sales, including 10.6 billion streams. It went straight to No.1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK the week it was released, marking the biggest ever opening week for the Bond franchise. The haunting ballad, a visible departure from Eilish’s trademark sinister sonic preoccupations, is powerful while being quiet, its rage simmering in the shadows instead of exploding in your face. By all accounts, Eilish, who became the youngest artist to record a James Bond theme, had succeeded in reimagining its purpose for a new generation.

In hindsight, it might seem ridiculous that Eilish ever felt concerned about possible media scrutiny despite her talent and fame. But as the film suggests, these are calculations that she has to make as someone whose appeal hinges on relatability and on shrinking the distance between herself and her fandom. Cutler contexualises the hold social media feedback has on Eilish’s process as a permanent clampdown instead of pitting it as a one-off overreaction. She’s effectively always one step away from an Instagram condemnation or a Twitter cancellation, a thought that Eilish voices in an outburst later in the film when she is attacked on social media for being rude to her fans during an impromptu, forced meet-and-greet session. “I don’t want anyone who knows who I am, and is any sort of fan or knows a fan, to see me in sort of an awkward situation,” she says. “It’s embarrassing and I have to keep smiling. And if I don’t, they hate me, and they think I am horrible.”

But the truth is, she is still more in control of her destiny than Swift and Spears ever were at her age. The media cycle can only sully her reputation for not fitting into the mould of an agreeable female pop star, not influence her next move. That’s the power Billie Eilish has over the internet.

Poulomi Das is a freelance film and culture writer based in Mumbai.

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