by Claire Jones
Since the advent of her hit song “Ocean Eyes” in 2015, Billie Eilish has experienced a meteoric rise to fame. She has become one of the most popular artists in the world, with an award-winning album and two successful tours. Several of her singles have had incredible financial and critical success, including her song “Bad Guy,” which won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2020 Grammys.
Interestingly, most of Eilish’s songs, by her own admission, deal with mental illnesses or other topics usually considered to be taboo in the American culture. She is part of a counter-cultural movement that is becoming increasingly main-stream that pushes for the normalization of mental illnesses like depression and Tourette’s Syndrome, which typically have had stigmas attached to them, both of which Eilish herself has been diagnosed with. Eilish has been a spokesperson, both musically and otherwise, for empowering those who suffer from both of these disabilities. She is a powerful rallying point in and of herself as well. Just by living her life she proves that Tourette’s Syndrome is not actually a handicap or something to hide. Her success is an inspiration to others that your dreams can be achieved regardless of any supposed handicaps.
In many other ways, Eilish has proved herself to be someone who is not afraid of going against the crowd from her unconventional fashion choices (she prefers to wear ill-fitting, baggy clothes) to her determination to not hide the challenges that she faces. She is as far from the picture-perfect celebrity as one can achieve. Nothing about her calls to mind anything that is normally popular with any age group. However, she continues to be wildly popular with both the fans and the critics alike.
This is clearly shown by Eilish’s sweep of the four biggest awards at the 2020 Grammys. The eighteen-year-old artist walked away with Song of the Year (“Bad Guy”), Record of the Year (“Bad Guy”), Album of the Year (When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?), and Best New Artist. She is only the second artist to win all four to these awards in one ceremony, and the only female artist to do so. She beat out Taylor Swift as youngest to ever win Album of the Year, with an unconventional album that still managed to have the critics raving about how good it was.
But all of this success leads to the question: where can she go next? Eilish has made it to the top of the music community. She is incredibly popular with the fans, and the critics also can’t seem to get enough of her. She’s won at the Grammys and the AMA’s. She has best-selling album and hit singles that are still wildly popular months later. And she did it all by the age of eighteen. Is there anything else left for her to accomplish?
The last person to do what she did was Christopher Cross in 1981. He too won these awards at a relatively young age (although not quite as young as Eilish) at the beginning of his career. Unfortunately, Cross’s career tanked within four years of winning at the Grammys. His style of music proved incompatible with the direction that media and the fans were traveling, and after his second album, he never got anywhere close to his previous popularity. Although Cross has continued to make music through 2019, he has not managed a popularity boost of any significance.
Cross’s career paints a troubling picture for Eilish’s future. Right now she is the darling of her fans, mostly comprised of her peer group, and the critics. Social media adores her and award shows and rankings can’t seem to get enough of her. However, her music is radically different from almost anything else out there. The question of whether her career is sustainable is going to make itself known in the next few years for Eilish and her group.
At this point, the fact that she is so unique is working in her favor. Everyone wants to be different, and her emphasis on mental health is capitalizing on a void in the music industry. However, she is rapidly approaching a crossroad in her career. If she continues to make the type of music that she currently does, she will either need to attempt making it more and more shocking and different in a bid to stay relevant or stay right where she is at and hope it remains attractive to her target audience. Her other option is to gradually start moving a little more mainstream, although if she does so too quickly, she may collapse anyway.
Another issue that will arise is her age. The style of music she is making right now works for a quirky eighteen year-old, who uses a me against them rebellious attitude. However, the older she gets the less fitting that style will become. One of Eilish’s challenges in the next couple of years will be finding a way for her music and style to mature without drastically changing who she is. It will be a fine balancing act if she can pull it off.
Working in her favor, Eilish’s main producer and partner is her brother Finneas, who is also her older brother. They co-write Eilish’s songs, and Finneas has been the driving force behind her meteoric career. He understands his sister and will certainly have her best interests at heart.
Eilish’s challenge will be to find a way of staying relevant while not giving up the style and message that makes her unique. The necessity of acknowledging mental health issues is real, and Eilish’s willingness to fill that role is commendable and admirable. I hope that her career maintains its current trajectory. The music industry needs her.