Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Billie Eilish phenomenon

I say "phenomenon" because I don't find Eilish herself very interesting. I can see why some teenagers are very attracted to her. What I don't get is adults who obsess about pop music. Which brings me to a bit from the New York Times (I found it, as I often find source material for my posts, at Ann Althouse's blog).

Here's the first bit.
The enthusiasm of Ms. Eilish’s devotees denotes a striking turnabout, a new generation’s rejection of the flirty babe aesthetic embodied by contemporary idols like Ariana Grande in favor of something more crazily improvised and less strenuously sexual. 
There is a lot of wishful thinking in that sentence. For starters, it's not even close to true. Eilish is the woman who wrote, "Bruises on both my knees for you; Don't say thank you or please, I do what I want when I'm wanting to." If that isn't strenuously sexual, I don't know what is. Meanwhile, Ruth La Ferla, the author of the piece, has made her living for four decades now writing about fashion—do you believe her when she writes about rejecting an "aesthetic"?

Notice also the leap from "Eilish's devotees" to "a new generation". The likelihood of that being true is very small. If you go back to the 1960s, when pop music had much deeper cultural penetration than it does now, no pop star represented an entire generation. In today's highly fragmented music market, even a big star such as Eilish will only each a small fraction of the new generation.

Which brings me to the wishful thinking: we're reading an older woman who would like to see younger women reject the "flirty babe aesthetic." Yeah, that will happen.
Let's read some more.
At 18, [Billie] Eilish, who often goes without makeup, favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks. That look speaks assertively to a Gen Z crowd chary of artifice and aggressive displays of sensuality. 'Her look is not about vanity,' said Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and brand strategist. 'She is flipping the idea of beauty to something surreal, something influenced by gaming and the cyberculture. These are not the filtered images of millennials' ...
Ah yes, a "trend forecaster". But at least we are getting closer to the truth here: it's not sexuality that bothers these women. It's the aggressive display of sexuality they want to stop. (It's telling how often it is the case that attempts to control women's sexuality are actually the work of other women. It shouldn't be surprising, women have a much stronger interest in controlling other women's sexual display than men do so, of course, they try. It's only necessary to point it out because several decades of feminist rhetoric has tried to pin most of the blame on men.)

There is also something noteworthy hidden in plain sight here.  Eilish, we are told, "favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks." Do you see it? This new phenom is actually pushing a look that was around two decades before she was born. The issue here is not just that she's dressing in a way some people have always dressed but that she is doing so for the same reasons: to flip "the idea of beauty to something surreal". If you were around in the 1980s that will be very familiar.

in that regard, she is very reminiscent of Boy George, another star who took his looks from a counterculture that had been around for decades and pushed it very hard to become a star. Like Eilish, Boy George also, one the one hand, wrote lyrics that spoke of his vulnerability and fear of being hurt and, on the other hand, wrote other lyrics about his desire to take risks. Unfortunately, another quality that Eilish shares with Boy George is that neither her music nor her lyrics shown much depth and that was a huge problem for him for, once had achieved great fame, he couldn't do much with it. That, of course, is true of most pop stars, but in some, and I fear Eilish will go down this road, that failure is followed by public self destruction.

Is it true that, "Her look is not about vanity"?  While it is true that she sometimes goes without makeup, she often wears a whole lot of it. What Eilish really, really doesn't like is being judged. Her makeup is a mask. I understand the desire not to be judged according to the flirty babe aesthetic. It creates winners and losers and it's no fun being a loser. But Eilish is not an accidental star. She worked very hard to be famous and she clearly loves being famous. She wants to be in the spotlight and be loved but she doesn't want to be judged. One of her songs is about her fear committing suicide and no one caring.

I think what a lot of older people, both men and women, find tiresome about the flirty babe aesthetic is that it's about getting attention and not about getting sex. They think it would be more "honest" if these girls were trying to get laid.
Her style resonates, [Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker], 'in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe.
A lot of people do say that. Most of them, however, are in media. But ask yourself this question. Someone hands you the keys to a Ferrari and gives you two choices. You can either drive it slowly down main street of a tourist town on a  summer's day where hundreds of people will look at you and your very hot car or you can drive it very fast down a winding road in the country with the very real risk that you might die in a spectacular accident. Call me shallow and inauthentic but I'm driving down main street.

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