She’s blowing up right now. I’m sure you’ve heard the intro track off her new album, “Bad Guy”, on the radio. She looks like early Halsey, sounds like early Lana del Rey, and dresses like early Snoop Dogg. But who is she? Where did she come from? And how in the hell did she get so popular, so fast?
It all started with Ocean Eyes, a song made with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, and shared to soundcloud. Billie was only 14. It became an overnight sensation, earning Billie a record deal. She dropped her critically acclaimed EP, “Don’t Smile at Me” in 2017, and her much-anticipated first official album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” in 2019. She also performed at Coachella that year and virally met Justin Bieber.
She’s now 17 and got not only a #1 hit, but two popular and critically acclaimed albums. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a young star rise so quickly – her childhood crush Justin Bieber did the same after being discovered on Youtube. But Billie’s music fits into the pop music scene much differently than Justin’s did at the time. Because here’s what’s probably struck you the most about Billie’s music: it’s creepy.
It’s not just the singing, which has an eerie sound by itself; it’s the lyrics. Lana del Rey croons in a sad, eerie voice about failed love, but that’s a far cry from Billie’s songs about the monster under the bed and murdering her friends. Her videos feature spiders crawling into her mouth and needles in her back. She’s not the only star to embrace weirdness, but she’s the only one I can remember to gain such mainstream popularity so fast. In a music scene that is feeling increasingly formulaic, how did Billie’s music get so popular? Is it just that – that it’s different? Is it just because it’s so good? Or is it that she’s done so well at creating a cohesive, specific brand of creepiness? Or do we just love Cinderella stories of success?
I think it’s probably a mixture of all of the above, coupled with something new: Billie is the first Gen Z popstar we have. Gen Z-ers are in high school now, and their interests are not the same as millennials’. Their humor and way of speaking, largely cultivated off the internet and access to other parts of the world’s media, is much “weirder“. And even millennials are primed for this kind of media. “Alternative” music and culture has been sanitized and pushed into mainstream “cool” for years – just look at Coachella. Billie is not as sanitized or mainstream as some of those artists – like Halsey, Bastille, or Lana herself – but she’s a logical next step. And while Billie’s lyrics are more creepy than relatable, their tone reflects the disillusionment millennials and Gen Zers are feeling with the world they’ve inherited. She’s managed to embody a sort of normalized sadness that’s already evident in internet and meme culture (most of which are actually rather negative, in a sort of “sad but true” way), but not just about love like Lana does. This makes sense – dating and love are being redefined by Gen Z-ers, who may not relate to the kind Lana is crooning about in her songs.
Gen-Zers are just starting to enter the real world – as is Billie. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when they make up even more of media consumers. But if this is a preview for what’s to come in music and media, then I for one am excited.