This is no gig for arachnophobes. Just as physical gigs used to warn people about strobe lights, Billie Eilish’s debut live stream might have included a trigger warning for anyone to whom a 10ft scuttling “extended reality” spider might give pause.
You suspect, though, that this mischievous, boundary-pushing artist would really love to provoke a neurological as well as an emotional reaction in her fans. The hairy nightmare vision stalks the 18-year-old singer as she moves around the stage – constructed as a hi-tech 3D green screen – singing You Should See Me in a Crown. A many-jointed leg just misses impaling Eilish by a hair’s breadth every time. The massive spider – one of a number of VR-like scenarios created for this streamed performance – recalls its smaller brethren from the track’s 2019 video. Tonight, its shape also visually echoes the two sharp-angled silhouetted rigs that bookend the singer: Eilish’s brother and writing partner Finneas on keyboards to the left and the duo’s drummer, Andrew Marshall, to the right. The track comprehensively nails Eilish’s best creepy trap-pop, her commitment to fear – either subjectively felt or objectively provoked – and her love of insider references.
“Fell for those ocean eyes,” runs one line. It’s a nod backwards to Eilish’s breakthrough single from 2015. Ocean Eyes, an unpromising, breathy sad-girl ballad her brother wrote when Eilish was 13, nonetheless paved the way for the ASMR-mongering, genre-mangling, green-haired pop phenomenon who collected five Grammys earlier this year.
On My Strange Addiction, a sinister song about lust, there’s dialogue lifted from the US version of The Office – an Eilish favourite. In the hour-long warm-up before the show, The Office’s star Steve Carrell (AKA “Billie Eilish’s surrogate dad”) joins waiting online fans by video message, urging US viewers to vote; Lizzo and Alicia Keys also appear. There’s also time for a rerun of Not My Responsibility, a short film premiered on Eilish’s curtailed North American tour earlier this year. Its powerful message – about how Eilish’s diamante Gucci PJ-clad body is no one’s business but her own – is worth reissuing in the wake of the recent attempt to body-shame the singer.
Those of us “at home all cosied up with a blanket” (as Eilish puts it) can’t help but rake this extraordinary performance for additional content: she is an artist who rewards close attention. Do the giant sharks circling her in the undersea landscape for Ilomilo nod to Eilish’s rescue pit bull named Shark?
Tonight’s show is not only strafed by novel shock and awe, but characterised by Eilish’s very teenage admixture of hostility and softness. The music – most taken from her 2019 megahit album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go – can likewise skew mature beyond its years or fabulously juvenile. Eilish’s Bond theme, No Time to Die, effortlessly channels the franchise’s sweeping bittersweetness.
Her most recent track, My Future, borrows its elegant delivery from supper-club jazz, with Eilish’s pearlescent voice swooping into a heavy-lidded knowingness. This world-weary poise contrasts with a Japanese anime fantasia featuring kawaii-style purple cartoon creatures.
Moreover, for every insightful dissection of modern emotional manners – When the Party’s Over, say – there is a corresponding moment where Eilish will stomp and groan “Trump is THE WORST!” with textbook drama. The visualisations for All the Good Girls Go to Hell pile collapsing glaciers on to raging Californian forest fires – NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET, they conclude. An impassioned Eilish urges young people to vote because “we’re the ones with futures” – as though all 32-year-olds are basically at death’s door.
There are, perhaps, a couple too many intimate songs in the tracklist. Of these, When the Party’s Over remains one of Eilish’s finest. A technically audacious composition, its nearest neighbour is the Bon Iver of 22, a Million; it’s no accident James Blake covered it seamlessly. Both are forerunners of what Eilish has brought to a younger, poppier audience. The combination of baggy clothes, big trainers, goth nightmares, spider fixations and pop tunes also brings to mind the aesthetic choices of the Cure.
Of less interest are boring tunes such as I Love You, which finds the siblings crooning on stools while Finneas plucks an acoustic guitar. Although the two are, admittedly, perched on a giant plinth suspended in space, it’s a dud unworthy of their gleeful muse.
Of the livelier, skin-prickling bangers – of which there are not enough – the finale, Bad Guy, is still the Billie Eilish anthem to beat. An earworm theme strapped to bags of attitude, it stands out even more tonight surrounded by all the lower-key atmospherics. But the song’s masterful surliness – “duh!” sneers Eilish – jars with the presence of a virtual luxury car driving around her at speed. It narrowly misses Eilish in a bling version of the spider’s earlier threat.
The best of the Eilishes’ music is full of counter-melodic asides, jarring tangents and unexpected ad libs, a series of 21st-century musical tropes executed with sublime assurance. The product placement is just lame.