You suspect that Billie Eilish was hoping to do tonight’s Glastonbury set under a different cloud. Earlier today (June 24), the Supreme Court voted in favour of overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling that provided the constitutional right to abortions in the US; the move paves the way for individual states to ban the procedure. It’s a topic that Billie has spoken on strongly: her latest song ‘TV’ directly references the law and she recently told NME how concerned she was about the ruling: “Women are losing rights for their bodies, so why are we talking about celebrities’ divorce trials? Who gives a shit?”
And tonight on the Pyramid Stage, she speaks further as she becomes the youngest-ever solo headliner of the festival: “Today is a really dark day for women in the US,” she says by way of introducing ‘Your Power’, a song about abuse in the music industry and beyond. “That’s all I’m going to say about that as I can’t bear to think about it anymore at this moment,” she adds, wiping her eyes and face. She joins fellow performers like IDLES and Phoebe Bridgers in using the sets to speak out about the ruling.
In spite of devastating news which is starting to filter through the campsites, this is a headline set that usher in a new era of Glastonbury Festival. It’s a changing of the guard that means that for every Paul McCartney at age 80, there should be a young gun looking to make their mark, just as 20-year-old Eilish does on her second appearance at the festival. The Gen Z takeover of Glastonbury has begun.
It makes for an interesting challenge, too. Glastonbury headline sets aren’t meant to be easy and while it’s easy to hold an arena of adoring fans, winning over the casuals and naysayers was tonight’s real challenge. Every line she sings or speaks on home turf is met with a chorus of screams, but here, less so. The healthy crowd – one that sticks it out for the entirety of tonight’s set – has a more varied make-up, one clearly that’s open-minded in the way that the festival always is. Highlight ‘Therefore I Am’ permeates and ripples through the crowd, with sparkling fireworks on stage giving the song a groovy and dangerous edge.
This show will have been familiar for those who’ve caught the recent Happier Than Ever tour, and little will likely change between the show she plays here in Somerset and the O2 in London for the rest of the weekend. That is no bad thing: this tour is a visual triumph, and the recreation of ‘NDA’’s video, and ‘Getting Older’’s touching montage of family home videos of her and brother and collaborator Finneas still resonate with each play.
These things feel trivial compared to the show’s big picture revelations: this is a 20-year-old woman discussing political decisions without fear; encouraging her crowd and contemporaries to live and embrace the moment, extending warmth and compassion to each every person in the field (“I want no judgement out there tonight”); being unapologetically herself, and owning the responsibility and power she holds over her crowd. If the festival wants to keep moving in this direction, booking more headliners like Billie, Stormzy and more will ensure its long-standing commitment to the present and future legends, as much as the past.
When the music does the talking, it’s equally thrilling. ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’s whopping bassline cuts through the sprawling Pyramid field, and ‘Oxytocin’’s smattering of synths and and twisted beats brought the same edge that Kanye West’s 2015 headline set did to the Pyramid. While that set found the rapper obsessed with justifying his place as a headliner (the less said about that Queen cover the better), Billie betrays no such desire, knowing that the skill and songs will do the job for fans. There are occasional lulls, mind, as any debut headline set is due. It’s clear that she’s transitioning away form her earliest material – ’Ocean Eyes’ appears only in medley form – but it feels substantial that none of the ‘Happier Than Ever’ material is cut.
Rumours of a secret guest slot – Harry Styles was the optimistic word on the ground – might have warped expectations, but it would have done Billie a huge disservice: she alone owns the stage as much as any pop star has done at the Pyramid before. And you can tell just how much she is enjoying the show – seldom does a beaming smile drop from her face, and during ‘Happier Than Ever’s spectacular finale, full of fireworks and a face-melting guitar part by Finneas, she pops a monitor out of her ears to hear the crowd scream. You can tell she’s holding back a smile when she sings the set’s clinching line, and the crowd scream it back: “I’d never treat me this shitty / You made me hate this city”
In time, it seems likely that we’ll look back at this show as a watershed moment that shook up the festival’s destiny just as much as Jay-Z’s momentous 2008 set or Stormzy’s nation-unifying extravaganza in 2019. As ever, Billie’s greatest strength has been embracing the road less well trodden and bringing the weirdness into the mainstream, not watering it down for the general public. Tonight’s show felt like proof that the future is here, and Glastonbury’s future remains rock-solid for the next half-century if they continue to trust their guts and push things forward.
Billie Eilish played:
‘bury a friend’
‘I Didn’t Change My Number’
‘Therefore I Am’
‘my strange addiction’
‘you should see me in a crown’
‘Billie Bossa Nova’
‘bellyache / ocean eyes’
‘when the party’s over’
‘all the good girls go to hell’
‘everything i wanted’
‘Happier Than Ever’