Unless you’ve been living in a cave on Mars for the last couple of years, you will be more than aware of the extraordinary rise of 17-year-old alt pop wunderkind, Billie Eilish.
The precocious singer-songwriter is the must-see act on the planet at the moment. Base camp for her giddying ascent to greatness was her debut single, ‘Ocean Eyes’, just two years ago—promptly going viral globally, clocking up more than a 150million streams to date.
With critics falling over themselves to pile on the plaudits, a series of striking, arty, often disturbing videos and shows anywhere she chooses to play selling out in minutes, no wonder Leeds and Reading organisers cannily promoted her from the Radio One Stage to the top table, sharpish.
And young Billie must be one of the youngest to perform there—on any of the stages, in fact—since Daphne and Celeste’s ill-judged, poorly-received, short-lived set, back in 2000, when the bottles flew like an explosion at a recycling plant.
No danger of that today. This has to have been the most eagerly anticipated mid-afternoon appearances in the festivals history. Despite the blazing heat, the crowd around the Main Stage was bigger than any I’ve seen at tea time and it was buzzing like a monstrous bee hive. Even the press tent was empty—jaded, seen-it-all hacks, many of whom sniffily view proceedings on a big screen in quite some comfort, all anxious to catch this one in the flesh.
Hitting the stage in an eccentric head-to-foot Leprechaun-green, right down to natty emerald face mask, tinted shades and hair, Eilish launched the session with an obvious crowd-pleaser—ludicrously catchy earworm uber hit, ‘bad guy’.
Somewhere in excess of 60,000 people went bonkers and she knew she could do no wrong. The massed choir sang along and jumped up and down, the debilitating heat forgotten. When the youngster asked us how we were doing, the roared response was the loudest expressions of approval I’ve heard at this time of day since Leeds Festival kicked off.
‘My strange addiction’ next, leaving anyone new to Billie’s content in any doubt that, beyond the hype, here is a genuine talent who can not only craft knowing, sophisticated lyrics and harness them to infectious musical arrangements, but deliver the goods live, too.
Helping her do so are a sweet, strong voice and a tight little backing band, which includes big brother (and ‘Glee’ alumni), Finneas, on bass, six-string and keyboards. His presence must be a steadying influence and a great support to someone forced to do her growing up in public—and it surely reassured her today, because, massive though she may be, this prodigy can’t have played to many bigger crowds before. Yet she handled the Leeds massive with the deft aplomb of a decades-seasoned old trouper like Jagger or Springsteen.
Commanding us to crouch down and jump, we all did. When she ordered a circle pit to open up, it had to be exactly where she wanted it and of dimensions to her precise specifications; only when it was, were festival goers given permission to run around it.
During ‘you should see me cry’ Eilish commanded us to, “Scream as loud as you possibly can.” Except, this time, most people were ahead of her and doing so anyway. The set was dialled down to a more subdued setting for ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’, proving she has a voice for all seasons.
The jumpy ‘COPYCAT’, ‘wish you were gay’, ‘xanny’ and ‘all the good girls go to hell’ followed in short order—she certainly packed in the tunes. Then she was on the home straight and a joyful victory lap, which was completed with the clever ‘bury a friend’.
After all the build-up and anticipation, the performance could have been a big let-down, but Billie Eilish took nothing for granted, worked her socks off to give fans value for money and sealed a triumphant debut at one of the UK’s biggest music events.
As long as she keeps good people around her and avoids the pitfalls of addiction and bad influences, this youngster could well hold sway over the entertainment world for most of the upcoming century.
If so, those who saw her kill it at Leeds will be able to tell their children and grandchildren, “I was there.”
I’m glad I was.