Pop

Billie Eilish Flips Horror Movie Tropes Into Some Of Pop’s Most Interesting Music In Years

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I wanna end me.

In most horror movies — not all, but plenty — the terror of a young girl getting got by monsters is a major crux of the plot. In others, it’s the young girl who is the terror, channeling forces beyond our comprehension to suit paranormal evil’s whims, perhaps rescued at the last moment from hosting the monster, perhaps dying under the weight of the underworld beings. In either of these scenarios, the proverbial violence is coming from outside the girl’s psyche, an external mechanism. Within the world of Billie Eilish, it’s already there, lurking inside.

Eilish is neither a victim nor a vessel for outside forces — she is the force, not possessed, but in full possession of herself. And that self, fabricated or not, is playing upon the imagery of universal horror film tropes; she is a pop star taking the game to deliciously twisted heights, behaving in ways that girls aren’t supposed to behave, voicing ideas that girls aren’t supposed to have: I wanna end me. And when she works in that milieu, there are few forces in the modern pop landscape that can challenge her.

At one of three sold-out shows in Los Angeles this week, Billie Eilish slowed down the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium toward the end of her hour-plus set to share a special fact with them: the first time she attended a concert, it was at this venue. “Thanks for caring about me enough to get me on this side of the stage,” she intoned in the strangely gruff, hip-hop-leaning affectation she’s adopted for her speaking voice.

The sea of girls still on the audience side of the Shrine cheered their happiness over her victory, even if the revelation eventually left them somber, looking at their own place in the room with decidedly less enthusiasm. Earlier in the night she expressed a different, decidedly less cheery sentiment: “This song is for anyone who loathes themselves.” For that, the crowd cheered their throats hoarse.

Eilish is respectfully aware of the impact that her powerhouse audience, mostly composed of young and very young girls, has and will have on her career. It’s a respect that stars like Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber will never quite get a handle on — Eilish knows how fervently her fans adore her because she’s been in their shoes, perhaps, even more recently than most of us think, as Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next blared almost exclusively from the PA for her pre-show playlist.

Now potentially approaching the same reach as Grande, audience-wise — two Shrine shows at 6,300, plus a Greek Theatre show at 5,870, make more than a Forum performance at 17,500, though Grande played multiple nights in LA — it’s hard not to see the throughline from Billie’s minor hip-hop connections to Grande’s similar positioning in that realm. Although, a more clear influence on this young star’s fusion of the sacred and obscene is Lana Del Rey, a woman who sings with the same late ‘50s/early ‘60s old Hollywood glamour, also infusing it with darkness whenever she sees fit.

And though I’ve been to shows for both of those stars this year, who register as about half a generation above Billie, neither had their vocals completely drowned out by a fervent, nearly rabid crowd the way Billie did on “Bad Guy” when she hit the stage around 9 p.m. — the relatively early start time another clear marker of an all-ages show with plenty of kids under ten on the GA floor. But playing your biggest hit first is a risky move, and potentially a sign of her inexperience. Yes, “Bad Guy” would be a No. 1 hit right now if it wasn’t for the unrelenting power of Lil Nas X, and yes, it does deserve that distinction, but it’s also her biggest hit right now, and even her other enormous singles don’t live up to it.

Starting the show with that song meant that the highest moment of the concert came within the first five minutes, and though most of the first half of the show kept similar pacing, by the second half, even the lyric-screamers had lost their enthusiasm after a slew of slower ballads. Which isn’t to say they didn’t belt during “My Strange Addiction” and “You Should See Me In A Crown” (two and three on the setlist), or during the Don’t Smile At Me banger “Copycat,” the easy standout off that 2018 release, which is one of the few tracks from that era that carries the same undercurrent of power and anger that buoys the hits on her latest record.

Songs like “Ocean Eyes,” “Bitches Broken Hearts,” or even the more recent “When The Party’s Over” sound like tracks that almost any current female songwriter could or has made. Full of sadness, sexual tension and a general sense of helplessness, this style of songwriting is in direct contrast with the devilish, trap-beat infusions that typify Billie’s biggest hits, and the ones that seem to be transforming expectations about how young female stars perform. Thankfully, she had one more of those in her back pocket to close out the night, “Bury A Friend” ended the show with the high-octane creepiness that started it, while perfectly illustrating how different the two Billies have become.

Today, Eilish released a version of “Bad Guy” featuring Justin Bieber, another star about half a generation ahead of her who’s had similar identity struggles — bad boy heartbreaker or loving husband and family man? Collaborating with Billie lets him be something else entirely, a teen pop idol making the dreams of one of his biggest fans come true. The fact that this fan happens to be a star on a path to eclipse his own fame notwithstanding, perhaps their combined forces will get both back to the top of the charts.

But truthfully, Billie doesn’t need the help of Bieber to conquer the current pop realm. All she has to do is blast some of her Homestar Runner-meets-Tim-Burton visuals, growl into her mic, and keep things dark. The era of shiny princess pop stars with broken hearts or political causes is rescinding, and now, the spooks can come out and play.

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