In just a few short years, Billie Eilish has gone from an ocean-eyed dancer with a dream to one of the most influential artists of her generation. Her professional and personal lives work in tandem, showcasing a young woman who has successfully cemented her place as a full-fledged icon —all by disrupting the stereotypical idea of what it takes to be one.
Thanks to a catalogue boasting unique soundscapes, vivid storytelling, and unparalleled self-assurance, the not yet 20-year-old — with the help of her brother and producer/collaborator Finneas — has reconfigured the music scene as we know it. From her sound to her image, Billie’s rejection of the ordinary is what has made her an extraordinary emerging cultural force.
Eilish’s ascension to the scene’s throne began atypically. After uploading her debut single “Ocean Eyes” to the website Soundcloud at age 14 — a strikingly different route into the pop scene, but a similar one into the rap game — she became one to watch. In hindsight, this technique was entirely befitting and benefitting of an artist who is consistently revered for going against the grain.
Perhaps what makes Eilish’s reign over the industry so impressive is the rather unorthodox creation and presentation of her work, which illustrates her derision for convention. Billie set herself apart thanks to tunes carrying a sinister, twisted energy, a far cry from the bubblegum-flavored pop sonics booming from speakers at the start of the 21st century.
She encapsulates the brooding teenage stereotype through morose imagery and unexpected production inspiration in her first two lauded efforts: the electropop-soaked 2017 EP Don’t Smile At Me and her horrorcore-tinged Grammy-winning debut album, 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The content in these bodies of work highlight topics from heartbreak to drug abuse, and her songs — which pull inspo from a variety of genres — are accompanied by audible accoutrements like heavy breathing and the slurping of saliva.
Her latest album, 2021’s Happier Than Ever, ditches the sinister for something slightly more sophisticated. However, her personal musings regarding the ins and outs of fame and growing up are triumphant — likely a byproduct of her generation’s ability to be more open, aware and vulnerable than the age groups preceding theirs. “I thought that I was special, you made me feel like it was my fault,” she coos on the acoustic ballad “Your Power,” which pertains to “[witnessing] or [experiencing]” abuse of all sorts. “You were the devil, lost your appeal…”
The way she crafts her compositions and album visuals similarly display her antithetical artistic approach. Rather than being hampered by typical label interference, Billie became famous for her DIY way of making her hits. (All components of her songs are created alongside her brother in their childhood home’s recording studio.) Her music videos, often self-conceptualized and occassionally self-directed, inspire shock and awe from a visual standpoint, but still urge deeper contemplation of her message. The eerie “All The Good Girls Go To Hell” forces viewers to think about climate change and the follies of men, while her inky black tears in the haunting “When The Party’s Over” video is symbolic of mourning the end of a relationship.
“From the start, Eilish’s appeal has relied on combining her taste for the radical with her strong sense of the classical,” wrote The New York Times in 2020. “All this reflects an entertainer’s conscious strategy to inspire titillated repulsion in audiences—to seduce and ensnare fans the way a horror auteur does…But it also connects to [Eilish’s] tendencies toward melancholy and depression, which [she] says songwriting helps her to navigate and, ideally, helps listeners relate to her music that much more profoundly.”
Much like in her career, Eilish isn’t defined by her fashion choices, which subvert typical femininity and the notion of what a pop star looks like aesthetically. Outside from the typical teenage act of changing her hair color often, Billie regularly sports baggy, oversized clothing, which she dons in order to place a focus on her art rather than her appearance. However, after debuting a sultry look for the cover of British Vogue in 2021, detractors quickly had something to say about her provocative look.
Most young women in the public eye believe a more “grown-up” look is an obligation. However, Billie made the decision to wait to dress “adult” until she was comfortable, without making any radical changes to her sound or persona. Her choice to dress up or dress down speaks to the chameleonic nature of her essence—the same essence that made her a star in the first place.
The many levels of Billie Eilish’s consciousness and expression have emboldened not only her generation, but fans of all ages. There have been a handful of artists in the last few years that seem to loosely follow Billie’s blueprint through the creation of atmospheric, experimental bedroom pop, or poignant yet punchy compositions detailing nuanced perspectives of the world. However, she continues to drive in her own lane, and it appears that the industry is poised to follow her lead wherever she goes.
“The weirdness of Billie Eilish’s music, and the apparent improbability of her success, are marketing hooks that have helped pull her star upward,” veteran journalist Ann Powers wrote of Eilish in 2019. “She’s become a role model for kids who don’t fit… and that’s why Eilish’s appeal works within the mainstream, rather than opposing it.”
Eilish’s refusal to conform and her ability to challenge the norms of sound, genre, and femininity make her not just a staple in contemporary pop, but a young legend whose importance should reverberate for years to come.