Three Fridays ago, I went to a concert with a group of friends, having bought tickets together months in advance. My friend, in a panic, texted me beforehand urgently, “what are u wearing tonight?? I always worry irrationally about what to wear to concerts.” I responded by detailing the tried and true uniform I’ve adopted for concert–going: comfy jeans that don’t restrict mobility; a neutral tank top to keep cool amongst sweaty crowds; a jacket with secure, zippered pockets so my belongings don’t fly out; and most essentially, my platform converse sneakers for optimum dancing and the edge that the extra couple inches lend in a general–admission free–for–all.
At Billie Eilish’s sold–out show on November 4 at Union Transfer, I felt guilty wearing my trusted platforms. The crowd was collectively a foot shorter than any other live show crowd I’ve been to at the same venue. The audience was comprised primarily of adolescent clusters, mostly girls—the only thing throwing off the shorter–than–average mean height were the parent chaperones that bobbed along adjacent to their respective offspring.
It makes sense that Eilish appeals to teenage girls, considering she is one herself. At the tender yet mighty age of 16, her youth is less betrayed by her lyrical content, swelling production, and commanding energy than by the fans who turn out in droves, decked out in identical neon merchandise with phones poised at the ready. Eilish emerges as a hooded figure, and a landscape of sound, fog, and flashing lights immerse the audience in her world. Pulsing colors and almost theatrical production introduce her to the tune of “my boy.” She spins across stage, filling the lofted venue with a bounding energy. Repeatedly throughout the show, she commands the audience to “fucking JUMP,” and at her plea they of course do, to songs like “bellyache” and “&burn.”
Eilish addresses the room with a magnetism belonging to the kind of cool girl who is maybe too scary to approach, but when you get to know her you’re relieved she’s equally as chaotic, insecure, mirthful, exuberant, curious, etc. You relish when she lets you in on her darker undersides, her secret vengeances, and her vulnerabilities. The cracks in the blue–haired enamel burst with an urgent energy that’s just as quickly offset when she cracks up at the preposterousness of it all. In the space between two songs, the crowd cheering at blood–curdling pitches, Eilish laughs and exclaims, “Damn, whatchall want!” and the audience laughs too.
“If you hate yourself, this song is for you,” Eilish announces as the piano picks up the opening chords of “idontwannabeyouanymore,” exclamations of “OMG so me!” weaving their way into the sound waves. The lyrics are an ode to the self–deprecation of female adolescence, rendered forgivingly. She confronts the heartbreak of self–love with compassion and unflinching honesty: “Don't be that way/Fall apart twice a day/I just wish you could feel what you say.” Eilish laments being “told a tight dress is what makes you a whore” in her all black athletic ensemble of a sweatshirt and cut–off shorts. In contrast, the darkly anthemic “you should see me in a crown” parades her resolve and confidence. Eilish's self–assuredness is less a shield and more a complement to the kinks in her armor.
More recent releases arrange loneliness as a spectrum of personal fictions: “You can pretend you don't miss me/You can pretend you don't care,” she repeats in “bitches broken hearts.” Inverting the perspective, she admits “I could lie, say I like it like that, like it like that” in “when the party’s over.” In a room full of people, these kinds of desolate confessions—concessions to desolation—have a way of bringing people together.
Eilish levies the live production to offset the emotional and intense faculty of her music. Before she takes the stage, phosphorous green balloons painted with little alien faces float through the crowd in a giant game of keep–it–up. Later on, she catches everyone off guard with a trap remix of the , to the delight of the audience. She reminds us that there is joy and catharsis in being present with each other, of dancing and letting go, of laughing at life’s absurdities—such as when an audience member throws a shoe up on stage, Eilish gleefully scolding them.
In many ways, Eilish can be seen as a product of a digitally native generation—one that confronts existential crises by sharing memes and simultaneously concerns itself, necessarily, with the future of a world in crisis (Eilish ends the show with a call–to–action to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, although she herself cannot). She is empowered to contend with the full range of complexity and emotion of personhood, of femininity, and of becoming. To this end, she belongs to her following as much as they belong to her, her success coalescing with the multi–dimensional grasp on the world her audience achieves.
At 20 years old, I’m reconciling what it means to become an adult and make big decisions when I feel not nearly as far away from 16 as I thought I would by now. No longer able to attribute my angst to the teen variety, I now aspire to contend with the emotions that bubble up and burst inside of my arteries with the same fire they did at 16 in a more weighty, meditative manner, not letting them consume me (they still do). I still get plenty lonely, beguiled, and insecure. Sometimes I want to ignite that firecracker in my veins rather than diffuse it, jumping along to flashing lights and explosive percussion and, yes, adolescent girls.
Rounding off her hour–long set, Eilish enchants the audience in the encore with “ocean eyes,” a diffusal of heartache and a lesson in luxuriating in all of your stomach–in–knots feelings at once. Her final song is the detonating “COPYCAT,” and then she takes her bows, exiting to a recording of the theme song from The Office. Eilish’s ability to mix humor with self–deprecation, confidence with confession, and alien balloons with heartache and remorse, make her a powerhouse, wise not in spite of her years, but in light of them.