‘I don’t like your tilted stage,’ a song in 2017 went, in a pointed critique of the Saint Pablo tour by Kanye West. The songwriter was Taylor Swift, whose 2018 reputation tour I had the good opportunity of seeing in Wembley Stadium, London. It was a novel experience, fusing musicality and theatricality into a stunning display of talent and trauma. Four years later, and the month of June brings a new leader of pop music to London, this time to the O2 arena. The musician is Billie Eilish, who has been praised for her authenticity and relatability, compared with the more distanced performance of Taylor Swift, who begun her career with acting and singing training simultaneously (in the technical art-form of musical theatre, traceable to the oratorios of Handel and Bach).
Billie Eilish writes music with her brother Finneas. The star siblings’ parents are actors, but give grounded interviews that portray authenticity. This authenticity, of course, is contrived. Indeed, so is the ‘authentic’ nature of Eilish’s personality and music. This is revealed by the music itself: the song NDA, for instance, suggests that Eilish (or the character Eilish is playing) demanded their ex-partner sign a non-disclosure agreement, because Eilish couldn’t allow this person to have anything ‘to say’. Eilish’s narrative is the only narrative, because it is a narrative. What is below the surface must be suppressed. What is private must remain private. And what is public must remain surface level.
This is paradoxical. Eilish’s music seems to delve beneath the surface, as on the dream-like character of the 2019 LP, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Compared with the technically accomplished reputation, Eilish’s music conveys an artistic depth that most pop music lacks. It draws on alternative music, taking what is marginal and making it mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of backing artist for the London leg of the tour — ‘girl in red’, an indie rock artist making waves in the last few years for neo-rock cathartic ballads, Gen Z-style: simultaneously liberated and constrained by the disorderly tyranny that is the world we live in.
This authenticity is, I think, a mirage. Pop musicians simply cannot reveal their authentic selves, lest they sacrifice their status as pop musicians, which requires achieving a kind of mystical oneness with the general vibes of the population at large. This requires sacrificing one’s individuality in order to perform a role that people can appreciate and admire. Music is self-realisation, but popularity is self-transcendence. Pop music is the paradoxical fusion of artistic authenticity and the hypocrisy of celebrity.
Billie Eilish’s presence on stage reflected this game of hide and seek. Unlike Taylor Swift’s reputation tour, Billie was hard to view throughout much of the show, due to a combination of eclectic lighting, smoke machines, and Billie’s own exuberant stage presence, spontaneously darting from one area of the arena to the other. Taylor Swift had a dance routine. Billie Eilish, while singing like Michael Jackson, chooses to dance to her own felt rhythm. All mechanics are sacrificed in the spontaneous authenticity of movement. Or so it seems.
You see, I don’t think this spontaneity really reveals anything about the artist behind the art. Anyone in Billie Eilish’s position would have to perform exactly the role she performs to appeal to the audience to which she appeals: younger than Taylor Swift’s audience, and more anxious about the world. Gen Z, unlike millennials, deepen what philosopher Martin Heidegger termed the abyss of ‘anxiety’, where we are thrown back onto our own being because we are ‘lost in the world’ (which is echoed in the Kanye West song of the same name). Authenticity becomes a cult, where we have to pretend that we are ourselves in order protect ourselves against a world that doesn’t care. But this is an illusion. Individuality is a mere dream to distract from the disorder of our fallen collectivity. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ said philosopher Rene Descartes. In the song ‘Therefore I Am’, Billie takes this idea and combines it with Heidegger’s contemporary Carl Schmitt’s idea of friends and enemies: ‘You think that you’re the man. I think therefore I am.’ Billie is, in Taylor Swift’s terms, ‘The Man’, and she wants to show us all this (while Taylor Swift tells the technical background to this artistry). But Billie is still in an illusion — just not as obvious an illusion as Taylor Swift’s. The illusions are connected: the illusion of individualism.
This reminds me of Kanye West, who proclaims his own individuality against the repressive order of the modern world on songs like ‘I Am A God’, from the album Yeezus, following the earlier My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which expresses the tragedy of loss and the hope of a return. As this hope faded, Kanye deepened his religious fervour to the point of stunning extremes in the recent Donda, released in the same summer as Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever. For both Kanye and Billie, the artist is alone in a world of scoundrels. But Kanye is sad about this. Billie, strangely, is happy about it. Who, then, is trapped in illusion?
Perhaps the most egregious example of this illusory individualism is Taylor Swift’s ‘ME!’, which parades a faux-romanticism to escape from the nostalgic emptiness that the preceding album reputation concluded. There is not much left of Taylor Swift’s pop empire, save the recent return to country music and loosely rural vibes. Martin Heidegger, who stunned philosophers in the 1920s with his own rustic romanticism of nature, finds a profound echo in this move. Billie Eilish seems to deepen the search for authenticity, but never reaches the unattainable ideal of modernity, a ‘fantasy’, as the end of the album suggests. What is lacking is the ‘dark fantasy’ that Mr. West so courageously put forth in 2010: a critique of individualism, and its appalling ‘blame games’, and a construction of a new collectivism, based on the most basic shared practice of a family meal. ‘Who will survive in America?’, Kanye asked.
Perhaps all Americans will, if only America considers the wider world of which it is a part. This holism is the only remedy to blinding particularism, and the illusions of egoism. Paradoxically, only when illusion is fully embraced can it be seen for what it really is. Kanye’s narcissism offers a more penetrating critique of the culture of narcissism than Billie’s embrace of the cult of authenticity, or Taylor Swift’s hollow romance and fragile reputation (plastered over by musical mastery and daring vision). Perhaps a political reconciliation of these extremes depends on a philosophical reflection on what we really need, beyond the fiction of the self. Music can mediate between these positions. But Swift’s music is not enough. Nor is Billie’s art. Nor, even, is Kanye’s poetical philosophy. We need something more, beyond bare survival, banal solidarity, and bold cynicism. We need a balance between survival and goodness. We need, to echo Dark Fantasy again, power — for all.
Shall we begin?