Is Billie Eilish reliving history or righting it?
A Strum and Bang Literary Drift
by Kenneth J. McKay
At the 2020 GRAMMY awards in January, artist Billie Eilish won Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. Her brother, Finneas, also collected five GRAMMYs that night as well, some shared with his sister, some on his own. The last time anyone ran the board of major awards like that was in 1981. This just added to the teen’s crowded shelf of American Music Awards, Apple Global Artist of the Year, MTV Video awards, pretty much every award available (including a Guinness World Record, for something…).
Seeming to appear out of the ether (actually SoundCloud), Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell is another example of digital Beatlemania — near instant fame on a global scale, and the personal toll that comes with it.
Many of Eilish’s longtime friends couldn’t relate to her newfound fame and, as a result, she became increasingly isolated and prone to self-harm, even as her songs were riding high on the charts. “I was so unhappy last year,” she said in an interview, which aired as part of “The Gayle King Grammy Special.” “I was so unhappy, and I was so joyless.” She recalled contemplating suicide during a tour stop in Germany.
“I don’t want to be too dark, but I genuinely didn’t think I would make it to 17,” said Eilish, who turned 18 in December. “I think about this one time I was in Berlin and I was alone in my hotel … And I remember there was a window right there … I remember crying because I was thinking about how the way that I was going to die was … I was going to do it.”
She referenced her struggles in the song “Bury a Friend,” which features the lyrics: “Today, I’m thinkin’ about the things that are deadly, the way I’m drinkin’ you down/Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me.”
A different song relays similar emotions :“Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old/Sometimes I’d like to quit/Nothin’ ever seems to fit/Hangin’ around/Nothin’ to do but frown,” only these are not the lyrics of an Eilish song. The lyrics to “Rainy Days and Mondays” were sung by another young female singer who, in 1970, was on a similar career trajectory, and was also overwhelmed by that success.
Nominated for the same awards as Eilish in 1970, Karen Carpenter won the GRAMMY for Best New Artist, an award she also shared with her brother Richard, her writing and performing partner in the Carpenters. Karen and Richard Carpenter can easily be viewed as the seminal sister/brother tandem that paved the way for Billie and Finneas. Much like Eilish, Karen Carpenter sang in a soft, hushed voice meant to draw you in, with her keyboard playing brother, Richard (in the pre-Finneas role), providing the melody for his sister to waft upon. Even the four year age difference between Richard and Karen echoes that of Finneas and Billie. (Maybe the boys simply needed the head-start over their talented sisters?)
Insisting on becoming a drummer after bristling against being handed a glockenspiel in her high school band, Karen was initially nervous about performing in public, but said she “was too involved in the music to worry about it.” In 1975, she was voted the best rock drummer in a poll of Playboy readers, beating Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. (No offense, but ...really?) Karen was a teenager, slightly older than Eilish, when she entered the Billboard charts, soon having her first #1 hit, “Close to You,” right after her 20th birthday. Either solo or with her brother, Karen Carpenter’s career resulted in 90 million albums sold and 32 various Top Ten Billboard hits.
12 years after that first #1 song, Karen Carpenter was dead, having passed away from anorexia nervosa, struggling with image and weight issues since high school. “How can anybody be too thin?” she once said, in a sad, but revealing moment. At one point in her battle, she weighed only 79 pounds.
“People never think of entertainers as being human, “ Carpenter said of the pressures of success and idolization. “When you walk out on stage, the audience think, ‘Nothing can go wrong with them.’ We get sick and we have headaches just like they do. When we are cut, we bleed.”
Eilish is no stranger to the criticism of her appearance. The negative comments and her own struggle with insecurities issues led Eilish to fixate on her self-image. She has been candid about the sometimes “toxic relationship” she has with her body, saying she has experienced periods of body dysmorphia, depression and self-harm over the years. She had naturally gravitated toward baggier clothes, which Eilish said has introduced problems as well.
“If I wore a dress to something, I would be hated for it. People would be like, ‘You’ve changed, how dare you do what you’ve always rebelled against?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not rebelling against anything, really.’ I can’t stress it enough. I’m just wearing what I wanna wear. If there’s a day when I’m like, ‘You know what, I feel comfortable with my belly right now, and I wanna show my belly,’ I should be allowed to do that. It’s not that I like my body now. I just think I’m a bit more OK with it.”
These days, the Los Angeles native finds herself in a much healthier state of mind and credits her mother, Maggie Baird, with convincing her not to end her own life, immediately scaling back her daughter’s performance schedule and show business-related commitments to allow more time for self-care, a move that has clearly paid off.
Karen Carpenter’s mother, Agnes, was the opposite of Maggie Baird. She was ashamed of her daughter’s eating disorder. She felt that her daughter was “going overboard” with her dieting habits and never reached out to offer any real support. Karen Carpenter once said, “I may not be in control of anything else, but I am in control of my body.” In the end, Karen lost that control, succumbing to years long abuse of laxatives, taking thyroid medicine to speed up her metabolism although she had no thyroid problems, and using ipecac syrup to induce vomiting. She had been eating, but also throwing it all up. Karen Carpenter had unknowingly dissolved her own heart muscle with the syrup.
Back in January, Billie shared a collection of photos on Instagram from a recent trip to Hawaii. The post included a shot of Billie in her bathing suit, and people had some things to say. “It was trending,” Billie said. “There were comments like, ‘I don’t like her any more because as soon as she turns 18 she’s a whore.’ Like, dude. I can’t win. I can-not win.”
On stage in Miami, Eilish addressed body-shaming and attempts to judge others for what they choose to wear: removing her t-shirt in the pre-recorded visual, she slowly sinks into a pit of black tar before disappearing beneath the surface completely. “Some people hate what I wear; some people praise it; some people use it to shame others; some people use it to shame me,” she says. “Would you like me to be smaller? Weaker? Softer? Taller? Would you like me to be quiet? Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach? My hips? The body I was born with — is it not what you wanted? If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut. Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it. Why?”
It’s been 50 years between Karen Carpenter’s big win at the GRAMMY Awards and Billie Eilish’s. Though neither Eilish, nor any of her fans, were even born when Karen Carpenter was alive, the two artists share an undeniable connection through the incredible pressures and unrelenting demands of success and the judgement of others. Eilish’s experiences might suggest that not much has changed, but her actions prove otherwise. While Karen Carpenter’s musical legacy can’t help but be viewed from the shadows of her struggles, we can see hope that Eilish’s future will move forward in the light. And with the continued support of her mother and brother, Eilish said she’d like to use her own experiences to pay it forward to her young fans, many of whom might be grappling with mental health concerns of their own. This was part of the reason for the video at the Miami concert.
Just before the GRAMMY winner for Album of the Year was announced, the 18-year-old Eilish could be seen at her seat mouthing, “Please don’t be me,” on camera. She then reacted by throwing her arms into the air and shouting “No” as her name was called for the award, against artists including Ariana Grande, who she said should have won. She explains that this was a moment of humility, not self-shaming.
So when we look for artists to stand up for themselves, and let their ravenous fans and critics know that their lives and their own well-being are not part of the deal, we can now look at Eilish and mouth, “Please be you.”
Right on, fight on…