2020 Grammys

Billie Eilish Is Inches Away From Redefining Pop Stardom in 2019

Billie Eilish's "Bury a Friend" is a very strange song. The beat jostles, quakes and screeches like a Yeezus outtake. The dark, violent lyric -- sung from the perspective of the monster under her bed, according to Eilish -- is delivered in a near-whispered sing-song duet between the singer and a distorted version of herself. The song's visual, shadowy and surreal and full of needles, looks like a cross between clips from late-'90s MTV fright-night auteurs Chris Cunningham and Floria Sigismondi

Billie Eilish's "Bury a Friend" is also the No. 14 song in the country this week. After debuting at No. 74 on the Billboard Hot 100 the previous week -- in just a two-day tracking week, with the song having debuted the previous Wednesday (Jan. 30) -- the song jumps 60 spots, to easily Eilish's highest peak on the chart. If she'd released the song on Friday to benefit from a full first week, it very well might've gone even higher. 

It's a chart breakthrough that's been slowly building for Eilish for a couple years now. The 17-year-old singer-songwriter built her fanbase through early alt-pop singles like "Ocean Eyes" and "Bellyache" and her dont smile at me EP, with six of that set's nine tracks having since racked up over 100 million spins on Spotify. "Lovely," a ballad collab with fellow left-of-center pop fixture Khalid, became her first Hot 100 hit last June, originally peaking at No. 78. That was bettered by the haunting "When the Party's Over," which crawled its way to No. 52 in December. And now, Eilish has her first top 40 hit -- as well as her first top 10 entry on both Billboard's Digital Song Sales and Streaming Songs listings -- with "Bury," advance single from upcoming official debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, due in March. 

The really remarkable thing about Eilish's chart history isn't just that she keeps hitting new highs with new singles: It's that her new songs are dragging her old songs onto the charts with them. Though "Lovely" peaked at No. 78 during its original chart run, following her "Party" success (and the No. 69 debut of December's "Come Out and Play"), it re-entered the chart after a long absence and climbed to No. 64. That also coincided with the debut of "Ocean Eyes" on the chart, over two years after its original release. The day after "Bury a Friend" debuted on Spotify, there were 11 songs from Eilish on that day's Spotify U.S. Top 200 chart -- more than any other artist besides Juice WRLD and XXXTENTACION, and more than half of her total number of available original songs on the streaming service. 

It's an unusual example of a pop artist achieving fantastic chart success with relatively minimal radio support. Despite having now notched seven Hot 100 hits, Eilish has yet to score a single entry on either Billboard's Pop Songs or Radio Songs listings. That wouldn't be terribly out of the ordinary in the world of hip-hop, which has several such success stories (Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, the aforementioned XXXTENTACION) of artists becoming major Hot 100 presences with marginal radio play. But in the world of pop stardom, which has always been more rooted in radio and less in streaming, it's a pretty big anomaly to see such a breakthrough without a traditional crossover hit leading the way. 

Then again, of course, Eilish isn't really a traditional pop artist. While her early songs were the kind of accessible, lightly melancholy, hip-hop-influenced big productions that you might find a dozen of on an average Spotify New Music Friday playlist, they already had an edge to them which has only grown sharper since. Meanwhile, she's matched her increasingly unnerving singles with an experimental, occasionally grotesque visual aesthetic and off-kilter social media presence (her Instagram accunt, which boasts nearly 13 million followers, has the oblique handle wherearetheavocadoes) that further separates her from the top 40 darlings of the world. Fittingly, when asked about her musical heroes, she's been far more likely to cite BROCKHAMPTON or Tyler, the Creator than Katy Perry or Ariana Grande. 

It's also telling that the one radio format that has already started to pick up on Eilish is on Alternative. She's not quite a star there yet either, but they've at least tested the waters with her with some success, as her grinding, industrial-tinged 2018 single "You Should See Me in a Crown" -- just a No. 93 Hot 100 hit -- peaked at No. 7 on the Alternative Songs chart last December. It's reminiscent of the paths Lorde and Lana Del Rey previously took to pop stardom, where Alternative radio allowed their breakout singles to get their foot in the door, and then the artists quickly seemeed to outgrow the format once they crossed over. But Lorde and Lana both became sensations with their first single; the fact that Eilish is already about a dozen singles in and still building her momentum might ultimately be an even safer receipe for career sustainability. 

It's an exciting development to see Eilish's songs be able to impact the charts and popular music on this level. That's partly because she's already such a strong and confident songwriter and artist, and partly because outside of the late XXX (who Billie was an avowed fan of, despite the highly problematic nature of his music), it's been a long time since we've had a figure as disruptive as her within the pop world. It's reminiscent of early Tyler, of early Eminem, early Lady Gaga -- going back to the 20th century, of industrial shock-rockers like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and again, Marilyn Manson. It'll be fascinating to see what corners of the music mainstream her cult stardom can eventually expand to from here -- to see her perform at award shows, to headline festivals, and maybe someday soon, to even get played between Ariana and Taylor on top 40 radio. 

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