Earlier this week, “Bad Guy,” a spooky, twitching single by the seventeen-year-old singer and songwriter Billie Eilish, unseated Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the top of the Billboard chart, ending that song’s unprecedented nineteen-week run at No. 1. Eilish is now the first artist born in the two-thousands to enjoy such success. Her spare, portentous electro-pop (she writes with her elder brother Finneas, who also produced her début album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”) recalls the work of Trent Reznor, but is imbued with far more friskiness, conviviality, and youthful nonchalance.
Eilish was homeschooled by her parents in Los Angeles. She has blue hair and prefers to dress in enormous monochromatic outfits—loose, wide shorts, boxy tops, sneakers. In photographs, she looks comfortable and awesome. It feels fair to describe Eilish’s aesthetic as both an antidote to and a queering of the hyper-feminized pop-star archetype, but the most striking thing about her is how unguarded she appears—which, per the contemporary vernacular, means that she appears deeply uninterested in the cultivation of persona, or in the very lucrative business of performing vulnerability. Eilish feels like a miracle in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe. She simply exists, before us—futzing with her Invisalign braces, doing a bunch of goofy-ass dances, posing on Instagram alongside a soiled mattress awaiting trash pickup. It’s not that she’s blind to the work of character development—it’s that she appears inured to or ambivalent about it.
Her humanity and weirdness are, in many ways, what make her such an unusual presence on the charts. As my colleague Doreen St. Félix recently wrote, looking back upon the pop heroines of her youth, “The teens we revered moved in militaristic phalanxes, and, though they were forced to dress and live as virginal sex kittens, they seemed like robots programmed never to act out.” The strictures have relaxed a bit in subsequent decades, but the biggest female pop stars in the world—Taylor Swift, Beyoncé—still appear practiced, if not terrifyingly overdetermined, both in public and online. I cannot think of a more modern horror than a ghost-eyed, grinning person, pretending to be entirely unchanged by enormous success and fame.
Owing to some powerful combination of hubris and self-delusion, I almost never listen to a new artist and think, Maybe this isn’t exactly made for me. Yet I sense that Eilish is identifying and alleviating an ache that I don’t quite understand, because I am old enough to have come of age without social networks, or a device in my pocket intent on reminding me of the precarity of literally everything. When you grow up believing that the world is all problems without solutions—Twitter runs on an efficient engine of dread and hysteria—it is easy to absorb a kind of ambient hopelessness. How does a person respond to limitless doom and gloom?
In the spirit of research, I texted my friend Hannah, a twenty-one-year-old Eilish fan who graduated from college this past May. “She’s decisively young and CAREFREE in that sort of neon bisexual lightning flashy strobe streetwear instagram-story urgency without being at all naïve or Lolita-sexualized,” she responded. “ALSO! I think gen z is extremely lonely!!!! songs like ‘When the Party’s Over’ get RIGHT at the desperate, gnawing sense of isolation social media has sewn into a generation who are becoming increasingly sequestered.”
And the extraordinary feeling of menace in her music, I wondered? The way her songs creep through a room, the lingering sense they give that something evil is always gearing up to pounce? That Eilish can seem both wildly troubled and genuinely laid-back, sometimes within a single verse? “A dutiful representative of the glitzy traumatized generation of morbid mini-adults she serenades,” Hannah replied.
Eilish is speaking directly to a generation of people who, like her, were born either right before or right after 9/11, which means they’re intimately familiar with feelings of worry and instability on a macro level, having been born into a war that was broadcast live on television, and grown up in an echo chamber of very bad news. (Other generations have certainly suffered, in both literal and psychic ways, but without the added amplification of the Internet.) Online, at least, people Eilish’s age tend to manage their anxiety by clinging to some eternally shifting combination of nihilism and humor. It’s in this way that Eilish and Lil Nas X feel like the first pop stars of a new epoch, in which the oft-repeated challenge of staying alive can only be counterbalanced by an embrace of the absurd. Why not respond to news that the planet is warming to uninhabitable levels by matching your hair to your parka to your nails to your sunglasses to your shoes and socks, or singing a line like “I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t wanna stay / I just kinda wish you were gay”?
There is also, in these young stars, a willful disavowal of everything that came before. This is not so much a musical rejection (both Lil Nas X and Eilish are working within established genres) as a cultural one. Nas X is black and gay, yet he has embraced the iconography of country music, a field dominated, for the last several decades, by aggressively heterosexual white men; Eilish is young and beautiful, but she dresses however she wants, and refuses to leverage her body or her voice in any of the predictable ways. Her songs are catchy, but not necessarily hook-laden, and her delivery can be skittish and thin; both she and Nas X are talented, but neither is virtuosic, nor aspiring to meet any traditional ideas regarding virtuosity. Their casual (but purposeful) renunciation of cultural expectations make a certain sense. Why play by the rules of a world that brought you nothing but fear?