The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Billie Eilish’s casually morbid music defined Gen Z. Now she has a No. 1 Billboard debut.

Billie Eilish attends Spotify Presents: The Billie Eilish Experience on March 28 in Los Angeles. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Spotify)
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Who is Billie Eilish?

The question is as provocative as those the 17-year-old poses in her first studio album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” It just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making Eilish the only artist born in the 2000s to achieve the feat. (She’s also the youngest female artist to do so in a decade.)

The edgy pop music doubles as Eilish’s Gen Z membership card, whether commenting on her peers’ benzo habit — “I don’t need a xanny to feel better,” she whispers on the track “Xanny” — or sampling a scene from “The Office” on “My Strange Addiction.” Her lyrics are the perfect encapsulation of online culture today, both darkly comical and casually morbid. She moodily sings “Bury A Friend” from the perspective of the monster under her bed, then reveals that she herself is the monster, her own nemesis.

Like the teen pop stars who preceded her, Eilish could also be described as precocious. The album’s giggly prelude titled “!!!!!!!” reminds listeners of her youth (while alerting us to the fact that she has taken off her Invisalign). But unlike some of her predecessors, she maintains her own creative vision — even while writing and producing music with her 21-year-old brother, Finneas, and recording in a house belonging to the actor parents who home-schooled them. As Eilish recently remarked to the New York Times, she could easily hand the reins over to someone else but, like with her music, instead chooses to pick out her own clothes, envision her own videos and run her own Instagram account.

“Everything could be easier if I wanted it to,” she told the Times. “But I’m not that kind of person and I’m not that kind of artist. I’d rather die than be that kind of artist.”

The intensity of Eilish’s autonomy is on full display in her Instagram account, @wherearetheavocados, which boasts 17.9 million followers. Her blank stares and androgynous baggy clothing feel less controlled, less sexualized than the image teen pop stars were once encouraged to adopt. It’s an aesthetic that speaks to the SoundCloud generation, which makes sense given that Eilish’s career kicked off after she posted the ballad “Ocean Eyes” on the music-streaming platform in 2016. She signed to Interscope Records that same year and has also built up a fervent Instagram and Snapchat following since.

At a recent music business conference, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl compared Eilish’s connection with her youthful audience to “what was happening with Nirvana in 1991.”

“My daughters are obsessed with Billie Eilish,” he said. “And what I’m seeing happening with my daughters is the same revolution that happened to me at their age. . . . When I look at someone like Billie Eilish, I’m like . . . rock-and-roll is not even close to being dead.”

Eilish has cited, along with Lana Del Rey and Amy Winehouse, rappers Tyler, the Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt as inspirations because, as she told Elle magazine at 15, “a lot of the stuff that real rappers say is kind of ahead of what other people are saying.” Eilish herself addresses heavier topics such as the toll fame can take on mental health in her work and interviews, including a video Vanity Fair published late last year of two juxtaposed Eilish interviews — one from October 2017, the other from October 2018.

“I’m kind of jealous of Billie a year ago,” she said in 2018, more morose than before. “I’m really not about to . . . pity myself for people recognizing who I am, because I’m really grateful for it. But, I don’t know, I would like to go to, I don’t know, anywhere and not be always recognized.”

With such a successful Billboard debut, Eilish has infiltrated the mainstream — she even appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show last week, where they discussed her high-profile fans (e.g. Grohl, Thom Yorke, Julia Roberts) and her recent candidness about having Tourette’s syndrome.

Close scrutiny accompanies this level of fame, and Eilish has gotten a taste of online backlash. In “Wish You Were Gay,” which was first released as a single, she sings about wishing she had been rejected by a boy for a different reason: “To give your lack of interest an explanation/ Don’t say that I’m not your type/ Just say I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.” A small number of listeners accused Eilish of “gaybaiting” with the song’s title, and she responded by saying that the lyrics were “so not supposed to be an insult” and that they had been “a little bit misinterpreted.”

Eilish has also gotten some flack for performing a tribute song to her friend XXXTentacion, a rapper who was awaiting trial on domestic violence charges when he was killed last summer. “I want to be able to mourn, I don’t want to be shamed for it,” Eilish told the Times of the song. “I don’t think I deserve getting hate for loving someone that passed.”

But Eilish’s success hasn’t faltered, as Billboard reports that her first release, the 2017 EP “Don’t Smile at Me,” has spent 67 weeks on the chart and peaked at No. 14 in January. “When We All Fall Asleep” scored the second-largest sales week for any album released this year and, with 194 million on-demand streams in its debut week, became the third-largest streaming week ever for a female artist.