Everything seems to be happening for Eilish this year. She dropped her chart-topping debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” in March and was promptly crowned the Official Voice of Gen Z. That’s an unreasonable role for anyone to have to fulfill. But when was the last time we heard a teenage pop singer this fluent in misery, ecstasy, fear and fun?
“If you hate yourself, this song is for you,” Eilish declared in the middle of Thursday’s set — which is something you’re never going to hear at a Taylor Swift concert. We probably have to go back to Fiona Apple’s 19th year in this vale of tears to find a teen singer so darkly self-aware. But whereas Apple’s teen-voice plunged us into the murky deep, Eilish’s draws us close.
Onstage, she forges that intimacy by doing all kinds of magic tricks with scale. She’s clearly spent countless hours on YouTube watching Frank Sinatra performances and ASMR videos, learning how to get inside a microphone and make herself sound larger than life. On her recordings — produced by her older brother Finneas O’Connell — Eilish’s most delicate phrases are often pushed impossibly high in the mix. She sounds like she’s whispering over an earthquake. And live, she honored that dynamic, inviting the crowd to shout along to her sighs and purrs.
It sounded extraordinary during “Xanny,” a ballad about feeling alienated by your friends’ neurochemical misadventures. Instead of scolding her clique for getting wasted on beer and Xanax, Eilish retreated to the loneliest corner of her brain, turning her internal monologue into a trickle of jazzy melody. Before long, she seemed to have put her finger on the problem: They’re “too intoxicated to be scared.”
That’s the brilliance of Eilish’s music, right there. It tacitly accounts for growing up on a scary planet — too many guns, too much CO2 — while constantly approaching fear as an imaginative opportunity. Conjuring beautiful horrors in our minds might toughen us all up for the ugly ones that materialize in daily life.
You could hear it best when Eilish draped her toughest talk over horror-movie-soundtrack grammar during “Bad Guy,” and again during “Bury a Friend” (which sounded like Laurie Anderson singing “O Superman” over the thunk-a-dunk of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2”). Eilish knows how girls are taught to smile through the indignities of adolescence and the injustices of the world. These songs showed their teeth.
Here’s something else Eilish probably knows: Growing up is hard in any era. So she drained all of her futuristic strangeness out of “I Love You,” a heartbroken lullaby that drifted toward timelessness. “Crying isn’t like you,” she sang softly, quite possibly to herself. And inside that fragile moment, she sounded eternal, conjuring the ghosts of every teenage pop singer who ever tried to funnel their confusion into a microphone. You would cry, too, if it happened to you.