When Ringo announced the winner of the Record of the Year at the 63rd Grammy Awards, Billie Eilish held her face in her hands and shook her head. She appeared to transition from a state of shock to disbelief, and then to embarrassment. Not a typical reaction you’d expect from a person who’s won arguably the most coveted prize of the night, for the second year in a row. However, it wasn’t the first time we were witness to such a sight.
Last year’s ceremony, which now seems a decade ago, was a night in which Billie revelled, and did so in a state of utter daze. She won all the four most prestigious Grammy Awards — Best New Artist, Best Song, Best Album and Record of the Year — making her the first female artist and the youngest in history to do so.
When accepting the Best Song award last year, she said, “So many other songs deserve this, I’m sorry.” When the Best Album was announced, the first thing she did was shush the applauding audience and praise Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’, which according to Billie deserved to win. Even before the award was announced, the singer was seen begging under her breath not to win, mouthing “please don’t be me, please.” Her brother, collaborator and producer Finneas, echoed the duo’s collective thoughts, “We didn’t make this album to win a Grammy. We didn’t think it would win anything ever.” By the time they won Record of the Year, the last award of the night, the two of them looked flustered, and all they could muster as a speech was an awkward “Thank You”.
This year too, before extending her gratitude to the Academy and her team, she went on a detour about how newcomer Megan Thee Stallion — who won three Grammys herself — deserved the award. “This is really embarrassing for me”, she said as she stepped up to the mic. “You [Megan] deserve it, honestly. Can we just cheer for Megan Thee Stallion please?”, Billie said as she expressed her adoration for the Texan rapper.
It’s not often that you see the recipient of an award go to the stage in front of a global audience and say that they didn’t deserve it. Even Macklemore apologised to Kendrick Lamar for winning the Best Rap Album via a text message. But it’s also not often that we see artists who’ve just turned eighteen and have been making music from their bedrooms, catapulted to extraordinary levels of fame and stardom.
If there’s ever going to be a template for the rise of a Gen-Z pop-star, it has to be of Billie Eilish. She’s the living embodiment of the internet and the powers that reside with it. Her story starts with her uploading her debut single “Ocean Eyes” to the free online music distribution platform SoundCloud in 2015, as a mere tune for her dance teacher to have new music to choreograph to. It, however, started getting plays on the site. In a matter of two weeks, it had racked up some hundred thousand listens. Soon, several music publications started picking the track up, and she ended up landing a record deal with Universal’s Interscope.
Ocean Eyes rose in popularity with a number of official remixes by emerging producers. Billie even got a few established acts to remix her next two singles. These remixes started popping up in Spotify’s playlists, one of the major breakthrough avenues for any new artist. Her next big break came when her second song, Six Feet Under was featured in the American teen drama Pretty Little Liars in 2016.
Next year, Billie Eilish got featured in another teen drama, 13 Reasons Why, with her song Bored. This was the perfect placement for her, as the show dealt with themes of angst, depression and suicide, which had been at the forefront in Billie’s music so far (and would continue to be so). The demographic of the show corresponded excellently with her target audience. And in 2018, when Eilish teamed up with Khalid — another young chart-topping artist — for a song in the second season of 13 Reasons Why, it was the opening of the floodgates for her. There was no looking back now.
In March 2019, Eilish released her debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”, to widespread commercial and critical success. Its singles topped charts around the globe and the album sold more than 1.2 million copies in a year. Carrying on with the themes of mental health and addiction, this time the songs also skirted with pulp horror, zany Gen-Z humour and climate change. The result was a scintillating new direction for mainstream pop. Bold and unconventional in its approach, it wouldn’t be preposterous to assume that the album grabbed the attention of many reviewers and Academy voters alike.
But as she swept the Grammys, she knew her world was never going to be the same. As if the weight of the five awards she won over her idols wasn’t heavy enough, she was subjected to intense media scrutiny. There were already rumours circulating of her being an industry plant, but beating the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey fanned the flames of such conspiracies even more. Besides, paparazzi photos revealing her closely-guarded body and labelling her ‘fat’, only led to more tabloid press for all the wrong reasons.
In a deeply revealing and personal interview with Vanity Fair a couple of months ago, Eilish was asked when did she feel the most vulnerable in life. “The week after the Grammys”, she replied. “The internet was telling me I didn’t deserve it.” She was also asked if there was anything she did not like about being famous. She promptly answered, “No privacy, ever again.”
She’s been resolutely buoyant and continues to aim higher nonetheless. Even before last year’s award ceremony, she was offered to make the theme song for the next James Bond film, No Time to Die. A deal that would regardless be a huge milestone in any artist’s career, Billie became the youngest to record a Bond theme in February 2020 (which would win the Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media next year). She would go on to release a couple more singles in the following months. And all this was after she had already released “Everything I Wanted”, a sombre, downtempo song about her relationship with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, which would ultimately win her another Record of the Year.
It becomes important at this point to introduce Finneas, Billie’s four-year older brother who’s been absolutely critical to her stardom. Finneas has been hailed as a great songwriter and an even better producer. He has collaborated with Eilish on every single one of her songs (and shared all the awards too, in fact winning Best Non-Classical Producer last year without Billie). Most of their songs are recorded in Finneas’ bedroom studio in California. But even more than that, his role as a constant pillar of support for her has been incredible. As Billie coyly accepted the award on March 14th, he stood beside her. Silent, but supportive as ever, as he has been on most of the public award shows.
Last year, Billie had caught the industry by storm, and captivated the Academy voters with her wispy vocals matched with Finneas’ elegant production. This year, however, I completely expected someone like Beyonce, who’s a proven Grammy heavyweight, or Megan Thee Stallion, who’s had a Billie-ish year, to walk away with Record of the Year. While I still like her track, it seems unconventional for the Academy to hand out the award to a minimal, supine song with sparse production. Perhaps, Billie’s continued domination of the zeitgeist, in a year in which supineness has been a prevailing theme, seems like a reasonable explanation.
At this stage in her career, it feels like Eilish can do no wrong. Everything she touches seems destined to be gilded. She recently announced that she has recorded her sophomore album in lockdown. In a recent Q&A session on Instagram, she informed that the new album would be sixteen tracks long and “feels exactly how I want it to”. It’d be interesting to see how she progresses her sound and aesthetic, and if the audience rewards her for her decisions.
In her debut album, there’s a track titled “You should see me in a crown”. She’s young, both in her age and in her artistic shelf-life, but the world has already crowned Billie Eilish. A manifestation of online culture, she has redefined what it means to be a teen star in the age of social media and music streaming. I don’t think the crown’s leaving her head anytime soon.