In November, a 16-year-old singer-songwriter named Billie Eilish signed a co-publishing deal with Universal Music. For young pop stars of a previous era, such a contract would be a godsend.
But for this teen, it’s barely a big deal. That’s because Ellish is already a superstar with sold-out tours and more than a billion streams on Spotify. On Snapchat and Instagram, her millions of fans hang on her every move.
Eilish is the poster child for a new kind of musical stardom that bypasses traditional gatekeepers. She interacts directly with her fans, embraces fluidity in genre and gender norms and speaks openly about the mental health struggles of her generation. Eilish has never put out an album or appeared anywhere near the top of the Billboard charts — yet she’s been embraced by online communities that allow oddballs and outsiders to take creative risks and build their own messy and idiosyncratic personas.
Two years ago, Eilish was an unknown when she heeded a request from her dance teacherand posted a soothing ballad called “Ocean Eyes” on Soundcloud. The song quickly spread through blogs and music discovery websites, eventually racking up hundreds of millions of streams. A video featuring Eilish performing a modern dance routine to the song, reminiscent of previous viral hits like Sia’s “Chandelier” and Feist’s “1 2 3 4,” increased the song’s already enormous reach.
That year, Eilish signed to Interscope Records. Under different circumstances, such a move might have come with requirements to look and act in a certain way, or to collaborate with the pop songwriting factory that produces most of today’s hits. But lately, record labels have been playing catch up when they sign Soundcloud stars like Juice WRLD or the late XXXTentacion to enormous deals; the organically grown fanbases of these musicians gives them the leverage to craft their own careers.
So Eilish continued to write all of her songs alongside her brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell, branching out in genre and theme: “idontwannabeyouanymore” is bubbling R&B; “when the party’s over” is a sparse hymnal; “see me in a crown” seethes with the macabre arrogance of Soundcloud rap. Her stylistic breadth is less surprising when you learn that her idol is Tyler, the Creator, a polymath who sings, raps, designs clothing and produces music that spans sunny alt-folk to horror rap. For older listeners, Tyler is an anomaly; for teenagers like Eilish, he’s all they’ve ever known, representing a generation of artists that don’t differentiate between the music, the fashion and the persona.