What Do You Want From Billie Eilish?

Illustration for article titled What Do You Want From Billie Eilish?
Screenshot: Apple TV / Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (2021)

“Bury a Friend” plays like a leitmotif in Apple TV’s Billie Eilish documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry—a reminder of its role as the title track on her debut and sole full-length album, the Grammy award-winning When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and a central theme in the teenage goth-pop phenomenon. “What do you want from me?,” she opens the chorus in her signature sweet, breathy ASMR. “Why do you care for me?” In the context of director R.J. Cutler’s distillation of her career—all five years of it—those lyrical questions, usually repeated by her listeners in a dense crowd, are confrontations.

What do you want from me? Why don’t you run from me?

What are you wondering? What do you know?

Why aren’t you scared of me? Why do you care for me?

When we all fall asleep, where do we go?

At 19, Eilish is one of the most influential pop performers alive, responsible for and an exemplar of Gen Z’s penchant for eerie, emotive pop. Self-aware songs about the implications of fame and the responsibility of performance typically arrive on later albums. Eilish, from the get, has been unabashed in her fears, ambitions, and design—vocal and vulnerable about her trials in a way teen music idols of yore (Britney, Christina, Jessica, but also Miley, Selena, Demi) would avoid discussing prior to adulthood. It is her talent and compelling persona that makes this documentary work—an intimate look at a superstar who made herself, along with her family, and the imposter syndrome that plagues even the most deserving. Turns out, you don’t have to be very famous for very long to be worthy of a story—you just have to be open to the documentation of it.

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Spoilers ahead.

Prior to streaming all two hours and 20 minutes of Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, I struggled to envision what a full-length film, not a straightforward concert doc, could look like for Eilish. She’s only released one album, after all, and she’s been extensively profiled: all interviews focusing on her precocious, insider-outsider charms, the haunted show tune production-style of her brother and collaborator Finneas, her close-knit bond with her family, her obsession with cars and driving (she was recently licensed, after all, and as Olivia Rodrigo has reminded pop fans in the last few weeks—it is more than just a milestone for young people. It is a beacon of freedom.) And the movie, unsurprisingly, touches on all of those elements with the familiarly of home footage, with scenes captured prior to Eilish’s blow up. She is transparent.

Early on, Eilish and Finneas are shown brainstorming the “I have taken out my Invisalign” slurp that kickstarts her album and the chorus of the aforementioned “Bury a Friend,” both workshopped in his childhood bedroom. In the same breath, viewers are treated to pre-existing archival footage—Eilish hanging out in her kitchen, Eilish spending time at the DMV, Eilish trying to get a few more minutes of sleep—with the same tonality as they watch Eilish share with a radio station a vlog of her, at 12, discussing an unassailable, affectionate love of Justin Bieber. That, too, serves as a tease of her future success: in the next hour, she’s embracing Bieber at Coachella, literally crying in his arms—a gesture that appears to affect him just as much as it feels full circle for her. If only every documentary could afford teen girl fandom the same care. Equally as delightful is when she meets actor Orlando Bloom, doesn’t recognize him as Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean, and later says, “I thought that was just some dude Katy Perry met... Bring him back. I wanna meet him again.”

In The World’s a Little Blurry, Eilish, the epitome of young person cool, is stripped of any mythology—she’s the daughter of supportive liberal parents, the sister of an innovative producer, and an otherwise ordinary woman with extraordinary talent. And isn’t that the kind of person pop fans love to support?

Youth pop documentaries often lean into moralizing with a ferocity I can’t but help read as ageist: messaging limited to “the only way this person could be serious, or worthy of assiduous consideration, is if there’s some great existential crisis.” Recently, Shawn Mendes’s In Wonder avoided the Canadian pop star’s journey from Vine virality (not credible to some audiences) to radio mainstay (the reason he is worthy of a documentary) and, instead, positioned his work as deeply conflicted: an artist tormented, the boy, as he sings about on “Wonder,” “who’s really underneath/all the scars and insecurities,” without illuminating any cause of self-doubt. A more honest doc, even one that presented him as not that deep to the teen pop-averse audience, would’ve served him better. Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, too, asked viewers to sympathize with a superstar for not being as popular as she once was, positioned as an ethical quandary. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry avoids that kind of preaching. Instead of presenting Eilish as the disenfranchised pop star, it allows her the space to be the teenager that she is, embarking on a remarkable journey—her reluctance towards fame is genuine, not put on, the same humility prevalent in the characteristic soft whisper of her vocals. And she is acutely self-aware of both the contours of adolescence and the jet-set world she is now apart of, even as she struggles to navigate them.

The only obvious failing, if there is one beyond the generous run time of the documentary, is the framing of Eilish’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, rapper Brandon Quention Adams, referred to as “Q.” In their love story’s on-and-off moments, the film cuts to her live performance, playing each song as if it is written about a specific event in her romantic partnership instead of something with more interiority. Q doesn’t give much to the screen, either—it is not about him, obviously—but the viewer doesn’t get to know him beyond his inability to maintain consistent contact with her, and how she rationalizes the unraveling of their coupling to protect herself. It does make Eilish relatable and lonely, the every-teenager, though I doubt the majority of her Grammy-award winning hits are centered around one guy. And yet, there’s a potential contradiction there: the breakup does sting. Eilish is tight with her family and only grows closer to them as the doc (and her career) progresses. Clearly, her true relationships will become more arduous to discern as her profile continues to rise. It’s not a revolutionary theme to explore in a music doc, but the delivery feels authentic—a rarity in this format.

And unlike most documentaries that examine young fame, the breakout stars of Eilish’s story are her benevolent parents Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, incapable of the same sort of exploitative momagerial behaviors that plague so many Hollywood horror stories. Even while backstage at Coachella, they remain the same Highland Park hippies worried about their daughter driving to see a boy fourteen miles away and compare her bedroom balladry to alt-pop singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik. Her mom can still rattle off the names of Bieber’s albums and movies because to her, Eilish is the same music fanatic she has always been, now, she performs on stage instead of dancing off of it. And when her daughter is devastated, as she often is—like when she forgets the lyrics to a new song, performed in front of tens of thousands of people—her parents strive to comfort her, knowing full well she will struggle to view the good that so clearly outweighs the bad. Watching Eilish’s mother watch Eilish feels like trying to comfort a friend as they only react to bad news, incapable of acknowledging their accomplishments. It’s painful. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry succeeds because it accesses that level of intimacy and devotion: a masterclass in laying it all out there.

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And so, when I hear Eilish sing “What do you want from me?” now, I think of it as more of a taunt: here she is, warts and all. What else could you possibly want?

URL: Senior Writer, Jezebel. IRL: Author of the very good book 'LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS,' out now.

DISCUSSION

I just want her to be happy, and to openly express that happiness in ways that humans normally do.  Smiles are good.