Kicking off her world tour in Miami last night, Billie Eilish took the questioning menace lurking at the heart of ‘Bury a Friend’ and rolled with it. On the track, the artist grapples with pressure and expectation: “What do you want from me?” she asks in her distinctive whisper, “Why don’t you run from me? What are you wondering? What do you know?”
On stage in Miami, Eilish addressed body-shaming and attempts to judge others for what they choose to wear: removing her t-shirt in the pre-recorded visual, she slowly sinks into a pit of sticky black tar before disappearing beneath the surface completely. “Some people hate what I wear; some people praise it; some people use it to shame others; some people use it to shame me,” she says.
“Would you like me to be smaller?” she asks. “Weaker? Softer? Taller? Would you like me to be quiet? Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach? My hips? The body I was born with – is it not what you wanted? If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut. Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it. Why?”
In the powerful monologue, Eilish touches on a paradox that has followed her – and the women who came before – around for her entire career. Over the last couple of years, the singer’s usual garb – she often wears oversized t-shirts and shorts – has somehow sparked an entire ‘debate’. When she isn’t mocked by certain quarters for her apparent failure to dress like a woman (how are women even meant to dress?) she’s patted on the back for covering herself up – the very definition of faint praise with a side of heavily implied slut-shaming. There’s no winner here, you’ll notice – just a continual parade of worn-out, gender essentialist, stereotypical bullshit.
And she has specifically distanced herself from those who have celebrated her “total lack of sexualisation” as a way of bringing down other women in the past. “Positive [comments] about how I dress have this slut-shaming element,” she told V Magazine. “Like, ‘I am so glad that you are dressing like a boy so that other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts’. I don’t like that there’s this weird new world of supporting me by shaming people that may not want to dress like me.”
Unfortunately, certain responses to Eilish’s interlude have only proven how necessary it was in the first place – The Daily Mail ran with the sensationally pervy headline “Billie Eilish shows some skin in a rare public display”. The Sun ran with: “Billie Eilish seen stripping to her bra” was theirs.
A timely reminder that Billie Eilish is 18 years old.
And elsewhere certain people elsewhere are earnestly questioning if the singer was pressured into ‘stripping off’. Their concern is misplaced – it’s just patronising to suggest that a woman who has forged a unique and oft-copied artistic identity, entirely on her own terms, is now helplessly lacking in agency.
Eilish’s debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ was the best-performing album in the US – 2020 saw the LA artist become a five-time Grammy award winner, and the youngest musician to ever record a James Bond theme. And as her star has risen, the she has also been inundated with many more familiar, tired questions that follow virtually every successful woman. Constantly, we’re reminded that her brother Finneas writes and produces many of her songs –and it’s telling that this particular criticism is levelled most frequently at women in pop, over male counterparts with their own teams of creative collaborators. Then, the complaints that she’s too ‘miserable’ or ‘rude’– surely the keyboard-warrior equivalent of shouting “give us a smile, love!” at a random on the street.
It’s exhausting – even more so because this conversation has been taking place for decades.
When Christina Aguilera explored similar ideas around body image in her 2002 album ‘Stripped’ she was praised for her laying her emotions bare on ‘Beautiful’ and shamed simultaneously for ‘Dirrty’ – the implication being that vulnerability is only acceptable when it takes a non-threatening form.
And watching Eilish’s interlude, the visual parallels with Xtina’s ‘Stripped Intro’ are obvious to see: in that visual, the singer also removes her top – this time watched by blinking cameras instead of a live audience. “Sorry that I speak my mind,” Aguilera says, “sorry don’t do what I’m told, sorry if I don’t fake it, sorry I come too real.”
And almost twenty years later, female artists are still being held to the same impossible standards. Power to Billie Eilish for calling it like it is.