Billie Eilish Is Set To Make James Bond History
When it comes to James Bond, Billie Eilish only really knows Daniel Craig. At least that's if you don’t count Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s final movie in 2002, when Eilish was just one – which we don't. But now, in a bit of Bond symmetry, she has the responsibility of taking out Craig in style, with the theme for his final showing, No Time To Die.
At 18, Eilish is officially the youngest ever to write and record a Bond theme, and follows in some rather large footsteps. From Matt Munro in For Russia With Love in 1963, to Paul McCartney and Wings 10 years later, to Sam Smith’s Oscar-winning “The Writing’s On The Wall” for Spetcre, the most recent Bond showing.
But if anyone can handle the pressure it’s Eilish, as GQ recently found out…
Last October, Vanity Fair asked 16-year-old LA singer-songwriter Billie Eilish exactly the same questions she had answered a year earlier and deftly contrasted the two interviews. The split-screen video begins cheerfully enough, but when she talks about her ballooning fame, the older Eilish – blue hair, shroud-like black hoodie, necklace that resembles a cutlery drawer – looks pained: “I’m kind of jealous of Billie a year ago.” Now, they seem like two different people and the effect is an unexpectedly profound illustration of youth in flux. Eilish’s life has changed more than most, but from one year to the next most teenagers have different hair, different clothes, different taste, different emotions. Navigating adolescence is a bit like being David Bowie in the Seventies: we were all chameleons.
To be a teenage star in command of your music and image is uniquely compelling. Think of Kate Bush, only 19 when “Wuthering Heights” went to number one, or Alex Turner, hailed as the voice of a generation fresh out of sixth form. Paul Weller, Dizzee Rascal, Fiona Apple, Roddy Frame... youth and talent have always been a compelling combination. Eilish, now 17, is at the epicentre of a new youthquake in pop that includes R&B singer Khalid, Streatham MC Dave, Norway’s Sigrid and singer-songwriter Marie Ulven, AKA Girl In Red. Some are in their twenties now but forged their voices and fanbases in their teens.
The distinctive emotional tone of Generation Z is melancholy and uncertain: the voice of the watchful outsider observing their contemporaries from a distance. You can trace this perspective back to 16-year-old Lorde turning pop upside down with the uncannily astute “Royals” six years ago. I interviewed her at the time and was struck by how unremarkable she found her lyrical outlook. Isn’t it the case that many teenagers feel older than their years? Why should everyone running the hormonal gauntlet be expected to make lightweight, peppy music? How soon adults forget that there’s nothing lightweight about adolescence.
Still, I think she did mark a generational shift towards vulnerability and doubt. In Lorde’s “Tennis Court”, Alessia Cara’s “Here” or Khalid’s “American Teen”, you can’t have fun without asking what “fun” means. Tellingly, the only reference to a party on Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, is its negative image: a bleak little ballad called “When The Party’s Over”. In truth, it sounds as if the party never even started.
Eilish speaks directly to her teenage peers, but her admirers include Dave Grohl, who has said that her intense relationship with her fans reminds him of Nirvana and her album is emotionally legible to anyone who remembers the pull of gothic melodrama. Her voice is close-miked and confidential, the better to convey her songs about depression, night terrors and revenge. The music is sparse and even ragged – the darkness audible. “I wanna end me,” she chants on her deliciously sinister top 10 hit “Bury A Friend”. Balancing raw honesty with theatrical exaggeration, it’s practically The Cure next to anything else in the charts – except perhaps the musical therapy session of Dave’s recent number one album, Psychodrama. “Man, I think I’m going mad again,” he raps on “Psycho”. “It’s like I’m happy for a second then I’m sad again.” The album revolves around “Lesley”, a gruellingly empathetic 11-minute tale of toxic masculinity and abuse. MCs used to set aside one track per album in which to admit vulnerability; for Dave, pain is the main event.
Both Eilish and Dave have flourished on their own terms. Whereas heavy-handed A&R has diluted the initial freshness of Sigrid and Khalid and produced too much rote filler, Eilish’s album was co-written and produced entirely by her older brother, Finneas O’Connell. In that respect, despite her major-label backing, she relates to the new DIY underground in which young artists, especially young women, build up considerable fanbases on YouTube and SoundCloud before seeking the music industry’s support. Such unfiltered authenticity is gold dust for major labels, who need the singers more than the singers need them, and key to that authenticity is a blunt acknowledgement that youth can be rough.
Girl In Red’s most popular song on Spotify is called “Summer Depression”. “Waking up feeling like sh*t,” she sighs over sensitive, lo-fi indie-rock. “It’s a normal thing to feel like this.” Like Eilish, she normalises feeling bad; she has talked of acting like “a shrink” for fans who regard this young woman as an inspiration. At the opposite end of the industry, the rapper Logic’s hit 2017 collaboration with Khalid and Alessia Cara, “1-800-273-8255”, doubled as a public service announcement. Named after the number for America’s National Suicide Prevention Helpline, it inspired a 50 percent surge in calls after the trio performed it at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Such records display admirable emotional intelligence and responsibility. My only small worry is that sadness alone will be read as authentic and anyone with a naturally sunny disposition will be deemed insincere. These days, it would be a jolt to hear a song with the uncomplicated elation of “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones or “Alright” by Supergrass. We’d wonder what they’ve got to be so damn happy about. How exactly is everything “alright”?
Back to that Vanity Fair video. What does Billie Eilish think of the music industry? Eilish from 2018 pulls a face. “We’re all sad as hell. All these artists, we’re sad as sh*t, dude. Everybody I know that’s an artist, we are sad motherf******.” She shakes her head, as if it’s an immutable law of youth and music at this point in time. “It’s the way it is.”