Everything you wanted: Why Billie Eilish is the ultimate teen-pop icon

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‘She’s your best friend in high school’ – Billie Eilish, teenage icon (Richard Young/Shutterstock)
‘She’s your best friend in high school’ – Billie Eilish, teenage icon (Richard Young/Shutterstock)

When Billie Eilish casually took her seat at pop’s top table, a shock of green hair and a clutch of genre-blurring songs that were, to put it bluntly, quite bleak for a teen star, she made everyone sit up and notice. Some people had told her that her music was “too dark, too sad, too depressing, that it wasn’t happy enough”, she has said; others blasted her baggy clothes, or really whatever clothes she chose to wear. But with songs like “Bad Guy” and “Everything I Wanted”, she tapped into something that transcended music and went beyond pop artistry.

“I would like people to listen to me,” she told Vogue last month, when talking about her new song “Your Power”. That sentiment underlines her USP, and is echoed by the 19-year-old’s millions of fans, many of whom are the same age or younger, many of whom want to be seen. Because Eilish represents the teenage desire to be heard, to have those blurry, heightened feelings of confusion, despair and heartbreak validated, rather than dismissed. She’s now one of the most streamed artists in the world and has tapped into a side of the teenage psyche that few mainstream artists have managed to reach.

Take Eilish’s music videos. Like so many teenagers, her diaries – which were featured in her recent Apple TV documentary The World’s a Little Blurry – are littered with doodles of fantastical creatures with fangs and scales and demonic eyes. I’d actually forgotten that my own drawings were like this – so similar, in fact, that Eilish’s diaries made me do a double-take, half-convinced she’d stolen them from my childhood bedroom – because we so rarely see that side of ourselves in entertainment. Those creations are brought to life in her videos, from the fallen angel in “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” to her inky black tears in “When the Party’s Over”.

The teenage girl has terrified pop culture for decades. They are frequently misunderstood and condescended to. Eilish feels like a different kind of pop star because she understands this, she is one of them. As she told NME in 2019: “People underestimate the power of a young mind that is new to everything and experiencing for the first time. We’re being ignored and it’s so dumb. We know everything.” Her comments echo those made by the Canadian pop-rock singer Avril Lavigne – whom Eilish has cited as a major influence – in a 2020 interview with The Guardian: “It’s difficult to be a woman and to be heard,” Lavigne said, “and people sometimes don’t take you seriously.”

Lavigne had her own experience of this pressure: her 2002 debut album, Let Go, was dismissed by many critics as overly earnest, even though she was only 17 at the time of making it. When it came to 2004’s follow-up, Under My Skin, her lyrics were branded “contrived”. A scathing review commented: “Nearly everyone under [the age] of 15 appears to have swallowed the official line on Lavigne: that she is an authentic symbol of punk rebellion, a scowling refusenik antidote to manufactured production-line pop. Everyone else is perplexed, largely because she could be no more obviously manufactured if she had a barcode and a telephone number for customer services taped to her forehead.”

While music critics have been kinder to Eilish than they were to Lavigne, she has also been accused of being an “industry plant” and her detractors have called her “weirdness” an act. In 2019, she was forced to address an accusation that she “fakes” her depression for clout. There are entire Reddit threads dedicated to speculating over whether her personality – of someone who delights in gross-out humour and is obsessed with The Office – has been forged in a pop laboratory. It’s gross evidence of how little the mainstream is exposed to any image of a teenage girl who is not wrapped up in bubblegum pink, as well as how the music industry’s focus on “authenticity” has bred a nasty underlying quest to out “authentic” artists as frauds.

Eilish has also suffered more than her fair share of media scrutiny, most noisily over her choice of clothing. When she first emerged around the age of 15 or 16, she typically dressed in oversized shirts and shorts. Then, in 2019, there was a stomach-churning internet frenzy after paparazzi photos showed her walking in Los Angeles while wearing a vest top. As various media outlets tried to body-shame her, Eilish’s reaction was just as sharp to those who acted as though her showing some skin was somehow revelatory.

She was also vigilant enough about the media to “warn” people of the likelihood that she would, one day, ditch the baggy clothes altogether. “I’m gonna be a woman. I wanna show my body,“ she told Elle. ”What if I wanna make a video where I wanna look desirable? Not a porno! But I know it would be a huge thing. I know people will say, ‘I’ve lost all respect for her.’” Her prediction came partly true this year, when her Vogue cover images were unveiled to much fanfare, but also cries of hypocrisy from publications such as the Daily Mail, who accused her of “selling out”.

“That Billie is 19, is often hailed as the antidote to toxic tropes for women in pop, and has been a reluctant icon of body positivity – as well as a feminist thought leader for her fans – makes her June cover shoot an intriguing change of gear,” a statement from the magazine said, adding a comment from Eilish: “It’s all about what makes you feel good.” Eilish later shared a more strongly worded post by writer Emily Clarkson (daughter of feminist champion Jeremy Clarkson), who pointed out how the Mail’s headline – “Fans shocked as Billie Eilish swaps baggy clothes for lingerie in Vogue – despite years of vowing to ‘hide her body’” – made it sound as though Eilish was “committing some mortal sin and letting her fans down”.

But Eilish refuses to be shamed for how she dresses, or the fact that she might change her style over the years. “Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore,” she told Vogue. “If I am, then I’m proud. Me and all the girls are hoes, and f*** it, y’know? Let’s turn it around and be empowered in that. Showing your body and showing your skin – or not – should not take any respect away from you.”

As with pop monolith Taylor Swift, Eilish’s new look was used to herald her next “era”, tied in with her forthcoming second album, Happier Than Ever, which is out at the end of July. The singles released so far from this record already demonstrate greater variety than those from her debut, but they continue to address issues at the heart of her (majority female) fanbase. “Your Power” has her singing in a crooning falsetto over tender strums of an acoustic guitar. The lyrics, though, tap into themes of coercion and power imbalances created by differences in age and experience. The dark, shuddering beats of her next single, “NDA”, run beneath Eilish’s calm but disturbing accounts of fame: “Had to save my money for security/ Got a stalker walkin’ up and down the street … Had a pretty boy over but he couldn’t stay/ On his way out, made him sign an NDA.” And of course, the album title is a knowing jab at those who diss her sombre disposition.

Eilish is like no other pop star at the moment, but she clearly carries the torch of her forebears. Recent single “Lost Cause” has intriguing hints of Lavigne’s breakout track “Complicated”, which despaired over a friend acting like a poser. Eilish takes a similar tone as she mocks her ex: “I know you think you’re such an outlaw/ But you got no job/ You ain’t nothing but a lost cause.”

And Eilish’s album arrives right as the furore surrounding Britney Spears’s conservatorship battle reaches new heights. At a glance, the former’s sound and style couldn’t be more different from Spears’s polished megawatt pop of the late-Nineties and Noughties. But both achieved global fame at an inconceivably young age and both have suffered a painful level of scrutiny over their personal lives, appearance and autonomy over their careers. Yet, against all odds, Eilish has asserted herself in an industry that continues to delight in controlling young women and their emotions.

“Billie has a unique sense of herself as an artist and who she is as a person – this resonates deeply with young audiences and beyond,” Sulinna Ong, Spotify’s head of music for the UK and Ireland, tells The Independent. “Her music shows that it’s OK to be who you are, which is a really important message in today’s society.”

“She’s your best friend in high school or college,” Justin Lubliner, head of the Interscope-partnered label Darkroom, told Variety in 2019. “She represents something people want for themselves – to express and connect, to say and do what they want.”

‘She represents something people want for themselves – to express and connect’ (Getty)
‘She represents something people want for themselves – to express and connect’ (Getty)

Despite the plaudits and praise, some parents, particularly in the US, have raised concerns over how Eilish’s lyrics explore themes of depression and suicidal thoughts, particularly on her debut album. It’s a common but highly misplaced fear, with no consideration for how songs such as these can make their listeners feel understood for the first time.

The same thing happened with My Chemical Romance, who were blamed when a fan, Hannah Bond, died by suicide in 2008. The Daily Mail ran an inflammatory comment piece with the headline: “Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo.” The band’s teenage fanbase were outraged and a protest took place in London. Years later, one fan told journalist and author Hannah Ewens, for her book Fangirls: “I was grappling with the beginnings of a serious mental health issue and I didn’t know anyone else that felt that way … I didn’t know how to tell my friends, ‘I want to die.’ It was very lonely.” For this fan, My Chemical Romance’s music was actually a lifeline that made her feel less isolated.

An MCR fan herself, Eilish has now taken up that mantle; her music gives young people something to identify with and to hold on to while exploring the true side of teenagehood. “[When I was 14], I didn’t know anything about self-love or self-care,” Eilish told Variety in 2019. “All I knew was the stuff that I knew, and a lot of it was bad and negative. That’s what I wanted to write about, and that’s why people relate to it. I mean, even The Beatles have songs that are just like, ‘I’m miserable!’”

More than anything, Eilish tells herself and her fans that it’s OK to feel things in extremes, no matter how much eye-rolling this may cause among older generations. Our teenage years are spent navigating through brand new experiences, tumultuous emotions and multiple end-of-the-world scenarios. Parents should be grateful that Eilish is there to help this generation through it.

‘Happier Than Ever’ is released on 30 July

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