Craft & Vulnerability | Both Sides of Billie Eilish
The most distinctive thing about Billie Eilish is her tact. Her music blends swagger, darkness, humour, and vulnerability—not to mention catchy melodies. This composed combination grabs you with intent. It’s as if she actively developed the sound, being sure to include all of the vibes we’re inwardly drawn to. Now this may be all her, but it seems a bit too clever not to have been crafted. The music represents all of our dark desires mixed with true purity.
Billie Eilish launched her career in a modern, internet-driven way. She dropped her first song, ‘ocean eyes’, on SoundCloud in 2017 and basically woke up to it going viral. The song perfectly blends modern pop with ethereal vocals and a slight R&B twinge. The lyricism feels defeated and hopeful at the same time. Eilish expresses fear and love simultaneously, even ending the song with a stripped-down vocal of just her and some electric piano—it feels like you’re having a conversation.
Eilish could have used that first single and played the Internet game of mystery and SoundCloud drops to generate hype. Instead, she signed with Darkroom/Interscope Records and, soon after her initial come up, crafted a defining project. Her debut EP don’t smile at me dropped the same year as her first single. It was, and is, as complete a body of work as any major pop release. It covers all aspects of her musical image. My favourite track on the project (and still my favourite Eilish song) is ‘bellyache’.
It starts with an acoustic pop feel, dark yet light, and is a true pop song. It then transitions directly into a moody electro/trap pop song, exploring both sides of Eilish’s musical identity. The lyricism goes back and forth between a reckless, impulsive Eilish, and an Eilish acutely aware of her own moves. She expresses the very human conundrum of love and hurt through sound and thought. On the EP, ‘bellyache’ transitions into ‘ocean eyes’ in a way that almost offers a new perspective on the latter. It makes ‘ocean eyes’ sound like it exists in a state of clarity, compared to the confusion of ‘bellyache’.
Eilish rode out the impact of her first project for over a year, until her debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, dropped in March of 2019. The remarkable thing about the album is her expansion of this double-sided musical identity. She adds elements of humour, as well as a stripped-down vulnerability both lyrically and sonically. On tracks like ‘bad guy’ and ‘you should see me in a crown’ she paints herself as the enemy with hard-hitting bass and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, almost making her the puppeteer of her own prowess. It’s feminist, dope, and goofy all at once.
Then, towards the end of the album, Eilish leans into more pared-down songs with minimal production, like ‘listen before I go’ and ‘i love you’. They show the sadness and self-deprecation behind the humour and exaggerated ego. Yet, when I listen I never get too sad, because she consistently mixes sadness with beauty and understanding. Eilish knows how to tap into all sides of the human psyche while remaining authentic.
In interviews Eilish seems like that one goofy homie that everyone gets along with. It all comes across as deep as it is charismatic and, most importantly, honest. She wears oversized designer clothing that serves many purposes at once—humour, a flex, a way to hide, and a way to combat female fashion standards. My favourite Billie Eilish interview is on the show Hot Ones, as she eats devastatingly spicy chicken wings while answering questions. She opens by popping out her Invisalign and putting it in the chest pocket of her Louis Vuitton sweater. Then she talks about her obsession with an independent soda pop shop in Highland Park. She mixes soy milk with grape soda. She burps unabashedly and swears every fourth word.
Billie Eilish comes across as such a goofy person to hang out with and certainly not the character represented in her music. This highlights the intent of Eilish’s music—a deep internal analysis of herself. It’s also reassuring for listeners. None of us are one-dimensional and she effortlessly fluctuates between all sides of herself.
Her recent SNL performance was the epitome of her tactful side, opening with a playful performance of her biggest hit, ‘bad guy’. Eilish moved in a filmed box, giving the appearance that she was walking on the walls and ceiling. She was upside down and sideways, singing and dancing with finesse, even with a visibly injured leg. It was as silly as it was cool. However, the most impressive part of the performance was her voice. Her vocals still sounded crisp which, in my experience, has not been the case for many SNL music guests in the past couple of years.
Billie Eilish hooked the audience with that wildly charming start. She even had the camera zoom out to her band playing at the end, revealing the rig behind the illusion. This decision to show her hand made you feel like you were in on it. This might seem stupid and vain but, in truth, we all like to be involved. Her message was, “I’m humble but you have to admit I’m still dope”.
That said, the first performance was all just a set up for the real stunner, a simple acoustic rendition of ‘i love you’. Just Eilish with her collaborator and brother Finneas O’Connell. He sat to the left playing acoustic guitar and delivering smooth backup vocals. Eilish, to the right, sang her lead vocal effortlessly, honestly, and simply, maintaining her signature breathy tone. All this was executed with an ability and vulnerability that showed why 2019 has been her year. It was one of the best SNL performances I’ve ever seen. ‘i love you’ was the real highlight for me, though she clearly opened with the more explosive, social media-friendly performance in order to allow the space for it.
Billie Eilish proves that she has the artful tact to play both sides effectively. Or, to show the many true sides of herself seamlessly and honestly. Even if it’s all crafted, it feels authentic.