Seventeen-year-old homeschooler Billie Eilish just broke the pop music machine.
You know you’ve made it when a member of Nirvana compares you to the band at its peak. Dave Grohl, one-time Nirvana drummer, Foo Fighters frontman, and high school opt-out, did just that.
“The same thing is happening with her that happened with Nirvana in 1991,” said Grohl.
Eilish’s music doesn’t fit in a box, perhaps because her parents never asked her to.Grohl’s daughters are obsessed with Eilish, as are millions of their peers. She has 16.5 million Instagram followers: that’s more people than live in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Nosebleed seats to see her live go for hundreds of dollars on TicketMaster.
Eilish’s debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, released last week, was preceded by billions of streams of singles released through SoundCloud and Spotify. Now, it’s projected to enjoy the third-biggest streaming week ever of an album by a woman and the second biggest release of 2019.
Everything about the album flies in the face of convention. Her music oscillates between saccharine ballads and haunted house dubstep. In her music videos, she juxtaposes her innocent, breathy falsetto with grotesque visuals: her back full of needles, blood dripping from her heavily-lidded eyes, a tarantula crawling out her mouth. Her influences are eclectic: equal parts Lorde, dubstep bass, and gothic nightmare carousel, with sprinklings of SoundCloud rap and Atlanta trap. Her lyrics are dark and ironic and funny in a comedic style that only Gen Z truly understands; equal parts joyful and morose over ideas of death and failure. She sings about things that teenagers truly understand: heartbreak and first loves and murder and Xanax. It’s weird music. Weird, amazing, mind-blowing music.
Equally weird is the songstress, Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell. Yes, one of her middle names is Pirate. She bucks the stereotype of the teen pop idol. Her style has been described as "cybergoth anime raver," a string of words that won’t make sense to anyone born before 1995. She refuses to be stylized, airbrushed, or sexualized like the teen stars who preceded her. In fact, she refuses to cede any creative control whatsoever.
She writes and produces her own songs with her brother Finneas. She chooses her wardrobe, designs her merchandise, and recently partnered with Spotify to create an unprecedented immersive experience for the album. Speaking to The New York Times, she said: “everything could be easier if I wanted it to, but I’m not that kind of person and I’m not that kind of artist.” She’s staunchly independent, unwaveringly entrepreneurial, and quintessentially Gen Z like no artist we’ve seen before.
Her parents decided to homeschool both their children twenty-something years ago after learning that teen sensations Hanson, the boyband sensation behind the earworm “MMMBop,” were homeschooled. Billie’s father, Patrick O’Connell, told The New York Times,
I was completely swept away by these kids. They were religious Oklahoma home-schooled, but nonetheless. Clearly what happened was they’d been allowed to pursue the things that they were interested in.
O’Connell and partner Maggie Baird followed the same parenting ethos. The kids were encouraged to follow their passions: dance for Billie, songwriting for brother and musical partner Finneas. Four years ago, Finneas enlisted 13-year-old Billie to sing the vocals on a song he had written for his band: the viral hit-to-be “Ocean Eyes,” which peaked at number 25 on Billboard’s Spotify Velocity chart. The rest is history in the making.
Billie Dares to Be Different
More than anything, Eilish is authentic and vulnerable in a way that the pop industry can’t understand, fabricate, or co-opt. Hers is the authenticity unique to children who have not been oppressed by the status quo perpetuated by traditional schooling. She’s a musical magpie, decorating her nest with shiny bits of mismatched genres. She never seems to ask, “can I do this?” or “does this fit?” She just makes music, with no qualms over genre and marketability.
Billie Eilish has won over millions of teens by daring to be different. She’s an odd kid, the kind who would have been bullied on the playground or whispered about in middle school locker rooms. Maybe if she had endured that, she would have veered. Maybe she would have tried to blend in. But if she had, she wouldn’t be the incredible artist she is today. She’d be another cog in the pop music machine instead of the girl who broke it. Eilish’s music doesn’t fit in a box, perhaps because her parents never asked her to.