Backlash, as a very abrupt kind of motion, is governed by the laws of Sir Isaac Newton. Action begets reaction in equal measure. The action on Billie Eilish has been intense this year. She swept all the major categories at the Grammys last week on the strength of her debut When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? and its meteoric single “Bad Guy.” It’s the first time a woman has ever done so. She also secured the next James Bond theme song and a spot to perform at this week’s Academy Awards. A year ago, you had to be up on things to know her name. A month ago, people over 25 or so generally knew a song or two but couldn’t necessarily pick her out of a lineup. Now, there’s voice-of-a-generation energy around her. Her claustrophobic, inescapable sound — a feat in literal bedroom pop, since it was written and produced alongside her older brother, Finneas O’Connell, in the house where the siblings were raised — has been framed as a watershed moment in modern pop music. She’s seen as a disruptor.
But is it true? Does Billie Eilish want that attention? Her party anthem “Xanny” is about sipping canned Coca-Cola while watching people slowly lose their marbles over drugs and drinks. (“Listen Before I Go,” “I Love You,” and “Goodbye,” the triptych of songs that closes out When We All Fall Asleep, form a kind of mini-concept album where she dies at the end.) Her fashion sense is a quirky take on matchy ’90s hip-hop gear (blanched of the context), all lurid prints and slightly unusual dimensions that draw attention away from her figure, like something you might see in a Busta Rhymes or Missy Elliott video. “Billie Eilish dresses like Big Pun,” one Twitter user famously quipped. Like her music, Eilish’s approach to fame is more of a rejection. She still lives in the same house, although her parents, both actors who’ve enjoyed quiet but constant film and television work since the ’80s, now work for her. (Gamers may recognize Eilish’s mom, Maggie Baird, as the voice of Samara from the Mass Effect series.) A rant on consumerism in hip-hop in her first Vogue cover story is both textbook Billie, in its objection to the machinery of celebrity, and a red flag for rap fans, who are tired of pop stars mining the sound and fashion while bristling at the content.
“There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story,” Eilish said in the profile. “There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap.” She’s not entirely wrong; a good grip of rap’s bombast is posturing. It’s a grievance that’s existed as long as the music has. Historically, it has come as an insult from people trying to write hip-hop culture off as vulgar, sexist, materialistic, and bloodthirsty. It’s the logic that landed 2 Live Crew in obscenity trials for As Nasty As They Wanna Be 30 years ago. It’s the reason a sitting president publicly objected to Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” in the ’90s. It’s the thing Miley Cyrus said when she retreated to the comfort of squeaky-clean pop music after gentrifying strip-club trap in the whirlwind of press around 2012’s Bangerz. It’s hard not to view Billie Eilish’s remarks through the prism of the long history of white music fans and white musicians turning their noses up at rap music, to invoke the famous Paul Mooney aphorism about people enjoying the trappings of blackness but not the hardship. But we know Eilish doesn’t hate hip-hop. She loves Tierra Whack. She texts Drake. She was so moved by the loss of XXXTentacion that she wrote a song for him.
Two things can be true, though. Billie Eilish can care about rap music and also have said a dumb thing about it. The difference between telling stories through song and using lyrics to present an augmented version of yourself is negotiable at best. Lana Del Rey is a character. Rick Ross famously won a war of words with 50 Cent even after the New York mogul produced a picture of his Florida rival in a corrections uniform. One of Ross’s finest verses — his spot on Kanye West’s “Devil in a New Dress” — contains a lyric about doing rap “cyphers with Yeezy before his mouth wired” that is almost certainly an exquisite falsehood. Authenticity is bullshit. No one cares anymore. Drake is a former teen actor whose last album delighted fans with threats of violence. Future is a drug-rap impresario who admits he doesn’t do as much partying as his records might suggest. Is Travis Scott eating all those pills? Is Eminem murdering people? Did Jay-Z lose 92 bricks? Hip-hop fans come to the music suspending their disbelief. Tell the truth, or sell the lie, but either way, make sure we never know the difference.
Pop music demands a certain image, too. You must be gracious. You must be woke. The scrutiny Billie Eilish has seen as her public profile rises is just the audience running the normal checks. If you’re going to take up prime real estate at the Grammys, the Oscars, and the like, you better have your shit together. Eilish mostly appears to, but perception is reality in the public sphere, and this week, a lot of people think she looks like another pop star dissing hip-hop while dressing in the threads and affecting the drawl and cadences in her speaking voice. She needs to maybe take a short breather and get her messaging down. This isn’t a Miley or a Post Malone situation, where something actually quite insulting and diminutive was said about the whole of hip-hop. Eilish isn’t saying anything veteran hip-hop heads haven’t already said about new rap. (That alignment is the problem, actually. She’s been called a boomer for it.) She should be less precious about realism in music, as a singer-songwriter whose most breathtaking cut was written by her brother. She should be more aware of the ways her words can be received that she might not have intended and mindful of the racial implications of being a white pop artist with a bone to pick about rap.
Strange and often terrible things happen when the music industry anoints new royalty. Backlash is quick and intense. Stars sweat under the spotlight and start to say and do the wrong things. (Remember when *Justin Bieber peed in a restaurant mop bucket and cursed out Bill Clinton?) Everyone is desperate to figure Gen Z out, and rallying behind Billie Eilish seems to be a lot of people’s idea of getting it done, which is an understandable thought process, considering the size and median age of her following. But when you shoot a young performer to the top of the prestige circuit on the first album, where do they go next? For Eilish’s sake, let’s hope she can mitigate the backlash and show people what she’s really about and what she’s capable of.
*Correction: This post originally stated that Justin Bieber peed on a picture of Bill Clinton. He peed in a mop bucket, then sprayed a photo of Clinton with cleaning liquid while yelling “Fuck Bill Clinton!” We regret the error.