Billie. A haunting, masculine voice welcomes one of Gen Z’s most acclaimed and eclectic icons to the UBS Arena stage, queuing her smash, oddball hit, “Bury a Friend” to open tonight’s stop on the “Happier Than Ever” world tour. Billie isn’t Billie though. She’s not the Vogue, Marylin-Monroe-imitating, platinum-curled and pink-laced Billie. She’s not the somber, blue-haired teen Billie with disturbing floods of black paint tears spilling everywhere in music videos. She’s not even the seven-time Grammy winning or 17-time Grammy nominated Billie. She’s just Billie with her classic dark locks pulled up in childlike pigtails and an oversized white T-shirt covered in DIY designs paired with white Spandex and chunky white sneakers. Despite the evolution of maturity and womanhood that this album, “Happier Than Ever,” represents—and despite her twentieth birthday – it’s immediately clear that Billie is still the misfit, the depressed-but-fun-loving goth kid who’s tired of the real world so she creates her own. She’s all of us who came to the show.
In exchange for two hours of painless volunteering for one of Eilish’s chosen nonprofits, Reverb, I got a free floor ticket to the show, and also a complimentary Reverb volunteer/Billie T-shirt. In their words, Reverb’s mission is “to partner with musicians, festivals and venues to green their concert events while engaging fans face-to-face at shows to take environmental and social action.” I enjoyed learning about her nonprofits on tour, engaging with fans and chatting with the other volunteers near my table, and we were conveniently handed our tickets about three minutes before Billie came on. As pop-punk star Willow Smith pulled out of the tour last minute, the opener I would miss was actually bedroom-pop musician, Dora Jar.
In a rare instance for A-list pop stars, there are exactly three people on stage in this show: Billie; her highly sought-after artist-producer brother, Finneas; and the drummer. While typical top artists’ shows are packed with supporting performers, not one dancer or backup singer appears throughout the electrifying ninety-minute set, and not one is needed. The looseness of her T-shirt and the comfort of her Spandex reflect a pure freedom in her execution of movements that fill this entire stage. Eilish doesn’t need choreography because she’s a once-in-a-generation performer. The songs course through somewhere deep inside, and her body bends, clicks, runs and twitches with ease to the musical intricacies of each track.
The set includes a healthy share of the star’s signature alpha, high-energy hits like “Oxytocin”; “you should see me in a crown”; “Therefore I am”; and obviously, the classique, “bad guy.” Her soft, more vulnerable moments in tunes like “Your Power,” “when the party’s over” and “Male Fantasy” expertly balance out the show, curating an audience experience that covers every emotion in its most acute state. The Billie croon soaked in slow vibrato and tears hardly ever wavers––an impressive feat considering not only a lengthy set, but such a physically and emotionally demanding tour.
Eilish didn’t skyrocket to music elitehood with a polished, choreographed, bubblegum act; she’s the anti-pop popstar. She’s notoriously ironic, quirky, “not like the other girls,” and tonight is no exception. Instead of strategic, scripted moments here and there throughout her concert, she makes out-of-the-blue comments like, “I don’t know if you guys have ever experienced this but…I have like a reverse wedgie right now?” and “I hate people who don’t participate. You’re not cooler than the rest of us.” She’s the divine focal point in this 18,000 person arena but watching her feels closer to giggling with a friend at school than admiring a celebrity posing for paparazzi on the red carpet.
The whole show is a series of thrills, complete with themed video montages, colorful blinding lights, incessant piercing shrieks from the crowd and her two-person band throwing their sweaty bodies into every tune wholeheartedly. All the songs, however, are just mere appetizers for the ultimate feast––that delicious, exhilaratingly high, “Happier Than Ever.” Eilish waits until the very end of the night to complete the arena’s transformation from concert to congregation. When the Grammy-nominated chart-topper escalates from its ’60s-style introduction into 18,000 people animalistically screaming, “I DON’T TALK SHIT ABOUT YOU ON THE INTERNET/ NEVER TOLD ANYONE ANYTHING BAD,” a tsunami of catharsis obliterates any sense of social convention. Every suppressed negative feeling, every bit of messy personal history in the audience blasts out into this shared Long Island space for five holy minutes. This is pop music at its very finest—a religious experience.
The popular girls are screaming and crying. The emo girls are screaming and crying. Whether it be alt boys, twelve-year-olds, forty-year-olds, liberals, conservatives, people of various races—there doesn’t seem to be one target audience for Eilish. On the 12:43 a.m. commuter rail home to Poughkeepsie, I decided there’s a sort of “Eilish equilibrium phenomenon” that allows her voice to cast such wide appeal. She’s simultaneously a veteran and fresh on the scene, a superstar that’s completely authentic, a sophisticated woman with childlike energy, masculine and feminine, and an insider who got there by being an outsider. She’s not an easy popstar to categorize and these complexities are reflected in the crowd that comes out to see her breathtaking performance. The only simple thing about Billie Eilish is that she was born to write, sing and put on a hell of a show.