Billie Eilish: behind the Bad Girl Superstar

By Amara Iqbal

Billie Eilish is the first artist born this millennium to achieve a number one album, and she did so by just being herself.

By the age of fifteen Billie Eilish had already released her first song, called ‘ocean eyes’. It was a song that had been created by accident, but it became a breakthrough smash, clocking up more than 10 million hits. Billie’s career had begun.

The song was written by her elder brother, Finneas O’Connell, who has his own band The Slightlys, and asked his sister to record the song in her voice. The song was then intended to be used in a dance routine by Billie, who sent it on to her dance teacher. But when they realised just how good the song was, the siblings decided to upload the track to SoundCloud, and it went viral. Music videos were then released in 2016 – one a dance version and the second where Billie covers herself with purple paint. By 2018 the song had sold over a million copies in the United States, becoming Billie’s first song to make it on to the US Billboard Hot 100.

Her talents come from her creative and musical family, especially Billie’s father Patrick O’Connell who taught his son and daughter to love music. He was so passionate about music and creativity that he also home

 

-schooled them both – he knew the importance that creative artists needed to pursue their careers, and figured that being home-schooled gave them the opportunity and time to experiment with their musical creativity.

This understanding of the creative industry comes from his own experience as an actor, best known for his roles in ‘Iron Man’ and ‘The West Wing’. Billie’s mother Maggie Baird is also an actress, singer and songwriter who released her own country music album ‘We Sail’. Other than singing in his band and being a key person in his sister’s career, Finneas O’Connell has also acted in the movie ‘Bad Teachers’. There is no denying then that the whole family is artistically talented.

There’s also no denying that Billie has a little taste for darkness in her songs. While ‘ocean eyes’ is about love and sounds like a lullaby, since then releases such as ‘bellyache’ and ‘bury a friend’ have much darker lyrics, as Billie picks up a psychopathic persona where she has killed her friends and dumped their bodies. Billie has said that when she and her brother write music, they enjoy getting into these psychopathic characters, because it gives them that opportunity to explore new spaces.

“You can put yourself in a character or a situation you would not normally be in. You don’t have to be in love to write a love song. You don’t have to kill somebody to write a song about killing somebody. It’s like jumping into another world,” Billie told the BBC.

As well as adopting other characters, Billie revealed some very personal aspects of her real life in her debut album, released this March, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ The songs in the album each in some part talk about the night terrors Billie suffers from. Speaking in an interview with Zane Lowe, she said: “The album is basically what happens when you fall asleep. For me, in every song in the album there’s sleep paralysis. There’s night terrors, nightmares, lucid dreams.

“I’ve always had really, really bad night terrors. I’ve had sleep paralysis five times. All my dreams are lucid so I control them. I know that I’m dreaming what I’m dreaming, so I don’t even know. Sometimes I’ll have dreams where the thing that was in my dream will happen the next day. It’s so weird.”

These tormented recurring dreams have she says affected the way she views things and how she talks to people, but she is now able to speak through her music and music videos.

For example ‘bury a friend’ is written from the perspective of the monster under the bed – the monster that has been hunting her. Billie is trying to understand what this monster does and feel, and in her music video she actually becomes the monster as she lays under the bed with blacked out eyes.

As creepy and spooky as Billie’s music videos are, most of the stunts that she does are real, even a spider crawling out of her mouth in ‘you should see me in a crown’. So too was the black liquid seen coming out of Billie’s eyes in ‘when the party’s over’, a trick using hidden pipes which did actually hurt her eyes. Furthermore she wanted to have needles put into her back and liquid injected for the video of ‘bury a friend’, but the director disagreed stating that it would most likely have killed her…

It is safe to say that Billie likes it dark and enjoys all the extreme stunts she has become famous for in her videos, and the more realistic the stunt the more she can feel part of her music; she wants to be different and unique.

Billie is also recognised and celebrated for having her own original style. She loves baggy clothes and wears them almost all the time. However, there is also a deeper reason as to why she loves wearing baggy clothes. In her “I Speak My Truth In #MyCalvins” ad campaign she revealed that she does not want the world to know everything about her, and fashion is the way she can protect herself from the hatred that comes from society judging her upon how her body looks; they cannot have an opinion if they cannot see what’s underneath.

Discussing her fashion choices with the NME, she said: “If I was a guy and I was wearing these baggy clothes, nobody would bat an eye. There’s people out there saying, ‘Dress like a girl for once! Wear tight clothes you’d be much prettier and your career would be so much better!’ No it wouldn’t. It literally would not.”

Pressure from the public also led to Billie revealing she has Tourette syndrome. As the teenager’s popularity grew, more and more videos started to surface around online of her tics, and she took to Instagram to set the record straight. Tourette syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes a person to make involuntary sounds and movements, called tics. Billie revealed she was diagnosed with the disorder when she was a child and had never mentioned it before because she did not want it to define her.

“I’ve never mentioned [my Tourette syndrome] on the internet because nobody thinks I’m deadass,” Billie wrote on her Instagram story. “As well as the fact I’ve just never wanted people to think of tourettes every time they think of me.

She added: “I’ve taught myself ways of suppressing my tics and certain techniques to help [reduce] them when I don’t want to be distracting in certain situations.”

It has certainly not held her back from performing on some of the biggest stages. As well as touring her debut album, Billie has been a major force on the festival scene this year, including at Coachella, Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds.

So what is it about Billie that has created such a following so quickly? She certainly stands out from the crowd, demonstrating the power of embracing your individuality rather than trying to ‘fit in’ to any outdated idea of what a female popstar should be. As Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells identified: “For her core teen-girl fan base, she’s like the cool senior in art class who dresses and acts the way they wish they could: stylish, outrageous, maybe a little dangerous.”

Yet in the same interview the 17-year-old also talked frankly about the pressures of fame, revealing how the family had to hire a bodyguard to sleep in her living room after her address leaked online and three fans showed up at her home.

“I’ve loved attention my whole life,” she said, “but I don’t think anyone knows what fame actually is. Because if I did want to be famous — it wasn’t this kind.”

However at the same time she is also grateful, adding: “I have an amazing job…I really do. The things I get to do in my career have just been unbelievable.”

And with rumours that she is set to tour the UK and Europe next year, there will be plenty more chances to see and hear Billie for yourself.



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