With long, lime green nails that match her punk rock hair and an extensive Gucci wardrobe, 18-year-old singer Billie Eilish has some of the makings of a pop starlet. But as a homeschooled family kid who wears baggy clothes to avoid being sexualized, she doesn’t quite fit the mold.
Eilish is the hottest act in pop music right now. She took home five Grammy Awards last weekend and became the youngest and the first female artist to win all four major awards for best new artist, song, record, and album in the same year. Before her first studio album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart last year, her singles and EP had garnered her millions of followers on Instagram and Spotify.
She has a fan base of adoring adolescent girls to rival that of Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. The Australian website Student Edge asked its members why they liked Eilish so much. They wrote things like, “She’s not afraid to tackle the topics and thoughts we all have but are too scared to say,” and, “I can relate to her because she is part of my generation and she knows my struggles.”
Eilish’s music, which she co-writes with her big brother, Finneas O’Connell, fuses the jazz vocals of Amy Winehouse with the low tones and steady rhythm of electronic dance music. Her voice soars, but she tends to mumble her lyrics. She sings about depression, self-harm, anger, and sex—all while sounding like a modern Norah Jones. Maybe that’s another reason teens love her: They can listen to her songs on repeat without alarming unsuspecting parents.
Despite her exploration of unhealthy behavior, Eilish is fervently anti-drugs. She wrote the song “Xanny” about being the perpetual designated driver and not needing Xanax, an oft-abused benzodiazepine, to have a good time.
For all of her emphasis on being a nonconformist, Eilish fits a comfortable niche in the music mass market: edgy but not scary. As soon as she does something really weird, like putting a tarantula in her mouth for the music video “You Should See Me in a Crown,” she commits an act of unimpeachable wholesomeness, like gushing about how much she loves her mom, who accompanies her on tour much of the time. Eilish’s current hit “Bad Guy” tells about a couple vying for physical and emotional dominance over each other. But in interviews, Eilish has insisted it’s all a joke to make fun of people who try to act tough.
Her sound, too, is perfectly engineered for the passive listening behaviors of young people with earbuds permanently fixed to their heads. The songs are short and catchy but not overly distracting. Industry insiders call the style “streambait” because it performs so well on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. In a 2018 article for The Baffler, writer Liz Pelly interviewed a music producer who said, “I’ve definitely been in circumstances where people are saying, ‘Let’s make one of those sad girl Spotify songs.’”
The knowledge that something purporting to be so unique and special could be a result of calculated and clever marketing would surely drive Eilish’s angst-ridden fans further into depression. The antidote, according to author and theologian John Piper, is for teens to search for meaning beyond themselves.
“The word ‘teenager’ did not exist before World War II,” Piper wrote in an open letter to teens in 2015. “Between children and adults, there was no such category of human being. You were a child. Then you were a young adult.”
Piper called on teens to view themselves as important contributors to the work of the kingdom of God—soldiers in a war against the slavery of sin. “Dream of being a kind of teenager that the world cannot explain,” he wrote. “Maybe someday, if there are enough of you, they will invent a new name. And ‘teenager' will be a footnote in the history books.”