Before Billie Eilish swept the Grammys last month, she had largely flown under the radar of anyone over the age of 21. But at (barely) 18 years old, Eilish made history as the youngest solo artist to win album of the year. That might not raise eyebrows if she hadn’t also swept four other Grammy categories: best new artist, song of the year, record of the year, and best pop vocal album.
Onstage at the awards, Eilish repeatedly suggested that other nominees deserved these honors more. In one of several surprise acceptance speeches made with Eilish, her brother, songwriter and producer Finneas flatly offered, “We didn’t think it would win anything ever. We wrote an album about depression, and suicidal thoughts, and climate change, and being the bad guy—whatever that means—and we stand up here confused and grateful.”
If you’ve actually listened to a song or two, you might be confused, too. Eilish’s music is unusual. Adults are kind of weirded out by it. We don’t get it. And that’s precisely the point.
It’s also why teenagers love her.
In 2019 she raked in accolades as Rolling Stone’s Teen of the Year, MTV Video Music Award’s Best New Artist, and two Teen Music Awards. While adults arguably run all of the awards machines, it’s Eilish’s young fan base who fuel her success. They’re captivated by the way she breaks most female pop-star norms.
My 17-year-old daughter was unsurprised that Eilish swept the awards, calling her music “different from everything you hear on the radio.” Which is also part of the deal—Eilish’s music largely became popular before broad radio play, in the teen-driven platforms adults often miss. Her latest music video on YouTube garnered 33 million views.
In hailing her as The Guardian’s Artist of 2019, pop critic Alexis Petridis describes Eilish’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” as “a dark, adventurous, eclectic set of songs that appeared blithely unconcerned with chasing trends.” My daughter used the word “scary” to describe her first listening experience, but said the music grew on her as she took in the whole album.
Some of her lyrics are indeed scary. Like these lines from “Bury A Friend”: “Today, I’m thinkin’ about the things that are deadly / The way I’m drinkin’ you down / Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me.”
The darkness and absurdity of Eilish’s music, wardrobe (decidedly asexual and awkward) and facial expressions (mostly flat, peppered with cynicism) all evoke an aesthetic that today’s teenagers get. Life is hard. Adults are handing down a screwed-up world. Politics is depressing. Why not find a way to laugh about all of it?
Her understated, near-mumbling voice stands out against the likes of Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande. Eilish’s vibe endears her to young people looking for an unpretentious hero, someone unwilling to play by the rules of beauty, presentation, or even music genre itself. Because all of this speaks to what teenagers perhaps need most: hope.
Whether or not we’re new to Eilish, we need not look far to see that our teenagers are hurting. Anxiety and depression in particular are on the rise, dominating the ways young people talk about their generation. Seventy percent of teenagers in one recent study considered anxiety and depression a “major problem” among their generation. Suicide currently is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10 to 24. And it’s estimated that two out of every three young people who experience suicidal thoughts don’t ever get help.
That’s a lot of pain paired with a lot of silence.
While feeling lonely and misunderstood are hallmarks of adolescence and young adulthood (at least across the last few generations), some suggest Gen Z is the loneliest yet, and a just-released study found 7 out of 10 often feel misunderstood. A New Yorker article on Eilish’s appeal to “the loneliest generation” last fall quoted a 21-year-old, “I think gen z is extremely lonely!!!! Songs like ‘When the Party’s Over’ get RIGHT at the desperate, gnawing sense of isolation social media has sewn into a generation who are becoming increasingly sequestered.”
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Source: Christianity Today