Music

Billie Eilish’s Teen Angst and Alienation

Billie Eilish at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., February 9, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
In her latest music video, she lightens up, a little.

In Everything I Wanted, teen music phenomenon Billie Eilish and her brother-collaborator Finneas O’Connell drive a sleek black automobile off the night road onto a beach. She accelerates, plunges into the surf, and they sit like mummies in a sarcophagus at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. That’s where the L.A. siblings escape the demands of show business. This quirky, gloomy scenario is most interesting because 19-year-old Eilish directed it herself (as much as we can believe any big record-company star does anything by hand). Eilish presents her neo-Goth persona based on a career marketed to adolescents, but her carefully contrived alienation also reveals a peculiar relationship to pop-culture tropes, specifically those found in movies.

Everything I Wanted compiles pop references from car commercials and movies that reveal the cultural detritus in Eilish’s head. Born in 2001, the year of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Eilish seems to have absorbed its influence by osmosis, as suggested by that underwater finale, which recalls Spielberg’s robot-boy David awaiting salvation. (The double-suicide motif in Everything I Wanted also evokes Thelma and Louise, from 1992 — an earlier, pithy expression of shared self-pity.) But the major distinction of Everything I Wanted comes from Eilish’s apparent distance from Spielberg’s Judeo-Christian inspiration — she suffers the self-absorption of the home-schooled, parlaying an unsocialized girlchild’s plight.

The polished solipsism of Everything I Wanted represents the quintessence of Generation Z pampering, perhaps previewing society’s next devolution — when Generation Z blurs into the Generation COVID, those autistics produced by enforced quarantine.

You may never have heard a Billie Eilish song — she hasn’t yet made a hit that permeates society. Recorded in bed-sit whispers, her tunes have an uncanny, if unnerving intimacy, thanks to modern microphone technology. Yet the esteem given Eilish’s art efforts — she has won two consecutive Grammy awards for Record of the Year — also makes their “profundity” suspicious. I recall a talk-show host praising Kelly Clarkson for writing “Because of You” at age 16, although it indeed sounded like a song written by a 16-year-old. The Eilish phenomenon repeats that same dopey trend. Nonetheless, she’s an avatar of today’s Instagram, TikTok cultural and cinematic sensibility.

So far, Eilish has directed six music videos, mini movies that visualize her imagination. In her first video, Six Feet Under (2016), made when she was 13, a stink bomb releases putrid yellow, green smoke while Billie drones on in her Fiona Apple way about death and alienation. In Bored (2017), with hair dyed widow-gray, overdressed in a blue hoodie plus a blue down jacket with blue running pants and blue sneakers, she’s blue. Get it? Climbing a ladder between two suspended loudspeakers, she has the drugged-out, vacant-eyed teen-hooker look that Jodie Foster used in Taxi Driver. She sings, “When you walk out the door and leave me torn / You’re teaching me to live without it (bored)” — her message is either parental neglect, pretend heartbreak, or pretend resignation. The bright, artificial setting reveals the lie. The Grammys rubber-stamp this defeatism as another means of social division. Eilish’s petulant isolation is merely a new decadent gimmick, far from Rimbaud and Patti Smith. Have Eilish fans ever heard Smith’s Horses, an epic debauch redeemed by rock-and-roll fervor and finding release in rhythm and dance?

In Xanny (2019), praising the drug Xanax, Eilish depicts herself as an abused child enduring cigarette burns on her face. Probably unaware that decades before her, teen idol James Dean was cynically called “the human ash tray,” Eilish chooses another icon: She sits on a Forrest Gump–style park bench (analyst’s couch). She’s dressed in white sanitarium garb to trigger a more familiar movie influence.

Eilish the auteur clearly needs to study Spielberg as well as Jean Cocteau, whose dramas of claustrophobic domestic life, Les Enfants Terribles and Les Parents Terribles, anticipated the family background covered in Billie Eilish: Everything’s a Little Blurry, the recent, unsurprising doc about Eilish and her boho-helicopter parents.

At this year’s Grammys, Eliish gushed admiration for “sexhibitionist” Megan Thee Stallion, obviously revealing her desperate need to be liberated from self-disgust. Who would guess that she has the same body issues as Lizzo? Eilish drapes herself in shroud-like costumes, including hat and gloves. (“Does anybody still wear a hat?” Stephen Sondheim asked in his Broadway tune “The Ladies Who Lunch.”) Eilish’s music videos avoid pop eroticism; instead, she wears layers of clothing even in the COVID-emptied shopping mall of Therefore I Am. That video is a series of single-take shots like Alexander Sokurov’s overrated tech exercise Russian Ark. She deals with fame by stealing and eating pretzels, doughnuts, slurpies, and french fries, like Janet Jackson frolicking through a restaurant’s kitchen in “When I Think of You,” before her makeover.

This is Eilish’s most likable, if most dully “cinematic” video. She giggles. There’s a rhythm. She skip-hops. It’s her rap song: “Stop / What the hell are you talking about? / Get your pretty name out of my mouth.” Is Megan teaching her to actually address a man, rather than some imagined schoolboy on Zoom? Saying “Don’t Talk / Bout me like how you might know how I feel” is almost as sassy as one of Dua Lipa’s irresistible hits. Billie’s awkward lyric “I’m not your friend / Or anything damn” uses an oddly placed exclamation like a nerd who hasn’t quite learned to cuss. At least it isn’t sorrowful.

For once, Eilish breaks out of her teenage gloom, rejecting the jailbait tease of “Bad Guy,” her first Grammy win. And finally, her movie sense lightens up. Film-noir cynicism comes easy to hipsters and post-hipsters. Eilish’s depressive self-portraits reveal the temperamental confusion of her generation. Can she snap out of it?

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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