Billie Eilish Doesn't Fit Any Genre, But May End Up Dominating Radio Anyway
Billie Eilish has said she wears different scents around different people so that everybody has their own idea of what she smells like. She does the same with her music: Each song pivots from the previous release, no two sounding too similar.
Her breakout hit, 2016’s “Ocean Eyes” arrived as an airy, electronic indie-pop ballad. It ended up on her debut 2017 EP, the nine-track Don’t Smile at Me, alongside “Party Favor,” a tropical, twinkling tune on which she plays ukulele, and “Copycat,” the menacing opening track. More recent singles include her tender, acoustic-electro Apple sync “Come Out and Play”; the glitchy, scatterbrained “You Should See Me in a Crown”; and the haunting, bare-boned ballad “When the Party’s Over.” The latter two of which are off her upcoming debut LP When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, due out March 29.
The rainbow of sonic diversity Eilish has painted with her EP and individual-track releases has propelled her to reach over a billion streams -- before even releasing her first album. The 17-year-old hybrid singer-songwriter is something of a natural fit in the streaming world, but has her overall popularity allowed the difficult-to-categorize artist to elbow her way into a more old-fashioned arena for pop stardom: regular radio airplay?
“Crown” and “Bury a Friend” (a dark, shuffling track also off Asleep) have both charted on Billboard’s Alternative Songs and Rock Airplay charts, despite the fact Eilish isn’t traditionally rock in terms of her hip-hop rooted production and often electronic-based instrumentation. But as the genre’s definition continues to morph in an era of increasingly genreless taste, she doesn’t sound that out of place among what currently constitutes alternative or rock radio.
Eilish’s all-encompassing yet intensely identifiable sound is what hooked SiriusXM radio on her early on. “You Should See Me in a Crown” was named a critical cut on their Alt Nation station when it dropped last July, and was immediately featured on SiriusXM’s new music show -- inspiring iHeart to book Eilish at its annual iHeartRadio Music Festival this September.
“She is somebody you can’t even attempt to categorize, and that’s her appeal,” says iHeartMedia’s president of national programming group Tom Poleman. “There’s no box that would fit her properly, which is great. It allows a lot of different formats to benefit from her creativity.” At iHeart, Eilish is being played primarily at alternative, though she’s getting plenty of spins on the platform’s pop stations, too. “Her spirit is most traditionally aligned with alternative,” Poleman adds. ”But anything that popular can go anywhere.”
Which is exactly what’s happening over at SiriusXM. Jeff Regan, SiriusXM’s senior director music programming, Alt Nation, recalls a collective weekly music meeting held last spring during which every station from Hip Hop Nation to the electronic dance channel BPM to country channel The Highway was discussing Eilish. Now, her many genre-agnostic tracks are simultaneously being played across Alt Nation, Chill and Hits 1, with her remixes being picked up by BPM. A huge help in her widespread satellite presence? Her steady rolling out of new material -- she’s released six stand-alone songs between her EP and album rollout -- which has allowed the platform to “grab and go” with each release as it comes.
“I love that there are multiple songs out there prior to the album coming out, because that’s how a new artist builds,” says Regan. “This is a new-era artist, who as soon as she puts up a new song or announces a new song, people are looking for it, they’re ready for it -- and that’s tough to do. It really is special when an artist has established a rapport and a following and has built trust with their fan base.”
Poleman agrees. “It’s very satisfying to consumers to have that diversity and consistent quality,” he says. “It makes you hungry for the next one.” That hunger, he argues, is why Eilish is the perfect example of “the new model” in terms of release strategy -- proving, moreso than ever, that a traditional album (with a conventional promotional rollout) is no longer seen as a requirement for success. “She’s cultivating that much more of a fan base by consistently delivering great music,” he says.
With Eilish being played regularly at multiple formats, both Regan and Poleman predict that will continue that she will keep growing at both alternative and pop well after her debut drops on March 29. On Alt Nation, she’s being played next to staples of alternative airplay like Cage the Elephant, Young The Giant and Muse. But as listeners continue to become increasingly genreless in their taste, Regan believes it will fuel a post-Billie wave of artists who follow her lead in re-defining alternative by not defining it at all. “Alternative for me isn’t contingent on a guitar, it’s not contingent on a turntable or a laptop, says Regan. “It’s contingent on finding a unique perspective and point of view to present your message and your music, that’s what it comes down to.”
And over at iHeart, Poleman says her growth could be in the vein of an artist like Lorde, who has found alternative and pop success, and avoided being pigeonholed into any one specific genre. “The world needs more artists like her,” says Poleman. “Nobody can predict where she’s going to go musically, but that’s part of the attraction and the phenomenon that’s building. You don’t really know where it’s going to end, but you know it’s going to get bigger.”