In this week's edition of Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood explains how the rise of self-made pop stars has crushed the demand for male idols for young women. Instead, Billie Eilish, with her frank gothic pop, is proving there's space for women to be themselves in the music business.
I find myself writing about the aspirations of fanbases a lot these days. Perhaps thats’s because, as a kid, my goal was to bring myself closer to the people I idolised – not necessarily by becoming a singer or an actor, but by finding a way in this world to unpick the psyches of the artists that inspire, and the swathes of people who fawn over them.
Today, that aspiration is more interesting because the role of the pop performer has transformed. As a reaction to the shitty reality of life – by that I mean Brexit, Trump and the dismal state of our generation’s mental wellbeing – becoming much harder to ignore, what was once a glamorous, care-free existence has gained a potent political and social weight. Escapism, in the wrong hands, can look ignorant and ugly these days. What Generation Z are crying out for is a pop star who knows themselves inside and out, and is willing to express that in the music that they make. It explains why Billie Eilish, a rough-and-tumble gothic pop girl, has gone from suburban LA high schooler to prolific musician with a gigantic fanbase in the space of three years.
I first came across Billie back in early 2016 when she was 14, having heard her song ‘Ocean Eyes’ on Zane Lowe’s Beats One show and subsequently interviewed her for a magazine I ran while still a student. Back then, that woozy slice of sombre pop, co-written with her brother, was the only track she’d released, so when I spoke to her about her influences and inspirations, it was surprising to hear she was fascinated by Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future. Of course, as her profile grew and the songs she’d later release felt weightier and imbued with a sense of teen angst, it became clear that she was doing something we hadn’t seen in a while.
Now 17, Billie Eilish is one of the few artists whose name has seldom strayed from the lips of tastemakers for the past 18 months. That’s partly because her music bears little similarity to work of her contemporaries, but also for the way her moody demeanour feels refreshing in an industry built on false smiles and glamourised fashion mag cover stories. What she’s singing about – sadness, complicated relationships with shitty endings and fake friends – has resonated with a generation of kids who were previously asked to worship arena-filling stars with teams employed to ensure they wouldn’t step a foot out of line.
For young women, that’s both imperative and inspiring. It’s a sign that the marionette-like perception of girls in that industry is changing, and that we’re finally giving airtime to girls who look and feel much more like their fanbases. Billie’s just completed a string of dates on her UK tour which sold out in a matter of seconds; each date dominated by crowds of overwhelmed fans. There’s adoration and then there’s hysteria; Billie, it seems, is causing the latter. If she keeps up this pace, chances are she’ll be booking nights at the same arenas as Bieber. Change is in the air, but it’s an exciting kind that should give us hope about the pop scene in 2019.