The average pop star would never choose to put her chart-burning biggest hit at the very top of an hour-long set, but Billie Eilish has no interest in being an average pop star. As she reminded us from the jump, she’s a “Bad Guy” (duh).
A brief horror movie intro with haunted crickets engulfed by ominous acoustics gave way to an explosion of strobes and body-shaking bass as the 17-year-old sensation bounded into her debut "Austin City Limits" taping to the sound of her delicious ode to dark seduction and an ear-splitting chorus of screams. The crowd, loaded with at least 800% more tween/teenage girls than the average "ACL" taping, sang along to every word and bounced up and down in unison with Eilish, who adeptly pogoed across the stage despite having one foot in an orthopedic boot.
Eilish, who burst from the ether and instantaneously became the favorite pop artist of every 15-year-old in America sometime around 2017, worked the crowd like she’s been doing this for decades. She was by turns coy, vulnerable, furious and ebullient.
She eased wistfully into her world domination fantasy “You Should See Me In A Crown,” before morphing into the track’s tyrannical ruler. When she ordered the crowd to “scream as loud as you can,” it was very loud.
Throughout the show she was refreshingly frank, searching for a real connection with her young fans. “Bear with me mom and dad,” she said, coaxing everyone in the seats to their feet, so she could achieve the climactic lows and highs she was looking for on “Copycat.” She chased the crowd-pleaser with the funereal “When I Was Older.” She closed the track by acknowledging the slow-moving song’s limited appeal. Unfazed by audiences who use the track to slip off to hit up the bar, she said, “It’s OK, I like it a lot.”
And that’s part of Eilish’s appeal. She’s not trying to break the pop star mold, although with her shock of lime green hair and deliberately desexualized wardrobe choices, like the oversized patchwork T-shirt with Rob Zombie’s off-centered face that she wore for her taping, she is certainly doing that.
Instead, she’s just expressing how she sees her world through shockingly sophisticated songwriting.
Some people struggle to understand why young people have such passion for her dark pop songs, but for young people, the world is all too frequently a dark place. In school they participate in intruder drills. They bear witness to an epidemic of teen suicide and rampant prescription drug abuse. A song like “Xanny” — which finds Eilish trying to wave away second hand smoke while navigating a dystopian party where her drug-addled peers are burying their hurt — gives voice to this 21st century teen angst.
Maybe for this generation, facing existential crises like climate change and resurgent ideologies of hatred, the cheery polish of pop songs past is less relatable than “When the Party’s Over,” a song about going home angry and alone. She intro’ed the track by asking everyone in the crowd to live in the moment. Good or bad, she said, “it’s all we’ve got.”
She closed the set with a triumphant rendition of “Bury a Friend,” a mysterious little ditty about a monster under her bed. Then she hopped off the stage to hug the rush of young fans who raced to her. Billie Eilish is not a pop phenom that anyone saw coming, but with her self-assured individuality in this era of insecurity, she’s the one our young girls need.