Finn McRedmond: What choice did Billie Eilish have but swap sweatpants for stockings?

Something inevitable about pop ingenue's decision to undertake revealing Vogue shoot

Billie Eilish ditches the oversized clothes in British Vogue

Billie Eilish ditches the oversized clothes in British Vogue

 

If you have been in the presence of teenagers in recent years, chances are you’ve encountered Billie Eilish. The pop ingenue’s frenetic, bass-heavy and anxiety-riddled music is hard to ignore. And any 17-year-old who sings she “might seduce your dad” with a knowing smirk is enough to make even the least staid among us bristle.

Eilish, born in the 21st century, has become a standard bearer of Gen Z angst. Her listless demeanour sets her apart from her pristine pop peers. And she sings, raps, or sometimes whispers of serial killers, pills and self-harm. Eilish has always been good at generating conversation.

In the past week, she may be among the most-talked-about women in the world. Usually swaddled in oversized clothing that obscures her figure, Eilish struck out on a different path to the dominant hyper-sexualised pop icons. But a recent British Vogue cover shoot has seen her, now 19, transformed into full pin-up mode replete with corsets, stockings, latex gloves and a shock of blond hair straight from Marilyn Monroe’s playbook.

Red-carpet stunt: Billie Eilish at the Grammys in January. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Red-carpet stunt: Billie Eilish at the Grammys last year. File photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Eilish, at such a young age, appears just another casualty of the celebrity industrial complex. It seems a rite of passage for every youthful starlet to take off her clothes and assure us this choice was empowering. The pop machine is teleologically geared to this moment: women sell more records with more sex. Is it a fate that no star, no matter how independently minded, can escape?

Maybe. It was not lost on her critics that this dramatic volte face came at the same time she is promoting an upcoming album. We should be reminded that Eilish is an adult capable of making her own choices. But choices do not exist in a vacuum, free from external factors: the female body as a powerful marketing tool; and cultural forces that have long said a woman’s worth is determined by her physical appearance.

Constant reinvention

The way Eilish chose to reinvent herself is less interesting than the simple fact that she did. Though a far cry from Taylor Swift, both are uniquely attuned to the pressures of their industry. Swift noted in a recent documentary that female artists are constantly reinventing themselves, several times more often than their male counterparts.

Billie Eilish kicks off her world tour in Miami on March 9th. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation
Billie Eilish kicks off her world tour in Miami on March 9th last year, in non-figure-hugging apparel. File photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty/Live Nation

“They have to, or else [they’re] out of a job,” she said.

Swift should know. She has done it around eight times, from country naivety to pop superstar and now lingering in the realms of indie folk, with several more steps in between. Madonna had her grand reinvention, as did Miley Cyrus as she shook off the shackles of Disney Channel puritanism. There is a cultural burden placed on these women that demands they surprise and excite us anew. Ditching prim knee-length dresses for lingerie is perhaps just one recourse among many.

This cycle is working faster than ever before, with the longevity of each new persona growing shorter and shorter. A new mode of social media is eviscerating our attention spans, and feeding our calls for pop stars to present new versions of themselves as quickly as possible: call it the Tik Tok-ification of culture.

The staggeringly popular video sharing app bombards its users with scattergun content with no thematic consistency. Videos are no longer than one minute each. And their topics vary wildly: teenagers lip syncing to the latest hit, a dog jumping into a swimming pool, someone teaching you how to make garlic bread.

Rapid-fire content

This rapid-fire, deranged content keeps us hooked. And is determined to stave off any inkling of boredom by constantly feeding us something new. If it feels slow or repetitive the user logs off, so it’s in TikTok’s best interest to prevent that from happening: to secure the feedback loop, encouraging us to scroll for eternity.

Billie Eilish at the 2019 Electric Picnic. Yes, the Californian performer probably isn’t in the great Bondian tradition. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Billie Eilish at the 2019 Electric Picnic. File photograph: Dave Meehan

TikTok is not a sole causal factor. Twitter has similar appeal: a series of short, disconnected thoughts that require minimal intellectual engagement. We are becoming accustomed to this mode of cultural consumption. And it spells bad news for albums and novels and any long-form content, which by design require us to stick with one concept for an extended period. Symptomatic of this landscape is Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, one of the biggest songs of the past decade. It does not even reach two minutes.

Eilish’s latest venture is this phenomenon playing out on a larger scale. And it is a shame as it comes at the expense of meaningful engagement. Perhaps there was a lot left to the old Eilish to examine and enjoy. But this terrain has no room for that. It tells us that if it is not new then we don’t care.

British Vogue went to great lengths to assure us it was Eilish’s decision to ditch the sweatpants for stockings. And maybe it was at some level. But in an environment as demanding as the one we have created, what choice did she really have?

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