The closing year of a decade is usually a time for collective reflection. It is tempting to reflect on the cultural shifts and defining events of the past ten years; the time that we call ‘the ‘10s’ in a neat package that fits all of our favorite notions about this unique time. But this is also a moment to sit back and look to the future. Culture changes quickly, and the seeds of major phenomena are already being planted in politics, science and the arts. In that sea of ideas and emotions that will shape the identity of the next decade, Billie Eilish, an unapologetic 17-year-old queen of Generation Z, is an important harbinger of the music; she is leading an artistic movement that takes part in the most dynamic future we’ve ever known.
Eilish, born in Los Angeles as Billie O’Connell, is part of a new generation of creatives who aren’t afraid of being seen as radically different than their older counterparts. Artists at any time try to push boundaries and change their craft, but with Eilish and others born after the year 2000, there is a sense of confusion and irony in much of their art that amounts to more than just teenage angst.
To begin, Eilish has an unusually loose sound that shifts with nearly every song she releases. Her debut track ‘Ocean Eyes,’ released in 2016 at the age of 15, is a minimalist love song backed by a soft, sad, acoustic guitar. She followed this with ‘bellyache,’ a bassy pop anthem that is happily paired with chilling lyrics about murdering her friends.
“My friends aren’t far,” she sings absently, “in the back of my car lay their bodies.”
Since her career began she has experimented with existing genres and challenged herself to bring her voice to new sounds. One of her newest releases, ‘bury a friend,’ the opening single from her debut album, is a trap lullaby lamenting the beauty of insanity. Eilish is edgy — she knows that better than anyone. To a pop music fan of the early 2010s, Eilish sounds insane, unhinged and erratic. The reason it suits her instead of cheapening her art is the strange and wild aspects of her generation she pulls it from. She is a product of times that perhaps today’s high schoolers can see better than those of us still grappling with the past.
Eilish’s music is a collaborative effort between her and her older brother Finneas O’Connell, who produces most of her songs, but according to the sibling duo it’s Billie that drives the creative direction of both her sound and brand. She has released music videos that range from eery and unsettling to outright horror films. She is known for her lively performances that involve starting mosh pits and playing cartoons from the mid-2000s as transitions, occasionally at the same time. Just as Will Smith lamented in the late ‘90s that “parents just don’t understand,” Eilish rebrands the idea of youthful rebellion. Parents don’t just not understand Eilish. They are scared of her and what she may represent.
Her and other artists of her generation, those who grew up in a world already transformed by the internet, are destined to change how we think about music. As life and culture becomes more interconnected and instantaneous, the strange and surreal corners of the online world are seeping into reality. The absurdist turn that American politics has taken in the second half of the decade are just one example, with artists like Eilish, the SoundCloud hip-hop generation and others following suit.
The exponential growth of media and our relationship to it refuses to slow down. As the internet and the generations it raises get older, life and culture will undoubtedly get weirder. Billie Eilish and the wild confusion she represents are just the beginning of a much bigger wave still to come.
This begs important questions: Is Billie OK? Is her generation OK? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression rates among Americans under 25 are at an all-time high, and people are using the internet to both escape and connect with their peers. It may seem like a bad situation, but Eilish and others might argue it isn’t bad — it’s exciting. Youth culture is changing, and in a few short years it could be the culture that defines America going forward. Perhaps the depression rates have not increased, but instead, members of the youth are more open about recognizing and discussing the state of their mental health. Icons like Eilish help break these social taboos. There is beauty, humor and unity in all the strangeness that has appeared in our art, music and politics. It may scare us or make us feel hopeless. But it is the role of artists like Billie Eilish to lead us headfirst into what we fear and make something beautiful out of it.