Billie Eilish single prompts outrage, should encourage reflection

Front facing portrait of Billie Eilish blowing a bubble
Evelyn Zou /Staff

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If you’ve been following the world of pop music in any capacity, the name Billie Eilish is certain to ring more than a few bells. Eilish’s fame has been steadily on the rise for the last three years following the breakout success of her single “Ocean Eyes.” Having racked up over a billion streams on Spotify, predating the release of her first full-length album, the buzz around Eilish has only grown.

A part of this derives from her evident talent. Her sultry, velvet voice and unique style — all of this talent stemming from very humble and early beginnings — are hard to write off. Billie Eilish has become more than a pop star, more than an artist and more than a brand. She is achieving levels of fame comparable to that of pop icon Britney Spears, though the two could not be more different. And with this level of visibility, anyone would be liable to fall under a similar amount of scrutiny.

Many fans have speculated that Eilish is a member of the queer community. So when she released the title of her newest single “Wish You Were Gay,” many fans in the queer community were thrilled for the kind of representation the title would imply.

But when the song came out, along with Eilish’s own explanation of its meaning, many fans in the LGBTQ+ community were quick to raise an eyebrow. The song, rather than being an anthem for queer folks, was actually a song that made them into accessories. And though it is incredibly problematic that fans were assuming her sexuality based on her style and public presence, it does not diminish the controversial fact that she was queerbaiting.

In the song, Eilish describes an idealized reality where her crush is gay, instead of simply uninterested in her. It would give, what EIlish described “an actual reason” for not reciprocating her feelings. This line of thinking is wrought with problematic rationalization — especially in a world that is still not very kind to queer people. It is an idea that trivializes the queer community.

On its face, there are a lot of reasons to campaign against a track like this; it’s a song that probably wouldn’t have been released if more people had paid attention to the language within it and what that language implied. But therein lies the point. For many, this song may be an example of the ways that Eilish has failed her fans. But in many ways it’s also an example of how her team failed her.

One only needs to see an interview with the starlet in any capacity to note that she is crass, very to the point and has a command of both herself and her environment unparalleled by even some of the most seasoned artists. She’s been praised by a number of people for her individuality, including rock legend Dave Grohl who hailed Eilish for being akin, at least in spirit, to Nirvana.

Eilish is creating an empire for herself, and she’s doing all of this at 17. But she isn’t doing it alone. She has an entire team of people behind her managing her publicity, releases and more.

I don’t know about you, but I can assure you if the world was watching for all of my 17-year-old blunders and mistakes, I do not think I would’ve withstood the pressure. And I think it’s safe to say that all of us share this sentiment. It’s crucial then that we don’t jump to vilify Eilish for making a mistake.

Eilish’s intentions were not malicious. In an interview with PopBuzz, the singer stated that, “I want to be so clear that it’s so not supposed to be an insult.” She defined the song as the kind of irrational thinking that accompanies heartbreak. Beyond this, Eilish is using her platform to advocate for queer youth, donating a portion of the proceeds of her apparel line to The Trevor Project, one of the most active organizations in the suicide prevention of LGBTQ+ youth.

While these things don’t excuse any harm that may have come from the song, they do seem to be telling of the fact that Eilish’s heart is in the right place — even if her lyrics weren’t.

The scandal around her newest single, while significant, isn’t likely to lead to her being “cancelled” as per the culture around mistakes of this nature so often warrant. It’s still worth mentioning, however, that in handling these matters of criticism it’s important to note that for all of her talent, she’s still a kid. Rather than dismiss her, fans and members of the queer community can use this opportunity to help Eilish understand that their concerns with the song are valid and allow that to hopefully improve the way she handles topics like this in the future. The learning and growing she’s doing, both as an artist and human being, is complicated enough before adding the public microscope she is under to the mix.

So rather than being quick to write off the singer for a poor choice, keep in mind the problematic things we surely did at 17. And we should acknowledge that Eilish should be allowed the privilege of messing up and growing from those mistakes without the world coming down on her head.

Areyon Jolivette covers queer media. Contact her at [email protected].