Every once in a while this culture vulture finds talent and perhaps more than talent in places where I might never have looked even a few years ago. The ability to discern outcrops in the cultural landscape has been transformed by technology — we can see so much farther and so much more clearly without ever leaving our computer cockpit. Since it is an article of faith with me that creativity at the highest levels is an inexplicable enigma and can crop up anywhere at any time, this extended vision is a wonderful thing.
Thanks to the fact that in the digital world nothing disappears and everything is archived, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the tender age of fifty or thereabouts and immediately fell madly in love — but that’s another story. My current interest is the music of the Gen Z phenom Billie Eilish. I am completely taken with her music and have been known to snivel discreetly into a hanky when listening to and/or watching some of her more poignant tunes. But I also think she is a peculiarly fine example of an ongoing paradigm shift in the business of music. Before I get in deep here, a few words about the state of popular music in the last twenty years or so as I see it.
From Loverboy to Mozart to Eilish
The last two decades in music have been dominated by Hip Hop and Pop and to a lesser degree EDM. I do not feel qualified to talk hip hop — my ‘hood had weed free lawns and back splits, not drive-bys and burnt-out tenements. I am a modest fan (partly due to the robust presence of interesting and creative hip hop on my sons’ Spotify playlists), but I just don’t have much to offer, so let’s move on. So, what’s been happening on other musical fronts since the turn of the millennium? Alt-rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Vampire Weekend still make fine music but it would be hard to argue than one of them bestride the popular consciousness the way Drake or the Weeknd does. New Country lovingly preserves its “hurting song” ethos lyrically; but in terms of production and instrumentation is edging closer and closer to pop all the time. A little injection of Hip Hop energy from Lil Nas X notwithstanding, it seems like a tired genre to me. (And I guess, to Taylor Swift as well.) Blues will always remain a niche genre in spite of John Mayer’s best efforts and jazz is what it has always been since the Big Bands got small, a niche within a niche. As to the confessional folk song — RIP to John Prine but I don’t see his successor around.
Why should I care about the seeming decline of the genres of my youth, particularly rock and roll, you know all those songs with smoking guitar solos in the middle, reprised in the outro? (Yes Loverboy, I’m talking to you!) After all, I could do what so many music consumers of advancing years do — freeze their ears in their own glory era and wear out the grooves in their old vinyl while mumbling that they don’t make real music anymore. Well I can’t do that.
I will always revere the artists that travelled with me from feckless youth through maturation and got me from there to here – the Beatles and the Band, Joni Mitchell and Prince, Steely Dan and John Mayer, love, love, love you all. But I am my father’s son. My Dad was one of the great classical music wonks of all time. He would sit in his room listening to a Wagner opera while following the full 500-page orchestral score (the conductor’s score) with his fingers. In his later years he seldom if ever listened to Beethoven, Bach or Mozart. Was this boredom or some lack of respect, it was not — he had simply so deeply internalized what these composers had to say and how they said it, that he didn’t need to listen to them anymore. He spent his sunset years listening to composers so obscure that most classical music lovers would have no idea who they were. He simply needed new input to interpret with his formidable musical processing power. I understand this. I know where every note is going next in Jimmy’s Stairway to Heaven solo and I really don’t need to hear it very often. ) I also need new sources of nourishment to feed my consuming passion for music. I am also interested in the sociology of music – music as a cultural force and how its impact changes over time. This brings me back (finally) to Billie Eilish, social media, the music industry paradigm shift that Gen Z is embracing, and the decline of genres in music.
Discovering and Following Billie
I think the first Billie video I saw was a song called ‘idon’twanttobeyouanymore’. (My space bar is still working. That’s the title.) There was this sixteen-year-old girl with silver hair wearing a baggy white jumpsuit, staring into a mirror and singing a song about body image with lyrics such as “if teardrops could be bottled; there’d be swimming pools filled by models” to a really hooky melody in this strange breathy but deeply emotive voice. Whaaaat the heck is this?
So, I dive deeper and uncover songs about monsters under a bed (‘Bury a Friend‘), a teenage psychopath (‘Bellyache‘), a gut-wrenching musical suicide note (‘Listen, Before I Go‘), a song about rationalizing spurned love, (‘Wish You Were Gay‘), another gut-wrenching song about an angry break up (‘When the Party’s Over‘), a tune about climate change fetchingly entitled ‘All the Good Girls Go to Hell‘ , a jazz/blues influenced number that could have been written for Ella (‘Bitches Broken Hearts‘) and one of the very best songs period I have heard in a very long time – a song about a nightmare and the saving grace of filial love called ‘Everything I Wanted‘. Many of her videos are performance art of the highest calibre (‘Hostage‘) and there is nary a bouncing boob or a gyrating butt to be seen anywhere. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Beyonce.)
So now I am completely smitten and dive deeper again. I notice that many of the songs are unconventional given the standard tropes of the popular song – the choruses don’t repeat in the same way, bridges show up where a chorus should be, exogenous sounds like a dentist’s drill and voice-overs from the Office intrude. In the ubiquitous ‘Bad Guy‘, the outro drops the BPM (beats per minute) from 136 to 68 – trust me nobody does that in pop music. Then I discover that these songs were created and produced by Billie and her very talented brother in a bedroom using a microphone and some computer software, no studio engineering or auto-tuning required. (For those of you who don’t know, auto-tune is a digital pitch corrective extensively used in studio recording to cover up the fact that singers often wander off key. It has caused fans of more than a few prominent artists to wonder what the hell is going on when they see their heroes play live.) The production arrangements of these Billie tunes are deceptively simple and stripped back, designed to showcase the emotionality in the vocal. She has a subtle but impactful vibrato, a pure tone and a tremendous head voice (falsetto). She also has a way of using breath as percussion that is highly individual and she seems to have perfect pitch. The songs seldom have a climax belt that’s so common these days. (I’m talking to you, Adele.)
Okay, I am now in full-blown obsession mode. To make matters worse, I love a good story and the story of her rise to super-fame is absolutely compelling. A thirteen-year-old posts a song on SoundCloud almost as as a joke, people go nuts, a relatively small label signs her and says, we don’t care if you dress in a garbage bag and your music is weird, and you want to direct your own videos and have disconnected arms stub cigarettes out on your face (‘Xanny‘), or have an actual tarantula come out of your actual mouth (‘You Should See Me in a Crown‘), you go girl. Four years later her songs have been streamed/downloaded 15 billion times, she had six songs from her debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” on the Billboard top 100 at the same time, including the number one, and she and her brother just won 10 Grammys including the Big Four. (Youngest ever). You could be completely indifferent to her music and still find this fascinating. Apple just paid $25 million to show a documentary on the latter part of this story on their new streaming channel.
And then the final nail in my elderly fan-boy coffin — live performances viewed on YouTube. This girl is tapping into the angst and interests of a generation like nothing I have seen since 1963. The fan engagement is mesmerizing. They bounce, they cry, they hug each other overcome with emotion, they sing every word, they radiate love for this girl in gigawatts – and she loves them back. It is stunning to watch. Somehow this improbable young person raised and home-schooled in a loving, very middle-class household is channelling the deeper wells of the zeitgeist the way Nirvana did. (Incidentally it was Dave Grohl who made this comparison.) Bill Simmons, the great sports and culture writer and podcaster, compared her to LeBron James (nice, Bill) in the sense that accomplishment at that level, genius if you will, is ultimately inexplicable. (Obviously Eilish’s music has antecedents and she has been very open about influences, and they are impressively eclectic. She has referenced Sinatra, the Beatles, Avril Lavigne and many hip hop artists. Commentators often mention Lorde. But influences are only one element in the creative mix and Sinatra and the Fab Four excepted, her body of work has already surpassed in quality, quantity and originality the work of many of the creators she admires.)
Of course none of this would matter to me if the songs weren’t good; but they are better than good. A pop song, if it is to endure, must have memorable melody, seductive harmony and lyrics that connect. Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell has all of these things seemingly spilling out of her baggy shorts in generous supply. (All credit also to her brother Finneas who co-writes and produces in that small bedroom.) The two of them just wrote the theme song for the new James Bond movie in three days on a tour bus. It is one of the two-or-three best of the twenty-five Bond songs created to date and she is friggin’ eighteen years old. As a struggling occasional songwriter I kinda hate you, Billie! Could you not share some of this creative largesse with the 99.999 percent of the world’s wannabe music stars who just can’t write a melodic hook?
Connection and Alienation
I don’t pretend to know intimately what makes Gen Z tick. But my Boomer take is that depression and anxiety have not been ameliorated by social media connection among the young; in fact the intensity of those feelings and the consequences thereof, including youth suicide, may very well be worse now than ever. This is a subject for further research and I don’t pretend to be able to validate this perception in any scholarly way. But I think back to the first Billie video I ever saw, ‘idontwannabeyouanymore‘ the one about body-anxiety, and how often I have seen comments about the Eilish baggy fashion approach from young women almost giddy with glee that a major role model is signalling a serious distaste for body shaming and sexual objectification — a statement that was certainly not being made in much of the almost-porn-pop that has become so pervasive for women making their way in the industry. Eilish seems to just get this curious connection/alienation dynamic — in fact it seems to be the overarching theme of her lyrical content.
A Glimpse of the Future?
This reciprocal fan to artist, artist to fan intimacy was inconceivable before the age of social media. Eilish was born after 9/11. Her life is just out there, on Instagram, on Twitter, on What’s App, on TikTok and YouTube and platforms I’m too old to know about. She connects with her fans in all sorts of ways not hitherto possible. Want to see Billie do the puffer jacket challenge and dance? Want to see Billie eat hot wings and swear? Want to see Billie sing and play the banjo on James Cordon’s carpool karaoke? Want to see Billie write and sing a song at the age of seven, play with puppies, surprise her fans …… it’s all there and will generate millions of views. You really couldn’t connect like this with Bono.
This social media intimacy is incredibly potent. Eilish can use elements of the standard hype machine that drives celebrity fame in Hollywood and the music business as it suits her, but she wasn’t created by it (Yes, I’m talking to you, One Direction.) Her social media might is the tail wagging the industry dog. All the rest of it, Grammy love, talk show invitations, Saturday Night Live hosting, meet and greets, red carpets – that is just bandwagon jumping. The industry is chasing her, trying to catch up – not the other way around. When you have 60 million followers on Instagram and are a streaming behemoth on Spotify and Apple Music – who the hell cares what anyone says about you on Entertainment Tonight?
I find her story liberating and it makes me feel pretty good about the future of music in spite of the river of crap that flowed through the industry into our ears particularly in the first decade of this century. I of course remember the days when six major labels controlled music distribution and happily sold us CDs for 25 bucks that had two good songs on them – gone baby, gone and good bloody riddance. The A&R man for the label doesn’t hear a single? Who the hell needs an A&R man anymore. The industry can’t peg your genre? News flash guys, genres mean less and less in a time when artists like Eilish can pull elements of hip hop, EDM, even jazz, not to mention dentists drills into a so-called pop song. All power to the digi-verse, and recording in a bedroom.
For better and for worse, and I would say mostly for the better, the music industry has stumbled into the social media age with Ms. Billie Eilish leading the charge, and there is no going back. Most of the filters that used to exist between creators and listeners are gone. The intimacy of the reciprocal human connection between artist and fans of the first generation that was actually born to social media is fascinating. So I rest my case for forgivable obsession on my own musical convictions and the sense that Billie Eilish might be a leading indicator of some really exciting creative anarchy in music making and music dissemination – a paradigm shift in an industry that was often restrictive, cynical and creatively limiting until fundamental shifts in the way people create and connect turned it inside out.
Compensation and Contrarians
- I am aware that the biggest problem with the new model of music distribution is the scandalously low compensation paid to artists when their music is streamed. It is so bad, that the only real money even very successful artists can make is through live touring and various endorsement and promotional deals. This has to change. But the good old days weren’t so good in this regard either. How many artists were ripped off by their labels after signing a bad contract at a tender age? How many others were robbed by unscrupulous managers?
- In the course of looking for rebuttals to my enthusiastic endorsement of Ms. Eilish’s music, I had to spend some considerable time in YouTube comment-hell looking for counterpoint. Since she is obviously not an “industry creation” we will dismiss that one out of hand. Is she riding on the hysteria of teenage girls? In part yes, is that the whole story, I think not. And even if it were, why her in particular? And frankly teen love does not explain 15 billion streams, the accolades of many much grayer artists, and it doesn’t explain …. well, me. Is her voice whispery? Sometimes, but she can belt when she wants to, like during her ‘No Time to Die’ performance during the Brit Awards. We have plenty of overdrive belters in music if that is your taste. — we have a good deal less use of subtle dynamics than this listener would like to hear. Finally, there is the ‘who gets famous is all bullshit luck’ cliche. Was Eilish lucky? Perhaps. Or as my mother used to say, perhaps she made her own luck. Aspiring musicians post songs on SoundCloud all the time, nothing happens. This time something did. Is there musical talent out there that will never be discovered — almost certainly. Look YouTubers, luck is ineffably intertwined with human existence — one of its truly opaque mysteries. But observations about chance are completely useless as critical discussion. Please just say “ I don’t like this music”, a judgement to which everyone is entitled.