Billie Eilish’s Melbourne Show Was Frenzied And Unsettling, In The Best Way
It’s easy to dismiss Billie Eilish as “weird,” or just for teens, or say that her success makes you feel old. But age is just a number - she’s simply ahead of the curve.
In her best firm schoolteacher voice, a Margaret Court Arena employee speaks to the 3000-odd teenagers sitting on the venue’s floor. “Please stay seated until Finneas goes onstage. Leave space between the people next to you. Make sure to drink lots of water!”
They nod and listen attentively…until Finneas’ logo signals the start of his opening set, and they all rush headlong to the front of the stage, emptying out the back of the arena. Teens gonna teen.
But what do you expect from fans of Billie Eilish? Like it or not, pop culture’s latest teen idol has become a role model — one who’s subverted expectations every step of the way. Her rise from viral SoundCloud singer to phenomenon, indie balladeer to art-pop weirdo, has somehow felt unlikely and inevitable. In the last six weeks alone, she’s released her debut full-length When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, topped the Billboard album charts, and played a career-defining Coachella set. Every article written about her emphasises her age — now 17 — but that’s almost beside the point.
The screaming starts as soon as the lights go down. “I’m the bad guy… duh!” A strange, thumping disco-blues hybrid, ‘Bad Guy’ is one of the quietest pop hits in recent memory. Billie’s delivery is no louder than the near-whisper on her records, but even an arena’s worth of amplification is no match for 6000 teens yelling each syllable in unison. It’s the kind of frenzy typically reserved for a Harry Styles or a Justin Bieber.
Some performers are so compelling that the audience hangs on their every gesture. But no, this crowd anticipates every lyric, most of which they’ve memorised in a month. This happens time and time again, almost to the point of silliness — didn’t you buy tickets to hear a performance? Then again, how do you tell a crowd of teens to be less excited? They’re not wrong! Billie even pauses her heaviest banger, ‘You Should See Me In A Crown,’ mid-song, just to let the crowd scream.
You soon notice how unusual a performer Eilish is. Draped in a vast, oversized hoodie, she runs and jumps around like she’s in Odd Future — but rarely raises her voice when she’s singing. She doesn’t seem to possess the grace of her years as a dancer, until you realise her vocals are note-perfect no matter how much she’s moving. You notice the kinesio tape on her legs, a reminder of the physical and mental toll it takes to play these shows.
It takes one kind of crowd psychology to write songs that get this kind of reaction, and another entirely to soothe them into submission. As Billie sings ‘When I Was Older,’ she lies on the stage floor, framed by projections of a cartoon figure drifting, drowning. Lit by our phones, she duets on ‘I Love You’ with Finneas, giving one of the most vulnerable performances you’ll ever see in an arena.
It’s a little unsettling to hear a teenager sing these bittersweet, existential ballads with more pathos than most adults could ever manage.
It’s a little unsettling to hear a teenager sing these bittersweet, existential ballads with more pathos than most adults could ever manage. Eilish already delivers ‘Ocean Eyes,’ her lovelorn breakthrough single, with more maturity and life experience than she had in 2015. It’s oddly comforting to hear ‘Bellyache,’ a murder fantasy disguised as a Spotify-core pop song, sung collectively by an arena, dreaming of losing our minds.
Before ‘When The Party’s Over,’ Eilish asks the audience to put down our phones — to live in this moment, whether we love or hate it. Sung mostly a cappella, buoyed by the crowd’s backing vocals, it takes on a symphonic, spiritual quality. It hasn’t always been easy to identify Eilish’s muse, what truly drives her as an artist, but she gives us a glimpse of it here — being 17, and already afraid that this moment, that life, might pass her by. And she’s right — we’ll only get this show once. The next time she tours Australia, she might be a completely different person.
Less than four years into her career, Billie Eilish is already a wildly compelling artist. Maybe it’s because the crowd is so enthusiastic, but this show feels less like a display of her raw talent, than a moment for her generation. She closes the show with ‘Bury A Friend,’ but even its horror-film soundscapes feel unusually down-to-earth — written and recorded with her older brother in her childhood bedroom, like all of her music. With Finneas standing beside her, it makes you feel like you could do it yourself.
It’s easy to dismiss Billie Eilish as “weird,” or just for teens, or say that her success makes you feel old. But age is just a number — she’s simply ahead of the curve.
What happens when she becomes the new normal of pop music? When her fans start making art of their own? It’s no coincidence that the last line of her set is her album title: when we all fall asleep, where do we go?
Richard S. He is a songwriter and producer in the pop duo ELLE, and an award-winning journalist. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod.
Photo Credit: Mikki Gomez