Billie Eilish’s Musical Prowess Transcends Generations

Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish Photo by Kenneth Cappello
If it seems like you've heard the name "Billie Eilish" a great deal lately, that's because you have. From sweeping the Grammys and performing at the Oscars to releasing her latest song, "No Time to Die" — the theme song for the latest James Bond film — the singer-songwriter has been extraordinarily busy the first two months of the new year.

Now, the 18-year-old pop star is gearing up for the Where Do We Go? World Tour, her first trot around the globe as a musician. And as it so happens, it's kicking off in Miami on Monday, March 9, at the American Airlines Arena. After the North American leg of the tour ends, Eilish will jump across the pond to Europe before wrapping up in Asia.

The ambition of her tour itinerary was made possible by the success of her debut album — March 2019's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — which has been streamed more than 15 billion times worldwide since its release. The album showcases the singer’s range through soft, melodic ballads such as “When the Party’s Over” and “Xanny,” comfortably sitting next to catchy synth numbers like “Bad Guy” and “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.”

Eilish’s name is all over social media feeds now, but her career arc has been rising steadily for almost four years. When she was just a fresh-faced 14-year-old, she and her older brother, Finneas O'Connell — a singer-songwriter and producer in his own right who has collaborated extensively with his sister — uploaded the short but catchy tune "Ocean Eyes" to SoundCloud. The three-minute song quickly gained momentum, and despite having few songs to her name, Eilish promptly began developing a dedicated following.

The song, written by O'Connell when he was 18, adopts a very mature take on love and all of its pitfalls. As Eilish’s falsetto rises and falls — much like waves in the ocean — your heart goes up and down with each note as you think about how unfair love really can be. It's a complex, knotty emotion that can be tough for even the most shrewd adults to navigate; that might be why so many older folks find it tough to stomach that a teenager like Eilish can sing about it effortlessly.

Eilish and O'Connell followed “Ocean Eyes” with the EP Don't Smile at Me in 2017. Despite their youth, the siblings have written tunes that resonate with audiences both young and old.

Gen-Z-ers such as Eilish will never know what it was like to grow up with dial-up internet, floppy disks, or Tamagotchis. But for however different their teen years might be from those of their elders, as millennials' bonds with baby boomers and Gen-X-ers over their respective musical subcultures have illustrated, great music transcends generations.
By virtue of her age — and through no fault of her own — Eilish has limited life experience. But when she sings, she sounds as if she has lived many lifetimes. She has a fantastic gift for breathing life into vivid, fictionalized scenes and portraits. Whether they're real, imagined, or somewhere in between, the scenes set by Eilish have garnered a diverse fan base.

Like all iconic performers, Eilish delivers every lyric with conviction, and it's hard not to accept her stories at face value: You want to believe her when she sings about heartbreak and longing for something she can’t have. Although the teen might not have experienced love the way world-weary adults have, listeners still take her words, internalize them, and forge a connection to her music.

Eilish is hardly the first pop star to release an album that resonates with audiences beyond her generation. Adele was 19 when her appropriately titled debut album, 19, was released. Similarly, Amy Winehouse was 20 when her first album, Frank, joined the musical canon.

Much like the work of the trailblazing women who came before her, Eilish’s songs channel a found sense of maturity to produce music that transcends the time and place it was created. It might be premature to make proclamations about the longevity of Eilish's career or where she'll eventually wind up as an artist, but it's inarguable that she has already left a mark on pop music despite her small body of released work.

The New York Times put it best when it said, “Eilish has the kind of talent that is easily understood and praised by the old guard: She writes her own songs, she redirects the gaze from the shape of her body with oversized silhouettes, she has a voice that, while whispery and strange, is still classically lovely.”

Eilish's relatability stems in part from her no-bullshit songwriting. A few months after releasing When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, she shared “Everything I Wanted.” In the song, she laments, “If I could change/The way that you see yourself/You wouldn’t wonder why you hear/'They don’t deserve you,'” and “If I knew it all then, would I do it again?” Whereas most kids her age would likely take refuge in their YouTube and Instagram pages to relish their newfound fame, Eilish reflects on what the burdens of losing one's anonymity mean for her.

It’s refreshing to see a young person break into the music scene and (seemingly) retain her sense of self within the larger pop machine. In an age of Kardashian- and Jenner-dictated sensibilities, Eilish's divergent musical and fashion aesthetic comes across as a very large fuck-you to anyone who would attempt to change her. She wears her long, elaborate fingernails with outsize outfits and funky hair colors and wields her disinterested stare with pride. How could she come across as anything but authentic?

Eilish may never know the sense of satisfaction that comes with successfully retrieving a floppy disk from a computer drive, but she is a formidable talent, and all things willing, we'll be hearing much more from her.

Billie Eilish. 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 9, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; Tickets are sold out.
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.