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Billie Eilish Is 16, and She’s Ready to Rule the Youth

The steadily rising young singer-songwriter has reached a flashpoint of fame: Her generation knows all about her. Everyone else is next. Here’s why.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To the tune of a thousand piercing shrieks, Billie Eilish emerged from where she’d been hiding: inside the body of a giant spider with eight light-up legs that stretched the entire width of the stage. (The arachnoid is the 16-year-old pop star’s spirit animal; if you take a selfie with the Billie Eilish Snapchat filter you, too, can make it seem like a large tarantula is crawling on your face.) It was a cold, drizzly Monday night, and, although the room was cavernous—the Williamsburg venue Brooklyn Steel; capacity 1,800—she’d sold it out weeks before. The line outside wrapped around the block, and near the end of it sat Billie’s massive tour bus. It was dirty, and dozens of fans had taken their fingers and written messages on the side of the vehicle as though it were a chemistry notebook: a poop emoji, someone’s Instagram handle, but mostly just variations on “I love you, Billie” accompanied by doodled, bubbly hearts.

Billie Eilish turns 17 next month, and, judging by the kind of frenzy I witnessed at her show this week, she is about to become absurdly famous. Or maybe she already is, in that secret and mortally frightening way that teens can pick up on well before even the most in-the-know adults. When I mentioned to some friends and colleagues that I was going to her show, no one over 25 had more than a vague, where-have-I-heard-that-name-before idea of who she was. But Eilish already has 7.1 million followers on Instagram (@wherearetheavocados) and her songs—among which are two popular cuts from the 13 Reasons Why soundtracks, the most recent of which is a duet with Khalid—have been streamed more than 1 billion times.

Although she was not alive when it was released, every piece of Billie Eilish’s merch reminded me of the cover of that one New Radicals album that everyone bought in 1998. I wondered idly whether it was designated in her rider that the guy selling T-shirts had to be wearing a bucket hat, or whether he was doing so of his own accord. Between sets, the venue was illuminated by blacklight. Since Eilish and, by extension, her fans favor the garish, neon color palette of Department of Transportation uniforms, more things than usual lit up in the dark: lime-green hats branded with Eilish’s logo; a crown of plastic hair clips on the head of a young girl standing in front of me; a screaming-orange long-sleeve T-shirt purchased at the merch table and now tied around an obliging mom’s waist. Down the sleeve was printed a prickly message that also happens to be the title of Eilish’s debut EP: dont smile at me.

“Sometimes I’ll wear four coats,” Eilish told Vice last year with a shrug, speaking of her loud-on-purpose personal style. “I’ve worn pants on my arms.” A teenage provocateur, she finds it wickedly fun to be polarizing at first glance. “I’ll wear something that I know people will look at and either hate or love or be like, What is that?” she says. “I like being judged so I don’t care if people hate it—it makes me happier if they hate it because then I’m in your head and you’re thinking about it and that’s on you, bro.” She has a way of making adults look absurd, simply by standing next to them: Do yourself a favor and watch this video of her and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti urging the youth to get out and vote (something she is not yet old enough to do).

Many of Eilish’s songs are cartoonishly macabre but also suffused with a deeply felt teenage sadness. “If you hate yourself, this song is for you,” she said at her concert, introducing the most-streamed song on dont smile at me, “idontwannabeyouanymore.” Her voice is a pretty, lilting thing, and at its most impassioned it becomes vaporous, as though it’s trying to vanish into thin air—like a slumped, sullen teen trying to disappear into her hoodie. For the entire set, though, you could barely pick it out amid all the other voices that joined with hers to sing every word. “Tell the mirror what you know she’s heard before,” they all sang together, their self-deprecation becoming something more bearable in unison, “I don’t wanna be you anymore.”

A stagehand emerged to hand Eilish a biohazard-yellow ukulele, which meant it was time for another fan favorite, “party favor,” a sweetly sour ditty about dumping someone on their birthday. “‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ and all that other bullshit,” Eilish sang. “You know that’s bullshit, don’tcha, babe?” A mom in front of me turned to a dad in our vicinity, flashing an exaggerated grimace as both of their daughters sang along. Said the mom to the dad, “Only because it’s in the song!”

Eilish has striking aqua eyes that she often rolls back into her head, like a bored zombie. For the moment, her hair is dyed Bic-ink blue, and on stage Monday night it was tied back in a messy half-bun, so it stayed out of her eyes when she moved around. She wore an oversize white sweatshirt, Nike high-tops, and baggy basketball shorts that came down to her knees. She usually looks like a walking, talking Hype Williams video, who if pressed to speak would say, “LOL, I don’t even know who Hype Williams is.” Especially in her internet presence, Eilish presents herself as a somewhat awkward introvert, but on stage she proved to be a boisterously confident performer. There was only one moment, toward the end of her hour-long set, when she wavered: She briefly turned her back to the crowd and seemed to be having a mild but genuine panic attack. “I’m freaking the fuck out,” she said into the mic. “I’m paranoid as a mothafucker.” A middle-aged man who I assumed to be a stagehand emerged from the wings to check in on her, briefly rubbing her shoulders and asking if she was OK. She was, now. He disappeared. “That’s my dad, everybody,” 16-year-old Billie told the crowd, who cheered for him like he, too, was an emerging teenage superstar.

Born in 2001, months after 9/11, Eilish grew up in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Her parents are both working actors who have had high-profile bit parts here and there (her dad has appeared in small roles in Iron Man; The West Wing; and, most recently, Baskets). Eilish’s older brother, Finneas, now 21, is also a musician-actor, best known for playing Alistair on the final season of Glee. They were both homeschooled, and in an interview several years ago Finneas said that the experience had a formative effect on his sense of self: “Being homeschooled is all about self-discovery. … I’m not at a high school where I have to base my self-worth off what other people think of me.” Billie, too, believes her upbringing made her seem wise beyond her years, or to exist somewhere outside of time: Once, at the county fair, she went to that booth where they guess your age and she won a prize because they said she was 20 when really she was 12.

After a few early roles in plays and a nightmarish audition, Eilish decided that acting wasn’t for her, but she did love music. She sang in the L.A. Children’s Chorus from age 8 (some internet sleuths have already spotted her in old performance videos) and became immersed in contemporary dance. One day a few years ago, Finneas popped his head into Billie’s room to play her a song he’d recently written, called “Ocean Eyes.” (“He’d been doing it with his band before,” she later recalled, “and of course I’d heard it, because [my room] was right next door.”) She loved it, and she and Finneas recorded and uploaded to SoundCloud a version of her singing it—all breathy and gossamer, like a slightly less doomed Lana Del Rey—so she could bring it to her dance teacher in hopes of choreographing a piece to it. Instead, the song went viral, and it got 14-year-old Billie a record deal with Interscope. Eventually the song did indeed become the soundtrack for a dance piece, featuring Billie, which has now been viewed more than 12 million times.

When she and Finneas were working on what would become dont smile at me, they tried writing and recording in a studio and even collaborating with other musicians. But that didn’t feel right so, Billie says, “We ended up just doing it at home anyway.” Released last August, the EP spawned some of her strongest songs yet, like the goofy, brooding earworm “bellyache” (which happens to be told from the perspective of a young sociopath who murders her friends and leaves them in the back seat of her car; don’t worry about it) and the playful, piano-driven “my boy,” at the end of which she intones, “You want me to be yours, well, then you gotta be mine / And if you want a good girl, then goodbye.”

When Eilish was promoting the EP, she gushed about her love for horror movies. Her favorite, she said, is The Babadook, and she has watched all of American Horror Story at least three times. Critics have been quick to compare her to Del Rey and Lorde (with whom she definitely shares some vocal similarities and an ability to confound people trying to guess her age) but she cites Tyler, the Creator as one of her biggest influences. You don’t have to squint very hard to see him—the in-your-face neon patterns, the oral fixation with insects, and the impulse toward a comic kind of crudeness more often accepted from teenage boys than girls.

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heres a lil message for u all❤️

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Like many people her age, Eilish borrows from hip-hop culture like a kid born into it and knowing little else. There are flashes when her perspective can seem hermetic and a bit too carefree: “I’m too young to go to jail, it’s kinda funny,” she sings coyly on “bellyache,” though there are plenty of kids in America who would disagree. Still, her tomboyish, occasionally androgynous charm is what her fans love about her, and they believe it speaks to her grinning, purple-devil-emoji-may-care personality. “[O]nly billie could literally wear pajamas to the ellen show and pull it off,” one fan commented a few weeks ago on a video of Billie’s first daytime TV performance. “I love how her style isn’t feminine or masculine,” another wrote, “it’s just human.”

On the neon ukulele, to a rapt crowd, Billie strummed a quiet cover of “Hotline Bling.” “Girl, you got me down, you got me stressed out,” she sang. She did not change the pronoun, not necessarily because she was singing with a girl in mind but because this was a new generation, and to change it would have been close-mindedly passé.

Although the young never seem as young as the young people of a previous time were—perhaps because the observer of such things is constantly and inevitably growing older‚ Billie Eilish is right now, to the month, the exact age that Britney Spears was when she tied up her schoolgirl uniform in “…Baby One More Time” and took over the world. “When I’m not with you, I lose my mind,” Spears sang, suggestively self-abnegating. Somehow, the culture agreed that this kind of performative passivity made her a “good girl,” until she donned a red catsuit to tell us she wasn’t that innocent. Eilish is working within a similar tradition of the teenage female pop star, but her message is quite different. It’s tailored to a moment that gives young women more agency over their lives and desires. “Hey, call me back when you get this,” Eilish sings on “party favor,” adding, “Wait, you know what, maybe just forget it / ’Cause by the time you get this, your number might be blocked.” For all the horror-movie violence and casually deployed F-bombs, there wasn’t much sex in Billie’s show—save for one moment during “watch” (the remix, with the Vince Staples verse) when she sang to her crush about “the fire that you started in me” and slowly moved her hand down her body, toward her crotch. It got me wondering about the restrictive American ideals of the “good girl” and the “bad girl,” how in the past maybe the only difference had been that the former is taught to think of sexuality as a performance for someone else and the latter is not afraid to frame it as a felt experience. Maybe that dichotomy is finally dissolving, though. Billie Eilish is brash, young, and occasionally ridiculous, but she also seems like a small step in the direction of teenage female pop stars being treated not like objects but instead subjective chroniclers of their own feelings, stylistic preferences, and lives.

Billie sat on a stool in front of the giant spider, which meant it was time for her to sing her hit single, “when the party’s over.” She had a request, just for this one song: Could everybody put down their phones and just be in this moment with her? Because this moment was going to happen only this one time—one time!—and then it would be over and a different moment would take its place. I’m going to say 90 percent of the audience complied. And so Billie sang the song, which barely has any other instruments than her voice singing, “I could lie and say I like it like that, like it like that, like it like that.” And then, just as Billie had promised, the moment was over and a new one had indeed arrived: We were all a tiny bit older, and Billie was a tiny bit closer to something bigger, something else.