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“What Was I Made For?”—Billie Eilish as Gen Z Icon

If I had to pick a face for Gen Z, it would be Billie Eilish.

I might be an elder millennial bemoaning the loss of skinny jeans and indie folk, but I like Eilish. I didn't always like her. The first time I heard her song "Bad Guy" I thought it was creepy and weird and didn't understand why she was so popular. But five years later, I drive around listening to "What Was I Made For?" on repeat.

At 20 years old, Billie Eilish has chewed up milestones many other artists work for their whole careers. She's won nine Grammys (the youngest person to win all four categories), was the youngest woman to reach No. 1 in the UK, won two Golden Globes, headlined Coachella music festival, and won an Oscar for her Bond theme song—the list goes on. Her 2019 lyrical boast, "You should see me in a crown/I'm gonna run this nothing town" (alongside the sound of knife-sharpening) was no hyperbole.

Eilish had an innocuous start, homeschooled by actor and musician parents in Los Angeles. She recorded music with her older brother Finneas in his bedroom, including her entire first album. Eilish's family remains core, Finneas still writing and producing alongside her and her parents accompanying her on tour. Eilish's breakthrough hit at age 14, "Ocean Eyes", originally intended for her dance teacher's use, became an overnight sensation. It showcases her dreamy, melancholic vocals, whispery and restrained. But this is only one side of Eilish.

Eilish's debut album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? sets nightmarish, sometimes violent imagery to electropop and heavy bass. Its music videos feature Eilish's back being stabbed with syringes, cigarettes being stubbed out on her face, and her drinking a glass of black liquid then crying black tears that fill up a room. She sings from the perspective of someone about to jump off a building and a monster under her bed. Her music never shies away from the dark and messy; she's openly shared her own struggles with depression. Some have argued her lyrics glorify depression and even suicide, while others find her honesty refreshing.

Eilish is versatile, never allowing any one trend to define her. Her sound is eclectic and constantly evolving, just like the internet Gen Z grew up with. She samples a clip from The Office, her dentist's drill, even her taking out her Invisalign braces. Anything has potential. Among her influences are The Beatles, Green Day, Lana Del Rey, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Tyler, the Creator, and Frank Sinatra. Hip-hop is her favorite genre, but you name it, Eilish is probably into it.

Eilish provides a counterpoint to the hyper-produced, shiny, technicolored worlds of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, the millennial pop stars. She's something like Avril Lavigne was in my youth: the anti-Britney Spears, dressed in baggy skater clothes. Her songs and videos are both gritty and funny and feel like the product of Eilish’s imagination rather than a slick package birthed from a corporation. She seems to fight hard to retain creative license and comments in interviews that she's afraid of being controlled. It's a rational fear, especially for someone so young; Justin Bieber has said he wants to protect Eilish from what the music industry did to him.

Eilish has often addressed the cost of fame. In "Everything I Wanted" she sings, "I had a dream I got everything I wanted/Not what you'd think/And if I'm being honest/It might have been a nightmare". She says it always breaks her heart to sing, "Everybody wants something from me now/And I don't wanna let 'em down."

Eilish's songs frequently examine power dynamics, particularly regarding sexuality. The #MeToo movement has shone attention on the predatory, abusive behavior of far too many men. The body positivity movement has attempted to help women embrace their bodies whether or not they look like Barbie. Yet women are still constantly asked to market their bodies and told that having "sex like a man" is the way to find power.

Eilish openly wrestles with these tensions, saying in a spoken word piece, "If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I'm a slut." Her distinctive fashion choices—often including blue or green hair, baggy clothes, and chains—have constantly been dissected, her body ogled and critiqued. Her shifting fashion choices reflect an attempt to self-define in a world that gives conflicting messages about sexuality and female worth. On Eilish's soft, haunting track, "Your Power", she calls out an older man for his sexual exploitation of a young girl. "Power isn't pain," she sings. Eilish has revealed she was sexually abused as a minor. But how to protect yourself?

Though Billie isn’t hypersexualized like many young pop stars, there are still overtly sexual elements to her music that cast her as someone men should fear. For example, in "Bad Guy" she sings, "My mommy likes to sing along with me/But she won't sing this song/If she reads all the lyrics/She'll pity the men I know". In a world where young women are often extremely vulnerable, this reversal can feel appealing. To avoid being exploited, you need to be tough as Eilish's long, black nails. Who doesn't want to be a "bad guy" if the alternative is being abused? Granted, much of Eilish's bad guy persona is just performance, and it can be fun. But I hope Eilish and other young women can find relationships that are mutually respectful and caring rather than a struggle for power. Many of Eilish's songs also reveal a desire for love and connection in an untrustworthy world.

This tough-but-tender tension is, I think, is one of the reasons for Eilish's remarkable success. She comes across as so unpretentious and likeable in her interviews. When she received a Grammy from Ringo Starr, she greeted him, "Hi Ringo, what's up?" then used most of her airtime to praise a contender. She hugs her mom and tells her "I love you" at the end of each annual Vanity Fair interview. "Everything I Wanted" is about the love between her and her brother. Her songs are at one moment feisty and self-assured and at the next full of melancholic longing for meaning and relationship. Eilish's latest album, Happier Than Ever, is consumed with a search for identity: "I'm in love/But not with anybody else/Just wanna get to know myself."

Eilish's vulnerability is perhaps nowhere so striking as in her Grammy-winning song for the Barbie movie, "What Was I Made For?" How did the girl known for being the bad guy end up singing Barbie's "heart song"? In many ways, Eilish has styled herself as the anti-Barbie. Her EP is titled Don't Smile at Me, whereas Barbie is known for being nothing but smiles. But Barbie's film story is about becoming human and real. Barbie tackles many of the same themes Eilish does in her music, addressing power, gender, and sexuality. 

Eilish's demographic of liberal Gen Z girls has skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression. Eilish encapsulates this in songs dealing with substance abuse, teen suicide, and climate change anxiety. (In “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”, God and Satan watch together as people destroy the earth.) Gen Z is the most self-marketed generation of all time. Like Barbie, Gen Zers how to make themselves into products for consumption. They know what sells. But do they know who they are? "I was an ideal/Looked so alive/Turns out I'm not real/Just something you paid for"—I wonder how many young influencers see themselves in that mirror. Eilish has said that at one point she felt like a parody of herself. It wasn't until after she and her brother had written "What Was I Made For?" that she realized, "This is me. This is my life, and how I feel."

Youth culture’s obsession with Billie Eilish seems to represent a longing for authenticity, for stars who are real and who can speak deeply to human experience, not just to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I appreciate Eilish’s honesty both in her interviews and music, an honesty too often absent from Christian art. Eilish is thoughtful and creative and addresses important cultural issues with amazing awareness for someone so young. I applaud her probing, existential themes, but I wonder hope looks like in her world. She seems to be wondering, too.

"What was I made for?" It's a question at the core of what it means to be human, at any age. It's a timeless question, and Eilish sings it with all the quavering, searching restraint it deserves. Eilish is seeking the answer to this question through her music, and her fans are seeking along with her. Was I made to be exploited or to be powerful? Was I made to love myself or someone else? Was I made to be happy or depressed? Was I made to save the world or watch it burn? Gen Z is asking big questions. What answers are we going to give?

Liz Snell lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She studied writing at the University of Victoria and is now studying psychology. She works with adults with disabilities and in her spare time gardens, hikes, knits, and makes awful puns.


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