Billie Eilish’s stratospheric rise from Soundcloud teen to topping one of the world’s biggest music events has been nothing short of astonishing – and no one seems more surprised tonight than the pop sensation herself. “This is so weird. I should not be headlining this shit,” she says Saturday night at Coachella, with goofy disbelief. “It’s been three years, man.”
She’s right, her trajectory since she made her Coachella debut in 2019 has been breathlessly fast, already with two chart-topping albums, a Bond theme, seven Grammy awards and the hearts of pretty much every kid with TikTok on her endless list of achievements. Now another to add: at 20, this performance makes her the youngest festival headliner in Coachella history. But it’s these bashful confessions and say-what-you-feel relatability that has helped make her one of the world’s biggest stars. And she has the eviscerating show to match: part vampire rave, part Disney fantasy, which takes the audience to dizzying heights (and not just because she performs a bunch of songs in a cherry picker).
Eilish is celebrated for her quiet/loud, whisper/bosh dynamics, and they are of widescreen levels here, in an emotional yo-yo that’s unnervingly banging one minute and surprisingly intimate the next. She opens with the all-drumming, all-strobing pop-punk of Happier Than Ever, dressed in a white graffitied shirt, shorts and kneepads, her hair in black bunches, like a missing member of Suicide Squad. The stage is dramatically stark, bathed in blood-red, with only brother Finneas and drummer Andrew Marshall on the riser behind her. A promenade jutting out into the audience gives Eilish a catwalk on which to strut or gambol along, occasionally breaking into a sensual wiggle, knowingly toying with perceptions of her as sexualized, or not (as she did when she glammed up in a corset for the cover of VOGUE last year).
But no sooner has she writhed on the floor to the pouty electro pulse of My Strange Addiction, it’s into sweeping piano ballad Lovely, for which the singer Khalid joins her onstage. Similarly, the jittery industrial punisher You Should See Me In A Crown, which has people thrashing about like they’re in a Euphoria party scene, is followed by the mellow samba of Billie Bossa Nova.
These shifts in tone might be jarring if it wasn’t for Eilish’s dynamite magnetism and exceptional voice. On her two albums, 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and 2021’s Happier Than Ever, the takeaways have often been her murmuring register – which, no doubt, has changed the sound of contemporary pop. And yet her voice can also cut glass, soaring in places like a Pixar movie, and never missing a note. It’s none more apparent than on her lambent Bon Iver-styled folkie, Your Power, which she performs front of stage on acoustic guitar with her brother, the architect of her sound, her airy falsetto practically sparkling.
It’s her charm too that carries the most unexpected moment of her performance, when she brings onstage a man who, in a move that instantly ages anyone over the age of 30 by an extra two decades, she introduces as Damon Albarn from Gorillaz. Albarn – who not long ago dissed a similarly placed young pop titan, Taylor Swift – joins her to sing on Getting Older, as home video footage of her and Finneas as children patchworks the screens (perhaps why some fans on Twitter apparently mistook him for Eilish’s dad). He stays for the perky funk of Gorillaz’s Feel Good Inc, which gets the biggest bop of the evening. That’s unless you count the innumerable dancers that flank her for Oxytocin. Eilish’s show, having only just toured the States, has been noted for its minimalism, never detracting from the star, so it’s thrilling when, earlier in the set, the latex-wrapped army surrounds her and pogo like it might flag down an alien spaceship.
There’s an interesting contrast between the spikiness of Eilish’s songs and how she speaks to her audience – often, as if she’s about to lead an ecstatic dance session. “I want us to be grateful that we’re alive,” she proclaims before When The Party’s Over (its celestial intro sounding here not unlike the start of Madonna’s Like A Prayer). Then she asks them to breathe deeply (which they probably would do if so many of them weren’t racing back to their cars). It might sound a touch contrived, but rather it underlines Eilish’s distinct lack of ego as a performer, as does the moment towards the end when she plonks a cowboy hat on her head and prances about to her definitive goth-pop anthem, Bad Guy. She’s here to play, slay and best of all, to stay.