Billie Eilish curates dynamic stage presence in a time without stages

Billie Eilish
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The title of Billie Eilish’s global livestream concert posed a question to her audience: “Where Do We Go?” At first, the question may feel rhetorical. After all, where is there to go to hear live music in the era of COVID-19? But in the span of an hour-long virtual concert, Eilish did, indeed, go many places.

The concert began with Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, standing in a room full of screens. The depth of the space was impossible to gauge because the screens ran across the floor, up the walls and back across the ceiling. This allowed a number of infinite settings to be created with no clear angles, beginnings or ends. In this hyper-cinematic world, Eilish and her brother appeared underwater, shot into outer space and in an animated, phosphorescent forest with purple vines and turquoise leaves. There were also a number of other, less permeable spaces: large geometric shapes, endless black and red corridors, the towering silhouette of a human figure and, in the final number, the race car from “Bad Guy” doing donuts on the ceiling.

The concert’s thematic landscape was half alien, half delirium. Eilish took her audience to an array of dazzling and deconstructing spaces, but the place she seemed to want to go the most was a post-Trump America. This year will be the 18-year-old singer-songwriter’s first time voting in a presidential election, and her ire and enthusiasm were unbridled.

“Trump is the worst,” Eilish intoned. “Vote the orange man out. It’s the only way we will see each other.”

This sense of urgency, of coming change, was reflected in the concert’s visual motifs. During the song “All the Good Girls Go to Hell,” Eilish appeared in front of a montage of images related to Black Lives Matter and climate justice. Protest signs reading “I Can’t Breathe,” “BLM” and “Save the Earth” flashed across the screen. When Eilish sang the word “Lucifer,” the screens burst into flames, invoking the wildfires that have been devastating California. The song ended with a line of text: “No music on a dead planet.” 

Eilish implored her audience again to vote, adding that it is particularly important for young people to participate in the democratic process because “we are the ones with futures.” Eilish made a curious political spokesperson in her coordinated baggy t-shirt and matching shorts ensemble. Her demeanor was precautious and a bit jaded.

“Such a good vibe,” Eilish said, even though there was no live audience for her to vibe check. “You’re not in the pit, fainting as usual.” 

Despite the fact that there was a similar situation between Eilish and her fans, she still managed to make the experience feel personal. 

“On stage is the only place I’ve felt like myself,” she said. “For you. In front of you.” 

Eilish was a testament to adaptability and inventiveness, offering her audience a remote but salient way to engage and connect with both her music and the artist herself.

“Where Do We Go?” presented an arresting technological display that made the event more than just a privatized concertgoing experience. In one scene, Eilish appeared to be devoured by an enormous shark, circling the set. In another, she and her brother appeared floating in a firmament of stars, drifting further and further away from the camera until it seemed they were lost in outer space. There was an intense, thematic use of the color red, which saturated Eilish’s stage presence, remaining sinister and edgy throughout the livestream. Her eyes would flash at the camera, unsettled but somehow melodious. Her vocal talent was remarkable, but it was truly her demeanor and the unflinching atmosphere she created as a performer that made the concert a success. 

In the era of COVID-19, it is critical to have artists who are able to create stage presence in a variety of spaces — both in person and virtually. While negotiating the many limitations of performing remotely, Eilish proved that she is truly a performer for her times. 

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].