With her green roots, Tourette syndrome and black tears, the LA pop rebel Billie Eilish is an uncommon star. She has made mainstream culture out of the stuff of nightmares and therapist’s offices; in a couple of weeks she’ll be the youngest ever solo Glastonbury headliner. Eilish, now 20, has grossed seven major Grammys and an Oscar. To add to all these precocious achievements, tonight she has 21,000 people singing along to a song nobody knows.
The smartphone age has mostly put paid to major artists road-testing new tracks before release. But Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas, play a brand new song called TV – one so hot off their psyches it reflects the previous fortnight’s news.
“The internet’s gone wild watching movie stars on trial/ While they’re overturning Roe v Wade,” Eilish angsts, as her brother plays wistful acoustic guitar. Eilish is not just paying lip service. Last month put her name to an ad in the New York Times urging the US not to abandon the supreme court sanctioned right to choose.
At TV’s heart, though, is an unsatisfactory relationship, making it feel of a piece with Eilish’s most recent album, Happier Than Ever, which came out last summer. “Maybe I’m the problem,” goes the chorus to this world exclusive. Soon, a note-perfect echo comes back from the crowd, who waste little time sending the internet wild themselves by sharing it.
Few artists cavort quite so freely along the line where unconventionality meets the norm as Eilish. Her first UK tour since 2019 is a great arena in which to witness the trade-offs. With its confetti explosions, hydraulic lifts and phone-light Mexican waves, this is often standard-issue, tiered-seating fare. But many elements are highly tweaked, Eilish-style.
The light show is heroically stark, the graphics retina-melting. A giant spider silhouette that stalked the singer in her augmented reality live stream concert of 2020 has followed her all the way to Manchester, looming and skittering on You Should See Me in a Crown.
On NDA, a truly great tune about how strange fame is, Eilish stumbles along a road created out of lit stripes on a sloped riser, cleverly echoing the video. (At the end, the three bandmates – Billie, Finneas and drummer Andrew Marshall – will slide down this incline like big kids.)
Around the release of Happier Than Ever, her second album, Eilish – a previously baggy dresser – appeared in a corset in British Vogue, just to wrongfoot everyone. Happier Than Ever also featured more conventional themes – such as heartbreak and glamour – than its gothic, carnivalesque predecessor, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019).
But this tour has canned that Hollywood blond bombshell aesthetic. Eilish is back challenging starlet norms, sporting lurid patterned baggy T-shirts and cycling shorts, a vision in kinesiology tape and fingerless gloves. She squats and postures, leaps and dry-humps the stage, the very antithesis of choreography. Her crowd control owes some of its tricks to rock gigs, as she gets everyone to crouch down and leap up.
The slippage between mould-breaking and mass entertainment is most evident in the music itself. Granular details immediately distinguish the work of the Eilish siblings. Pin-sharp noises niggle away; dramatic handbrake turns punctuate dreamy, old-time reveries. Eilish herself is the queen of the ASMR whisper, making great use of asides, ad libs and spittle alongside her considerable vocal prowess. Tonight, the way she sings off the beat on Goldwing, a warning to innocents entering showbiz, is delicious.
But the vast majority of this detail is swamped by the effort to reach the back of a big hall. Ilomilo, off When We All Fall Asleep …, misses the full Doppler effect on the vocals and much of its twitchiness. One of Eilish’s excellent kiss-offs to an ex, Therefore I Am, loses its conversational intimacy. The result is that many of these digital miniatures are blown up into something more ordinary.
What this big sound system bulldozes, Eilish just about makes up for in bass and bonhomie. Time and again, the siblings redirect their microtonal energies into shock and awe. The seats rattle to the low frequencies. Most pop concerts don’t give you this level of tinnitus.
Eilish herself is an expert at making a vast crowd feel as if she might personally reply to them on Instagram. Part motivational speaker (“Take everything negative out of our brain!”), part yoga teacher (breathing in unison), she sometimes inadvertently sounds as if she’s issuing instructions to dogs. “Stand up! Who’s a good girl then?” she asks before All the Good Girls Go to Hell.
Bad Guy – her breakout hit – is, naturally, magisterial. Even better, though, is Happier Than Ever itself, which builds quickly from its low-key preamble to a howl of epic proportions, bidding adieu to a bad boyfriend. It’s hard to square this righteous priestess of pain with Eilish the celebrity – one who last year released an eau de parfum that smells of vanilla, rather than anything more worrying.
“You made me miserable!” Eilish yells, “I’d never treat me this shitty!” The rafters wobble as the song builds into strobe-lit peaks of cathartic fury.
Billie Eilish tours the UK until 26 June