Over the past few days, the internet has become awash with a relentless slew of breathless articles anointing the bewitching talents of Billie Eilish – the 17-year-old pop singer who performed a headline-conjuring trick in becoming the first artist born this millennium to score a Billboard number one album.
In the days since When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? hit the US top spot, on April 10 – as well as corresponding charts in Australia, Canada, the UK and at least a dozen other places they still count such things – the hurried introductions, laboured explainers and frenzied analyses have been unrelenting. "Who is Billie Eilish?" asked everyone from The Washington Post onwards. "Feel old yet?" enquired the Daily Mail. "Is Billie Eilish the next Nirvana?" asked The Hamilton Spectator. Erm, not, quite.
Eilish had a huge following well before her mainstream success
The word sudden doesn’t quite do justice to Eilish’s ascent. When scene-making Coachella unveiled its line-up in January, neither taste-makers Pitchfork nor industry tome Billboard bothered to mention Eilish – overnight the blue-haired teen became top of the latter’s “10 Things We Can't Wait To See” at the festival list.
She performed at the festival on Saturday and the audience went wild – even when she forgot her lyrics.
It’s never been uncommon for the mainstream media to play an awkward form of catch-up with youth trends, but in this case the race for clicks has been fuelled a stratospheric triangulation of rushed praise, social media hype – and just perhaps, a genuine, generation-defining talent. Cathartically honest, wilfully androgynous and dripping with anti-cool irreverence, vacant-eyed Eilish speaks for Gen Z. Spinning homespun teenage sadness via post-genre, playlist-friendly tunes with poppish hooks, trap-ish beats and hip-hop sensibilities.
The facts speak for themselves, but bear repeating: Eilish has attracted one billion streams. Ten days before its release, When We All Fall Asleep had clocked a record 800,000 adds on Apple Music. At the time of writing, Eilish is Spotify's 11th most-streamed artist in the world. Having amassed 17.7 million Instagram followers – to her nod-wink handle @wherearetheavocados – the platform has collaborated to create an authorised filter which eerily blacks out selfie eyes – recalling the singer's music video image.
Is Eilish the next Kurt Cobain? Or the anti Kardashian?
If that sounds shallow or transient, then it’s worth asking why the teen has attracted the support of self-serious rock icons Thom Yorke, Flea and Dave Grohl – who compared Eilish’s connection with her audience to Nirvana in their heyday – while hip-hop mastermind producer Timbaland has called to offer his services.
What then is it about this unlikely teen talent’s awkwardly introverted, home-recorded “terror-pop” that is speaking for a generation, wowing established icons and confounding the media in every corner?
"She doesn't sound like she's in it for the fame. She's not a product yet – she sounds like she writes songs about how she feels," opined a friend to The National, eager to defend his new favourite artist, more than half his age.
“She’s an antidote to the stereotype about millennials and Instagram – she’s thoughtful and relatable, unlike Kim Kardashian et al. And, the fact she’s so popular could be indicative that the media’s portrayal of young people being vacuous and self-obsessed isn’t necessarily fair.”
While musical comparisons have been made to Lana Del Rey and Lorde, she should be likened to Cardi B
No one saw Eilish's sudden fame coming because she didn't play by the rules. When We All Fall Asleep hit the top spot without a previous top ten single, the conventional round of glossy magazine shoots – or outdated good girl/bad girl stereotypes.
Instead Eilish reached fans directly. Released when she was just 13, viral debut single Ocean Eyes –written by brother and collaborator Finneas O'Connell – emerged first on free upload platform SoundCloud, before Interscope Records re-released the song.
While musical comparisons are most often made to Lana Del Rey and Lorde, the greatest precedent for Eilish's homespun approach might be Cardi B – who built a huge following before any official releases. Eilish's profile grew considerably following last year's Khalid collaboration Lovely, yet she has maintained a transparent dialogue with her fans through Instagram.
Harnessing the power of social media is nothing new, but what Eilish is saying might be. While most use posts to project an illusion of their best possible sides, Eilish is frank and open with her teenage angst and awkward introversion – wilfully sharing everyday anxieties and an unhealthy obsession with TV show The Office. When We All Fall Asleep begins with the sound of Eilish removing her hated braces, and is punctuated by giggling asides and absent-minded humming. Onstage, the self-deprecating 'Idontwannabeyouanymore' has been dedicated to fans who "hate" themselves.
Such outbursts inevitably spark eye-rolls in anyone aged over 23, but Eilish is unapologetically a child of the internet age – which is why her post-2000 birthdate might mean more than just a slew of headlines. Eilish speaks for and to a new generation who will increasingly dominate the cultural conversation in years to come. Now she has that voice, and the connection, what she does with it remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: expect buckets more ink to be spilt unravelling the Eilish affect soon.