‘If You Hate Yourself, This Song Is For You:’ A Gen Z Star Is Born In Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish connects with the younger generation in ways that at first might throw off or even confuse older music fans. At just 17 years old, her stage getup often includes baggy clothes, shorts, blue-green hair and a beanie – more akin to a circa-’90s mall rat than a pop star.
“If you hate yourself, this song is for you,” the self-deprecating but charismatic teen regularly says before kicking off “idontwannabeyouanymore,” a brooding ballad touching on that eternal emotion of teen angst; feelings questioning self-worth, fitting in and finding yourself.
Online comments frequently cite the song as an inspiration, with one proclaiming, “If I didn’t listen to her music I would probably be dead right now.”
“Anyone that’s seen a Billie show knows she has opened the door on mental health,” said Paradigm’s Sara Bollwinkel, who along with the agency’s Tom Windish has represented Eilish since she released the hit “Ocean Eyes” as a 14-year-old.
“She will ask fans at every show, ‘Who here hates themselves?’ It kind of freaks out the adults out in the room, but there’s all this applause and cheering and then she launches into ‘I’m here because of you guys, I’m here because you saved me.’
“She has that kind of connection where she’s crucial to her fans and they’re crucial to her. It’s a bond unlike anything I’ve seen with any other artist. She would have it no other way. I wish I had Billie when I was young,” Bollwinkel said.
While touching on themes of sexuality, isolation and self-esteem issues that shape the coming of age of many, Eilish combines sophisticated production, songwriting with a striking voice to craft a fresh sound fitting for an era so fragmented and specialized.
“She reflects and embodies what a lot of youth culture is going through and how they’re living their lives,” said co-manager Danny Rukasin at Hard 8 / Working Group. “She’s so cool and visually represents herself in such a cool way that I personally think she kind of embraces and empowers the youth to be authentic, to really not be constrained by any sort of previous generations of kids who felt like they can’t be themselves or aren’t taken seriously.”
With already a cache of hits before releasing a debut LP and more than 1 billion streams, Eilish is striking an undeniable chord, relating with fans on a deep level and with sophisticated, polished tunes that more than match.
“I really appreciate all of the support I have, and I guess (well I hope) that people are responding because they relate to it in some way,” Eilish wrote Pollstar via email while on tour in Europe. “Whether it is the lyrics or the music or the production … or if it is to the approach we are taking. I feel very connected to the people who listen to my music and I am really grateful that they respond to it. I am not really into genres or writing things that are particularly age specific, so I think that maybe helps connect people to it.”
Whatever it is, fans are lapping it up with an apparently insatiable thirst. On March 4 as the audio-only version of new song “Wish You Were Gay” appeared on YouTube, it had more than 10 million hits before the end of March 7. The news comes day to day with her, as just a few days earlier it was announced Coachella was offering special, limited release weekend passes specifically for Billie Eilish fans, with exclusive merch included.
First-weekend passes, starting at $476, are already sold out.
JB Lacroix / Getty Images – Billie Eilish
Paradigm agent Tom Windish points to client Billie Eilish, pictured performing at Apple’s holiday campaign launch party Nov. 20 in Santa Monica, as an example of an artist who could play larger venues but is not skipping steps in artist development.
“There’s a deep sense of authenticity to every single piece of what Billie does,” said co-manager Brandon Goodman at Best Friends. “From her music to her visuals to who she is to how she conducts interviews. I think her fans are really able to relate to that because she’s their age, she’s doing something true and authentic that isn’t of the general popstar mold. Her music is undeniable, which is a great start obviously. If we didn’t have that, then none of it would matter – there’s a lot of kids that look cool and say what they want – but then you hear Billie’s voice hear her perspectives and lyrics and the storytelling.”
That response has turned into large-scale concerts that are more like singalongs, with Eilish joking she could stop singing or not have a voice at all and it would probably not even matter.
“I love my fans, although I don’t like calling them that,” Eilish said. “They are like my family and seeing them is what makes everything worth it.
“The fact that the audiences sing along to every word is really so hard to believe. I never thought anything like that could ever happen, so it is really an indescribable feeling. Most of this is kind of surreal.”
Known for bouncing on stage with a swagger, looking fans in the eye and interacting directly before and after shows, Eilish admits the challenge of juggling roles as both teen and artist. “It is hard to balance everything, and I don’t think I do. I think it is usually tipping one way and that is hard.”
However, it helps keeping things close to home, especially with (very slightly) older brother Finneas O’Connell as co-songwriter, bandmate and producer.
“Working with my brother is one of the best parts of all of this,” Eilish said. “I don’t know what I would do without him. He is my best friend and he makes me laugh which keeps me sane. Having my family with me is the best. I can’t imagine doing all this and missing them at the same time and they are so important and helpful to me every day.
“My whole team is amazing. My managers, label, booking agents, publishers…everyone who supports me – are just the best people and I am incredibly lucky to tour with some crazy talented and nice people on the crew and band. That makes a big difference.”
With her debut LP When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? to drop March 29 on Darkroom / Interscope, her reach has spread beyond the teen demographic with public praise coming from the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Hollywood star Julia Roberts and no less than Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.
“I went to go see Billie Eilish not too long ago. Oh my god man. Unbelievable,” Grohl said at Pollstar Live! in February in a rousing discussion led by Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino. “My daughters are obsessed with Billie Eilish. And what I’m seeing happening with my daughters is the same revolution that happened to me at their age. My daughters are listening to Billie Eilish and they’re becoming themselves through her music. She totally connects to them.
“So we went to go see her play at the Wiltern, and the connection that she has with her audience is the same thing that was happening with Nirvana in 1991. The people in the audience knew every word. And it was like our little secret. So I don’t know … and her music is hard to define! I don’t know what you call it! I try to describe her to people and I don’t know. … I don’t even know what to call it. But it’s authentic. And I would call that rock ‘n’ roll. So … I don’t care what sort of instruments you use to do it. When I look at someone like Billie Eilish, I’m like … shit man … rock ‘n’ roll is not even close to being dead.”
Nina Richard –
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And, by all accounts her ceiling is far from being touched. Her upcoming North American shows include large venues such as the Bill Graham Civic, two shows at The Aragon in Chicago (in one day), Red Rocks near Denver, The Armory in Minneapolis, and two shows at Shrine Expo in LA as well as another at The Greek Theatre. That’s along with a full slate of Australian and European gigs including major festivals as well as headlining gigs all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia.
“The Toronto example is the most recent standout moment,” Bollwinkel said. “We blew through 7,000 tickets at RBC Echo Beach, and then we decided to move it up to the Budweiser Stage and immediately sold 15,000 tickets, instantly. And if you look at what we did the last time in the market, it was two Phoenix Concert Theatres, which is a total of, what, 2,400 tickets? I don’t know that this girl has a ceiling right now.”
While getting there has seemed overnight to casual observers, each step was deliberate and measured.
“I think from the minute it started, we knew it was going to go kind of fast but at the same time we understood she was 13 at the time just turning 14, and it was really important that we, not just on a fundamental age level but on an artist development level, made the right choices,” Rukasin said.
“We continued to check in with Billie and her mother and family who are very involved and looking out for her best interests, which really helps. If we were going to take this and really develop it the proper way it was going to take time, but making sure they were OK with each step and understood and educated on how each step was going to go.”
It also meant her getting her show legs in the first place, as when she was signed by Windish she hadn’t even played a show yet. Add another who was floored by the “Ocean Eyes” track.
“At that time it wasn’t clear that it was going to be the rocketship that it is now,” Windish said. “We actually booked her to play a show in our office for like 50 people that had nothing to do with the music industry, just so she could play. She was nervous but she was awesome and we did a bunch of things like that. We did her debut show in Highland Park down the street from her house. That was like the industry and fan shebang.
“By that point we knew something was happening beyond just the song being fantastic. That show was a really big deal, and pretty much every show since has been a really big deal,” added Windish, who while also known for signing a teenaged Lorde who had the mega-hit “Royals,” says the two artists are otherwise apples and oranges.
With background in a musical family and a musically focused private school education, Eilish more than found her show legs. She made the most of sparse production with brother as backing band, continuing the genuine fan-to-fan interaction while selling out club tours and making noise at daytime festival slots. Still there was the conscious decision not to move too quickly.
“I remember how much Billie loved playing the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco,” Bollwinkel said. “That felt like an iconic moment for Billie. It’s important we didn’t go directly to the Fillmore, and we could have gone there and sold it out, but we wanted to give her her moment.
“As a young act you want the snail to be the size of their shell. If you throw her on a stage that doesn’t fit her yet, it could potentially sabotage her. I think we played everything perfect. Yes there’s tickets left on the table, but there’s going to be every single time.”
Going forward, the biggest difference is allowing Eilish’s artistic vision to catch up to her show production, which management says will be on display at her Coachella gigs. “I am as involved as I can be with the visual aspect of the show and there is so much in the album that I want to capture,” Eilish said. As for specifics, “You’ll have to wait and see.”
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