Margaret Court Arena, 3rd May, 2019. Large screen visuals flicker with portent omens. And yes, there are spiders. Opening track Bad Guy pulsates, first the vocals are a whisper, but it has an immediate, irresistible momentum. The sell-out crowd in Margaret Court Arena quickly latches on to every word, thousands of voices carrying the song into a crescendo. Its crest breaks, in place revealing a ridiculously playful synth hook. Rinse and repeat. Billie Eilish is strangely familiar, but like nothing you have heard before. ‘Duh!’ she says.
There is the same sense of dynamics employed by The Pixies and Nirvana – melody weaving through precise chambers of soft/loud – creating the shock and awe. But Billie is of the Soundcloud generation, so there is also the bass-heavy surge of trap. It’s all highly minimal yet deeply effective, and never more so apparent live, Billie sharing the stage with only her multi-instrumentalist brother Finneas O’Connell as well as unerringly metronomic drummer Andrew Marshall.
The audience doesn’t have to wait too long for You Should See Me in a Crown, a song of comeuppance that manages to be anthemic and empowering. Seemingly new to arena-craft she may be, yet Billie’s distinctive choreography propels her across the stage with ease. A madcap jig and a menacing sway are employed to command this track, while frenzied pogos slam home the chorus.
At 17 years of age, Billie Eilish has already undertaken a remarkable transformation since crooning Ocean Eyes, her first hit three years prior. It was a dreamy piece that belied her other influences, including the transgressive rap and imagery of Tyler, the Creator. Since then, she has freely embraced these aspects of her darker musical fascinations, with a vengeance. The emergent mutant pop has enthralled millions around the world.
And for a generation brought up on putting their best self forward on social media, it’s this license to playfully explore dread, nihilism and introspection that helps explain the popularity of Billie Eilish.
Case in point – ‘This one’s for anyone who hates themselves’ Billie says as an introduction to Idontwannabeyouanymore. Living your best life via hashtags can be exhausting; here is the space to drop the pretence.
Wish You Were Gay is a full audience vocal takeover. Another deliciously subversive ode is All the Good Girls Go to Hell; it’s sweetly dressed in melody akin to Taylor Swift, but beneath lies the dread of climate change, underlined by a backdrop of hellish visual cues. ‘Hills burn in California…’ she sings about her home state.
Genre-meshing breakthrough hit Bellyache is definitely one of many highlights, but the most haunting is left to near the end. Ocean Eyes – the song which started it all – is framed by dramatic, no-frills lighting. Next, she asks of the audience their complete attention – not to her, but to the moment. ‘It’s never going to be this way. I’m never going to be in this day in this year ever again. None of us are.’ It’s the touching lead into When the Party’s Over.
The last in a series of whimsical requests from Billie is: ‘For this last song, I want you to give me everything you have.’ Fever-pitched crowd anticipation merges with the distinctive electro beat of Bury A Friend. Check out Closer from Nine Inch Nails and you might get a sense of its direct lineage, but unlike Trent Reznor’s machismo bombast, the angst that Billie serves is open source, from her brother’s bedroom studio to the arenas of the world. Find your own deepest fears, and in Bury A Friend, here is your chance to dance upon their graves, be you a rainbow, goth or unicorn. And if this Melbourne crowd is anything to go by, they certainly have.