Listen to music closely, and you’ll hear the strings of culture being plucked. Melodies of hope and love in the ’60s, the tacky riffs of exuberance in the ’80s, the grungy rhythms of rebellion in the 90’s. And if you’ve been listening these last few years, you may have noticed a new beat emerge, a new discordant sound that wasn’t there before. It’s a sound that seems to cut right through the corporate algorithm-pop of the day and darkly announce the arrival of a new generation.
Once every several years, a musical artist like Billie Eilish barges through the industry’s doors and commands urgent attention by striking a fresh chord deep in the souls of the young. These artists often become the “voice of their generation,” someone whose art seems to give form to the previously unexpressed thoughts and values of the many.
For Baby Boomers, it was The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Gen X had Nirvana. And now, it looks like Gen Z has found their voice in the authentic, uber dark, yet (maybe? hopefully?) optimistic message of Billie Eilish.
Who is Billie Eilish?
Billie Eilish is an eighteen-year-old musician who doesn’t fit any traditional genre but is still finding a way to dominate pop radio. Her popularity amongst Gen Z is evident in her 24 million Instagram followers, 14 million YouTube subscribers and several record-breaking Billboard hits. Her song, “Bad Guy,” has been streamed more than 3 Billion times.
Most recently, Eilish has picked up some serious industry recognition for her work, adding 4 major Grammy awards to her trophy collection. She’s become the youngest person in history to win the big 4 prizes of the night (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist, Record of the Year).
Eilish has an ingenious way of encapsulating all aspects of Gen Z values and attitudes and unapologetically bringing it to the mainstream. Because of this, she gives us a glimpse as to what is vital to ‘Zers in 2020.
“We didn’t think it would win anything ever. We wrote an album about depression, and suicidal thoughts, and climate change, and being the bad guy—whatever that means—and we stand up here confused and grateful.”
How Eilish is Shining Light on a New Generation:
Re-Defining the Feminine Pop Star Archetype
Eilish’s aesthetic is a big breakup from the traditional, hyper-feminized pop-star archetype. She purposely chooses to wear loose, boxy clothes to prevent the industry from talking about her body and ultimately detract from the message of her music.
“If I was a guy and I was wearing these baggy clothes, nobody would bat an eye. There’s people out there saying, ‘Dress like a girl for once! Wear tight clothes you’d be much prettier and your career would be so much better!’ No it wouldn’t. It literally would not.”‘– Billie Eilish
Additionally, her understated whispering style of singing helps her stand out against flashy and corporately bright stars like Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande. Eilish’s vibe calls to young people looking for an unpretentious hero, someone unwilling to play by the traditional rules of beauty, presentation, or even music genre. All of this speaks to what Gen Z longs for the most: raw authenticity. Think of all the makeup-free insta posts that seem to rise to the top of the feeds every few days, or the “canceling” of stars that have tried to fake their fans. In some ways, Eilish is the musical version of that.
Seizing the Awkward: Talking about Mental Health
The honesty and vulnerability about mental health in Eilish’s music create a heartbreaking but powerful connection between her and her fans: this generation, has been reported to struggle more with mental health than any generation beforehand. 91% of Gen Zer’s between ages 18 and 21 say they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month compared to 74% of adults overall. Even more shocking, suicide rates for Americans aged 15-24 are up 50% in the past decade. That’s right. Fifty, not fifteen.
More than just writing lyrics about social anxiety and depression, Eilish is a vocal advocate for mental health organizations like Seize the Awkward. Eilish’s uses her platform to encourage her fans to seize any seemingly awkward opportunity to ask their friends about how they’re doing and to let them know they are there as a support system.
On the one hand, because Eilish is so vocal in her lyrics about depression, drugs, and suicide, her music could be interpreted as indecent and vulgar by older generations. But to her generation, it isn’t indecent…it’s their reality. While previous generations pushed conversations on mental health away, Gen Zer’s are not shying away from talking openly about it.
“It doesn’t make you weak to ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak to ask for a friend, to go to a therapist. It shouldn’t make you feel weak to ask anyone for help.”Billie Eilish
More Relatable Music: Moving From the Studio to the Bedroom
Every single word, chord, and sound effect of her Grammy award-winning album was created in Eilish’s childhood bedroom. She sat on her bed while her brother sat at the computer and recorded. Not a single other person or engineer touched their music. That’s because Billie Eilish is a result of a new genre in the music industry called Bedroom Pop.
Music creation used to be limited to the select few people who could afford expensive equipment in expensive studios. But bedroom pop has emerged in recent years as a movement shaped and established by the internet, fueled by online platforms, with easy access to high-quality software and the ability to garner internet fame by merely uploading your tracks to Soundcloud or Spotify.
Dubbed “the loneliest generation,” Gen Zer’s are known for going out less and spending more time alone at home. The independence and individualism of creating music in the bedroom have meant that artists have the freedom to explore their more intimate sides. The result is a new theme that is more personal and informal, but also more sad and lonely. The genre has given strong representation to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also laid bare the pain they feel.
For the last few years, Elish’s fans have watched to see if Hollywood would change her. But so far, at least, she seems to be changing Hollywood. And if you listen closely, you might hear how those same Gen Z fans seem to be changing us all.
(Keep in mind that all the views expressed in this post and on this site are personal views. They don’t represent the views of Yum! or any other person or organization except the authors themselves.)