As her streaming numbers propel her into the pop music stratosphere, Billie Eilish stays down-to-earth and entirely herself.

11/2/18 – House of Blues

Billie Eilish is a popstar very much of the moment: equal parts celebrity and musician. Her brand is a strong one: her keen fashion sense, bizarre sense of humor, and complete candor has endeared her to fans and caught the eye of labels. Her music spans multiple genres and appeals to a wide demographic that skews younger. Commercially, she has all the bonafides to make any label swoon (seven million Instagram followers, nine-digit Spotify numbers on multiple songs), but she remains largely ignored by the critical community. It’s as if God, in His infinite wisdom, had willed that Post Malone be born again as a girl.  

On Friday, half an hour before her 8:30 PM set began, a sold-out House of Blues crowd was chanting her name. Her mostly teenage fanbase had arrived early, first waiting in a line that wrapped around the block nearly to Kenmore square, then dancing and Snapchatting their way through FINNEAS’ (Billie’s older brother) and Childish Major’s warm-up sets. Homemade shirts (at least one with Billie’s head photoshopped on Terry Crews’ body), and handwritten signs, along with puffy jackets and—Billie’s signature look—were plentiful throughout the crowd. Soon afterwards, the house lights went dark, triggering a wave of deafening screams. 

Onstage, Billie’s set explored the tension between her Soundcloud-rapper exterior sensibilities and her penchant for tender melodies. After charging out to a warped Frank Sinatra sample, she launched into the fierce, vengeful “My Boy,” thrashing and jumping as if to pound against the walls of her own song and the room itself. By the end of the first line, the whole crowd was singing along loudly: they wouldn’t stop singing for the rest of the night. Suddenly, she grabbed a highlighter-yellow ukulele, and the crowd watched as a YouTube-style bedroom cover of “Hotline Bling” come to life in real time and morphed into “Party Favor,” a biting and understated ballad resisting objectification.

Every sad, pretty Billie Eilish song has its brash and swaggering counterpart, and throughout the night, she toggled from banger to ballad and back again, controlling the size and feel of the room. Sometimes she’d actively work to control the mood in the room, like when she led the crowd in some deep breathing exercise to prepare them for the melancholy “Six Feet Under.” Many times, musical memes did the work of transitioning between songs—a few second of one of her own songs, a snippet of a Soulja Boy track, even a trap remix of the Mii Channel theme, played between songs to keep the energy up.

The high-energy pace of the show and constant mood shifts might have left some (older) listeners musically seasick, but the experience was exhilarating rather than disorienting. Billie’s unbothered exterior and sensitive interior seemingly contradict, but in reality the two are interchangeable. As she swayed through the heartbreaking vulnerability of “idontwannabeyouanymore” and played up the black humor of “bellyache,” it became clear that these two moods are two sides of the same coin, a brand that prides itself on being different than anyone else while dealing with emotions that everyone feels.

Like any young celebrity worth their salt, Billie hates talking about her age, but acting your age isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Billie’s brand is teenage in every sense of the word – bizarre, fun, and above all else, self-aware.  It’s also her identity, and therefore something she’s very protective of, especially in something as personal as her music—she actually wrote “copycat,” a fan favorite off her first EP, as a rebuke to any of her imitators. She’s fine sharing with fans, though: “This song’s for anyone who hates themselves, too,” she explained before crooning the slow-burner “lovely.” In the middle of “you should see me in a crown,” she stopped the song dead in its tracks to ask the crowd to scream as loud as they possibly could.

The fact that Billie is a huge Tyler The Creator and Justin Bieber fan is well-documented, and it shows that she’s uniquely familiar with and thoughtful about the fan/artist relationship. There’s a sense of total honesty about Billie that pervades her music and interviews and makes them worth engaging with and revisiting. In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, she was asked about how she manages keeping a distance between her own identity and her newfound fanbase: “I’m not really good at it, to be honest”, she admitted,” I’m trying to figure out how to take care of myself and figure out what I need, my space and autonomy.” It’s a great answer that reveals a truth about any type of fame—she needs her fans just as much as they need her, and that relationship can get complicated.

After she came on stage for the encore (“ocean eyes” followed by “copycat”), she elaborated on this feeling a little more. “I love you guys,” she said, looking out over the crowd, before pausing, “and this room is so big! I don’t know even know what to do with all of you.” As one final joke, the theme music from The Office played as she finished out her set, and as the drums kicked in, she ran from one side of the stage to the other, reaching out to fans to greet them and absorb their energy.

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