How Billie Eilish turned popular music upside down

Several recent biopics have shown how much popular music owes to rock influences, from Elvis Presley to Freddie Mercury. But popular music also emerges from the genres of jazz, soul, and, more recently, hip hop. According to actress Elizabeth Taylor, the ‘King of Pop, Rock and Soul’ was Michael Jackson. As Forbes recently noted: ‘Perhaps another genre should be tacked on: Hip-hop’. In hip hop, Michael Jackson’s legacy was ultimately surpassed by Kanye West, who developed the technical foundations of hip hop in the 1990s (when Michael Jackson released Dangerous and Tupac, Nas, and Biggie dominated the rap scene before the rise of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye at the turn of the millennium) to the heights of music as an art form in the magisterial 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While Michael Jackson’s Thriller adapted jazz and soul to create the best-selling album of all time, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album that has enduring critical acclaim despite the backlash the artist behind the masterpiece has since received. But Dark Fantasy does not have the same commercial sticking power as Thriller, not least because it does not have the same stand-out singles as ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’, with more focused pieces like ‘Power’, ‘All Of the Lights’, ‘Monster’, and ‘Runaway’ constituting the most successful tracks on ‘Ye’s’ record, a time in which ‘M. J.’ is ‘dead’ and ‘gone’.

The opening set of Billie Eilish’s most recent world tour.

So it was that hip hop left the shadow of Michael Jackson, by developing the technical foundations that Jackson laid with the artistic superstructure that West constructed. This was in part thanks to Dark Fantasy’s synthesis of hip hop with progressive rock, owing to such records as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which was released nine years before Thriller but which also took much longer to receive recognition (perhaps like Dark Fantasy). But now, hip hop is returning to popular status after its brief flirtation with independent music at the height of Kanye West’s career. Popular music and hip hop are now becoming indistinguishable, just as rock and pop fused in the 1980s with the rise of Queen, and just as Michael Jackson fused pop with elements of jazz with the help of producer Quincy Jones on Thriller. Who is fusing popular music with hip hop, in the shadow of these eclipsed stars of popular music?

The story begins in Los Angeles, a city of dreams. Actors Patrick O’Connell and Maggie Baird had two children born on either side of the millennium, who now go by the names FINNEAS and Billie Eilish. In a remarkable echo of the producer/singer duo that created Thriller, FINNEAS’ synth-heavy electronic production and Billie Eilish’s delicate vocal performance, paired with sharp, sardonic lyricism highly atypical for popular music, have transformed the foundations of popular music forever. Their technical abilities can hardly be doubted. Their artistic inspirations are simultaneously wide-ranging and paradoxical: FINNEAS owes a great deal to indie rock, where he has made a respectable name for himself of late; while Billie Eilish credits Kanye West-protegé Tyler the Creator for showing the way of turning celebrity into a fully-fledged performance art, with all the trimmings of melodrama. This ties into a tradition already indigenous to popular music, following the line of Lana Del Ray’s Ultraviolence and Lorde’s Melodrama, which turned popular music towards themes of doubt and critique after the ultrapeaceful hopes of ‘90s and ‘00s hubris.

Billie Eilish’s humility at awards shows is in as stark contrast to Kanye West’s pride as is the artists’ shared concern with turning the hypocrisy of celebrity into a vehicle for musical self-expression. The author Christopher Lasch is credited with saying, ‘In a decaying civilisation, narcissism is the highest form of artistic expression’. Perhaps he could have added: nihilism. In the world of hip hop, Billie Eilish’s nihilistic WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? has more in common with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. than most of the output of Kanye West, which rarely doubts the validity of his own values. What nihilistic and narcissistic art share in common is a self-awareness that purely technical music lacks. Paradoxically, self-awareness can lead in different directions, for reasons that might have more to do with our society’s biases than with the forms of music these artists are creating for us, the humble listeners.

More recently, Billie Eilish and FINNEAS have left their electronic production roots to draw more directly on their shared love of indie rock, with Happier Than Ever exploding in a brilliant tapestry of guitars, synths, drum and bass lines, and grand vocal statements that their previous, minimalist music evaded. Even the debut single ‘Ocean Eyes’, released on SoundCloud in 2015 before a record deal with Interscope in 2016 that led to the debut EP don’t smile at me, has a much simpler melody than ‘Happier Than Ever’, which echoes the grand chorus lines of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, just as ‘Poker Face’ may be a predecessor of Billie’s most successful single to date, ‘bad guy’. Indeed, both Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga have had, in their own way, fateful interactions with Kanye West — with both nearly performing side by side (Kanye and Gaga at the fated Fame Kills tour, and Billie and Kanye at the Coachella 2022 shows), before Kanye West’s argumentative antics got in the way (in the first instance, with Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards, an event which decisively transformed each artist’s career). In the 2010s, Lady Gaga predicted a new synthesis with the album Artpop: ‘We could belong together: art pop’. ‘Dying for the art, so really she’s a martyr’, British pop singer Lilly Allen said of Gaga’s commercially disappointing art album on her own artistic statement, Sheezus — a direct echo of Yeezus by Kanye (a self-assured, furiously political follow-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). At an earlier stage in popular music, Britney Spears and Eminem directly echoed Michael Jackson in their political subversion and performative extravagance, with M.J.’s contemporary Madonna being the main influence behind Lady Gaga. Meanwhile, Janet Jackson directly inspired Destiny’s Child singer Beyoncé, who’s solo career runs in parallel with that of Rihanna, a long-time collaborator of Eminem and Kanye.

Billie Eilish and FINNEAS have been more vocal lately of their love of autotune, and how Kanye West popularised the art-form in the late 2010s (particularly on the album 808s and Heartbreak, the predecessor to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Happier Than Ever was made while Billie listened to music by alternative rock group The Dø, whose album Shake Shook Shaken stands almost exactly half-way between Dark Fantasy and Happier Than Ever. The one exclusion from this narrative is the more acoustic inspirations behind Dark Fantasy itself, including the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the delicate vocal harmonies of Bon Iver on For Emma, Forever Ago. More recently, Taylor Swift has drawn on this line of inspiration for her folklore musical project, after echoing Yeezus on the 2017 record reputation, whose hip hop-influenced turn of popular music anticipated the 2019 smash-hit record, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Billie Eilish accomplished something that artists up to her had only dreamed of. Why, now, is Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ charting so highly, while the legacy of alternative pop artists such as Bjork and Charlie XCX seems to only grow with time, like well-ageing fine wine? Billie Eilish turned these partially marginal voices in popular music into definitively central ones, and is now doing the same with rock music and its alternative margins. Once Michael Jackson was the king of pop, rock, and soul. Now the genres of pop, rock, and alternative music have a new queen, just as hip hop acquired its own fantastical monarchy in 2010.

Billie Eilish, in a sense, has accomplished what Kanye West could not. While not releasing an album as meticulous and grand as Dark Twisted Fantasy, Billie has allowed alternative and independent music to inform a distinctively popular vision for commercially successful artistry. The sticking power of Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ from his breakout pop-hip hop album Graduation may be echoed by ‘bad guy’ in years to come, but even if this is not the case, Billie Eilish’s effect on popular music is altogether decisive. While popular music used to be concerned with the collective catharsis of dance and party celebrations, now popular music is also geared towards the individual meditation and rumination of an increasingly lonely society. As neoliberal deregulation rends the social fabric of society apart along market lines, music reflects this atomisation and anomie, just as rock and soul music once focused on the alienation of work and drudgery (for example, ‘Living On A Prayer’ by Bon Jovi, and ‘Living For the City’ by Stevie Wonder).

What is missing, perhaps, is the escapism of the moment around 2010 when popular music reached such a height of catharsis that it almost seemed to free itself from all real-world foundations, reached a strange synergy with older traditions and futuristic visions. Who could make a song like ‘Run the World (Girls)’, ‘Boom Boom Pow’, ‘Bad Romance’, or ‘E. T.’ today? Perhaps we do not need that kind of catharsis, where stadiums are alive with a kind of fiery, feckless, future-focused energy. On Billie’s Happier Than Ever world tour, which I had the good fortune of attending, the O2 arena was alive with an electricity that contrasted with anything I’ve seen before, including Taylor Swift’s provocative but upbeat reputation tour. The feeling of Eilish’s tour was more of an exorcism than a celebration, a collective crying at the darkness, with glimmers of light, like bright colours in the night.

Perhaps popular music has completed its journey, now the collective shadow of Thriller has been almost swept away and surpassed by the new great game of angels, demons, predators, prey, and anxious individuals. Or, perhaps, the musical world may turn upside down, once more. Whether this is an impending reality, or just another twisted fantasy, is yet to be seen. If the wheel of popular music does undergo another revolution, it will be in debt to the prior revolutions, including the last great turn of popular music at the opening of this decade. And it might take some time. The 2000s stand substantially in the shadow of Michael Jackson, while the 2010s were often reacting to Kanye West in one way or another. The 2020s look set to be the decade of Billie Eilish and the many artists she has now inspired and brought to the light. But once this revolution ends, as must every revolution, the evolution of music suggests a new direction could be taken, at the next crossroads. We will once again be faced with a choice about what music reflects (or distracts from) our world, and therefore, what kind of world we want for ourselves, personally and politically. I wonder what we will decide.

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