Artists like Billie Eilish come along once in a generation. A fierce voice of dissent in the post-Weinstein/Trump era, her hyper-conscious lyricism, delivered with breathless vulnerability, puts the world to rights.
When Billie last performed in London in 2019, she was just eighteen. A lot of life experience happens in those nascent, coming-of-age years, and it shows. Her newest album revels in gothic majesty, growing in darker, stranger directions — and reflects much of what we’re all feeling right now.
Showcasing her sophomore album at London’s O2, it felt more like a rally against the status quo than a stadium show by a mainstream performer. Conversely, it’s the first time the O2’s gone exclusively vegan. The aroma of healthy, guilt-free dishes breezed through the O2 entrance like a Shangri-La tent at a festival.
Jessie Reyes set the tone with a sonic-blasting, rage-fuelled set, oscillating between drum-heavy pop-punk and salsa-tinged R&B. She recalls an anecdote about meeting a ‘music guy’ when busking on the streets of Toronto: “Girl, you can sing — but if you want to make it in this industry, you need to learn to suck dick.” “Fuck that”, she proclaims “it’s 2022” and smashes into ‘Gatekeeper’ (“Spread your legs / Open up / you could be famous”). The crowd roars in agreement. This is a concert with a message.
Darkness descends. People vape and take selfies in anticipation. A drummer appears floating in an electric-white box. The spotlight shines on Billie Eilish. She’s an apparition in a white lightning-striped tracksuit, traversing the expanse of blackness. As the opening kick drum to ‘Bury A Friend’ pulses through the stadium, the crowd loses their shit. To my left, a mother and her teenage daughter hug and rapturously sing along.
Billie marches through four powerhouse tracks from the new album (‘Therefore I Am’ is a stand-out) with unrelenting, jerky momentum, backdropped by Prodigy-like visuals, as if put through a glitchy Insta filter.
She takes a breather and explains the rules of the concert. Don’t be an asshole. No judging. Have fun. Then blasts into ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’, performed in deliciously dark, sultry perfection.
Playing with the audience like a cultish puppeteer, she makes them sink low to the ground, rise up, and dance to ‘Oxytocin’, a rousing, rhythmic display of honeyed vocals and spidery EDM, followed by ‘Halley’s Comet’.
Her brother and long-time collaborator joins the stage with a guitar (looking like a strangely wizened Ed Sheeran), slowing things down with an acoustic, as-yet-unreleased track. The crowd responds by waving their phones in the air like lighters.
Then, shit gets slightly crazy. Billie calls for an invocation — a gratitude meditation. She thanks everyone for being there, for being themselves. You feel validated, seen. Even if you’re by yourself, like this Clash writer, it’s hard not to feel part of something. If this was anyone else, it would be a total cringe-fest. Somehow, only Billie Eilish could pull this off at the O2.
Continuing the theme of inclusivity, suddenly, she’s on the pedestal of a crane on the other side of the arena. Beneath a burning orange light, she gets up close and personal with the audience, no matter what ticket bracket they’re in. It crawls around the stadium, as she gyrates 40 feet above ground.
The most touching moment, though, is ‘I’m Getting Older’. Backdropped by grainy videos of Billie and her brother as kids, smiling, carefree, blanketed by the joys of childhood, strikes a chilling contrast with the lyrics “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of…”
It’s a brutal yet sensitive observation on how paths we take in life that once provided us with fulfilment can go awry as we age. It also feels zeitgeisty, melding the anti-work movement and ‘The Great Resignation’ as society hurtles towards an uncertain future.
The closing track? ‘Bad Guy’, obviously. Billie’s break-out, Grammy-winning hit. The silly lyrics and nasty basslines transported the audience back to simpler, happier times – a pre-pandemic spring of 2019.
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Words: Justin McDonnell
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