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Music Billie Eilish, the people’s pop star, ushers in a new age in music land

Billie Eilish is the first artist to top the Billboard 200 who was born in the 21st century.

Matty Vogel

Billie Eilish is 17 years old and she is not interested in your nonsense. At a sold-out Budweiser Stage in Toronto on Tuesday, the former social media darling and now the people’s pop star broke rules, danced in unchoreographed ways and was aggressively carefree in front of a legion of girls and young women who screamed here and sang along there. When Eilish climbed onto a floating bed to perform with her multi-instrumentalist musician brother, not an eyelash was batted. “I do what I want when I’m wanting to,” she proclaimed on the opening song Bad Guy. “My soul? So cynical.”

The insouciance was commanding. If Eilish had declared that summer had officially begun, some 16,000 of her GTA fans surely would have slept in this morning. What the generational icon did tell her fans was that if they were happy or if they were miserable they should “live in that feeling” and “be in you.” New-age hot air, sure, but, then, this is very much a new age in music land.

Eilish, the first artist born in the 21st century to top the Billboard 200, made it without much radio help. Her audience would look at a transistor model as you or I would regard a hand-cranked Victrola. Today’s stream-happy generation is more powerful than the music industry, an industry that’s lost control when it comes to things other than hip hop or dance-beat pop. Wearing shorts, a baggy top and her hair in a cheeky double-bun do, Eilish is not a sexed-up pixie – Katy Perry is cartoon in comparison.

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Lyrically concerned with break-ups and mental health, her teenage-friendly tunes are more nonchalantly morose than particularly catchy. When it comes to production and arrangements, where Ariana Grande and Halsey zig maximal, Eilish zags minimalist. Dabbling in various sad-sack genres, the Californian is often compared to Lana Del Rey or a spookier Lorde. I hear her as a hip-hoppier Fiona Apple. Or, when exhibiting an inconspicuous taste for cabaret, a Gen-Z Marlene Dietrich (who, almost assuredly, would be putting out sub-bass bangers if she were young and vamping today).

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Eilish released her debut album before giving a triumphant performance at Coachella.

Matty Vogel

Before the concert, one young fan told me that Eilish still lived at home. Maybe, but one doubts that the singer (born to show-business parents who gave her the middle name “Pirate”) is tied to any curfew. Later, a few minutes after the nine o’clock set time, someone behind me wondered aloud, “Where’s Billie?” An unnecessary question. Eilish, who arrived on stage shortly afterward, is on no one’s schedule but her own.

In 2016, she released her debut hit single, Ocean Eyes, on Soundcloud. It’s a despondent ballad of the Del Rey kind, with an airy soprano delivering cliff-set lyrics about the “burning cities and napalm skies” behind a lover’s gaze. Home-schooled Eilish was only 14, but the song resonated with teen-angst audiences old enough to drive their parent’s car.

In 2017, Eilish released the track Bored, not to radio but for an episode of the Netflix teen-drama series 13 Reasons Why. In 2018, she made another fast-track move by collaborating with an artist (the R&B singer Khalid) who possessed a bigger and different audience than her own. On that duet, Lovely, Eilish offered E-minor misery in a fluttering voice: “Isn’t it lovely, all alone? Heart made of glass, my mind of stone/ Tear me to pieces, skin to bone/ Hello, welcome home.”

Shortly before her triumphant performance at this spring’s Coachella, Eilish finally released her debut album. The LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is an exercise in lilting electro-pop, ominous trap and even a ukulele.

On the song Bury a Friend, a music-hall melody is set to horror-movie sound. “Like I want to end me,” she croons, a little too intimately. The album art portrays her as a psychiatric ward patient.

Most of the tracks are co-written with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who also served as producer. The story is that Eilish made the album while sitting on her sibling’s bed as he pushed “record." They were accompanied by a drummer on stage in Toronto.

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Sister and guitar-strumming brother took to the floating bed for the heartfelt ballad I Love You. Smartphone lights were held up by audience members who also served as a mass choir. The bed kept rising, even higher than the lunar image behind them. Over the moon, which sounds about right.

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