The bassline: Billie Eilish represents the age of anxiety and the future of fiction

Portrait of singer Billie Eilish in neon green glasses, hair, and jacket.
(Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

Billie Eilish made history for women by sweeping all four of the biggest awards at the 62nd Grammy Awards Jan. 26. Since then, though, she has received intense backlash against a comment made in her first Vogue cover story. 

The interview was released Feb. 3 and contains a controversial remark against rap artists who develop a persona in music, distinct from the real person behind the lyrics. In the profile, Eilish said, “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story. There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap.” 

Eilish also claimed that many musicians in hip-hop participate in “posturing,” a term that has been highly debated throughout musical history, meaning behaving or acting in a misleading manner for the purpose of impressing others. 

She claims that distorting the truth has become a part of the culture in rap and has witnessed it firsthand, but according to the Vogue interview, her artistic process is different. Her brother and songwriter Finneas O’Connell works with Eilish to develop the stories and dark alter-egos portrayed in the grim, somber sounds and words of her art. 

For example, in her song “Bellyache,” Eilish sings about the regret and guilt felt after an act of murder. She writes, “My V is for Vendetta / Thought that I’d feel better / But now I got a bellyache.” And even though the song is not autobiographical, her fans are able to connect to that sinking feeling of recklessness, remorse and loneliness after a mistake made. 

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Above an acoustic guitar strumming, she sings about losing her mind. Are the emotions evoked from a fictional experience any less valuable than if they were from honest, vulnerable lyrics? Eilish claims she isn’t posturing here because her goal is not to mislead fans, but to write a story that can still be appreciated, loved and relevant to the lives in the crowd.

The dark lullabies she sings, created in her childhood bedroom with O’Connell, are loved around the world. What is it about these sad songs that attracts her fans so intensely? Throughout history, melancholic melodies have been a significant part of our culture in times of despair or turmoil, such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell throughout the 60s. 

Eilish and her music speaks to a generation that has grown up in chaos amidst 9/11, school shootings and imminent climate change. The anxiety in the air seeps into the sonic and lyrical aspects of “Ocean Eyes” — the single from 2016 that sparked her rise to fame — when she sings, “Burning cities / And napalm skies … I’ve been walking through / A world gone blind.” 

Eilish draws on a mix of macabre and gothic images in both of her albums and her visual appearance on stage. Her jet-black hair is often dyed with colored streaks. She maintains a blank, bored gaze into the crowd, making it difficult to gauge her emotion at any moment, but still her tender yet passionate voice resonates deeply. 

And beneath an oversized T-shirt, she often conceals the usual pop-princess costume and hourglass silhouette. The mysteriousness in her image and her songs keeps fans on the edge of their seats, but does it separate her authentic self from the stories she invents in her records? Or is she more genuine through the brutal honesty about the characters in her songs and the clear rejection to conform to the pop industry’s ideal?

Maybe it’s even more impressive to be able to inspire such strong emotion from a fabrication. Either way, Eilish is making strides and sparking fires in the music industry, and she will soon become, if she isn’t already, a revolution.

Kyla Walker PO ’22 is TSL’s music columnist. She loves playing guitar, reading any and all fiction and probably belongs in the 1960s.

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