No artist says as much about the state of pop as Billie Eilish | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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No artist says as much about the state of pop as Billie Eilish


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The myth of 17-year-old pop star Billie Eilish is that she blew up overnight at age 13, after she uploaded the dreamy, trap-inflected “Ocean Eyes” to Soundcloud and it went viral. That was in November 2015, and by the following summer she’d signed a joint deal with Darkroom and Interscope. But that narrative omits the influence of her actor parents, who homeschooled Eilish and her older brother, 21-year-old Finneas O’Connell—in 1997, the year O’Connell was born, one of the top hits was “MMMBop,” written by three homeschooled Oklahoma brothers, and Eilish’s parents figured that a similar education might help their kids develop their artistic sides. Their daughter proved herself gifted at a young age, capable of summoning the gravitas of a long-suffering blues musician, and O’Connell has been her primary collaborator and producer for her entire short career. They build her songs around a variety of sounds, including quaking EDM bass, fingerpicked folk guitar, soul-baring R&B piano, and perforating rap percussion; as she recently told the New York Times, she doesn’t want to fall into any single genre, but rather to make something that’s identifiably “Billie Eilish kind of music.” This approach isn't unique, of course—Halsey and Khalid, to name just two others, have become pop phenoms by occupying a similar aesthetic gray area—but Eilish brings a nuanced, unconventional approach to her distinctive songwriting, and she’s developed a persona that flirts with darkness. After a rash of singles and the 2017 EP Don't Smile at Me, in March she finally dropped her first full-length, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. The album’s songs sometimes blur together into corporate-playlist pop wallpaper, but Eilish still distinguishes herself with the restraint and severity of her expression, which allows her to concentrate a wallop of emotion into a single carefully tooled line. And when she gets grim—as she does with the industrial stomp of “Bury a Friend”—she sounds like no one else.   v

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