The fatal allure of pop prodigy Billie Eilish's blues
Sadness is this singer's selling point, and in an age of social media intimacy and immediacy, that can be risky, writes Eleanor Halls
In the YouTube comment section for Lovely, one of pop prodigy Billie Eilish's most popular music videos (tallying more than 289-million views), fans compete over their poor mental health.
"I can't stop cutting," reads a comment, reacting to Eilish's lyrics of despair and loneliness (which soundtracked teen Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, dealing with self-harm). Another chides: "My uncle is depressed and trust me, if you'd had depression you would not be watching videos. Please respect those who are really fighting with it."
A string of outraged and defensive comments ensue until a pithy remark calls closure: "Sis, let us savour and mourn in sadness."
Los Angeles-born Eilish - who was homeschooled and born into a family of actors and musicians - started writing songs at the age of 11. She released her breakout single Ocean Eyes on Soundcloud in 2016. Eight months later and at just 14 years old, Eilish released her debut EP Don't Smile At Me, and had Ocean Eyes picked up and released by Interscope Records. Listen to her now - at all of 17 years old - and you'd think she had lived forever: bruised by the heart's every whim and broken by the mind's most violent thoughts.
With an angelic voice so delicate it would appear translucent, layered over melancholy melodies and shouldered by the kind of eerie, heady beats that made The Weeknd a star, Eilish's nihilism has become her personal brand.
One video shows her leaking black tears of viscous liquid, and another shows a tarantula crawling inside her mouth. In her pictures, she never smiles: her expression is paralysed by lethargy, her eyes threatening to roll back into her head at any moment. Any demonstration of happiness is in fact so rare that one of the most popular search terms around her name is "Billie Eilish smiling".
Yet, as attested by sold-out shows, celebrity champions Julia Roberts and Dave Grohl, and 17.1-million Instagram followers, people are wild for it.
It makes sense. Emo music is in resurgence. Since the music industry's democratisation through streaming, sub-genres have exploded. Most notably: sad rap, a sub genre of hip hop pioneered by Soundcloud musicians such as Lil Xan, Lil Pump, Lil Peep and XXXTentacion since early 2017.
While hip-hop titans such as Jay Z and Biggie polished the truth by bragging about money and sex, "sad rappers" - many of whom have collaborated, or are friends with, Eilish - go the other way, detailing anguish and apathy as well as an addiction to anxiety treating prescription drugs.
When Lil Pump reached the milestone of a million followers on Instagram, he cut into a Xanax-themed cake, baked from 500 Xanax pills. Last November, Lil Peep - whose lyrics include "I used to wanna kill myself. Came up, still wanna kill myself" - died after overdosing on Xanax and Fentanyl. XXXTentacion (who was killed in a shooting in June), rapped about suicide in his song SAD!, leading Mass Appeal journalist Andrew Matson to announce "the trendification of suicide".
Emo's new incarnation is deeply concerning in a way that it wasn't in the '80s. A decade ago, the genre provided an aesthetic as well as a mood. Wearing baggy, dark clothes, painting your fingernails black and scribbling out your eyes in kohl were a lifestyle that, for most people, would change with the times. They grew out of it once the music evolved or their tastes changed.
But 2019 is a different time. Rage and despair are not just provocative musical fodder: they can prove fatal. Yet, ironically, while rock and punk gave sonic gravitas to its melodramatic lyrical angst, thus removing it from day-to-day consciousness, 2018's catchy hip-hop beats can trivialise and normalise its content.
Last year, a meme relating to wildly successful rapper Future went viral. It showed a room of clubbers dancing blithely to his number one hit Mask Off, while his lyrics described a life of poverty, violence and an addiction to prescription drugs: "Drank promethazine, TEC and beams / Go to those extremes." The chorus repeats "percocet" (a painkiller made up of paracetamol and the opioid oxycodone).
While there is no study that links this "sad music" to an increase in anxiety, depression or drug addiction, it's important to note that this year doctors warned of an "emerging Xanax crisis"...