There’s an old saying that goes, “if so-and-so wasn’t around, you’d have to invent them.”
That’s the case with the wriggly, dark pop-hop, chart-topping prodigy, Billie Eilish — at least from having watched the 17-year-old on Saturday night at a packed-to-the-rooftop Met Philadelphia.
Into the chipper and agreeable void that is the pop charts — where the unpleasantly desperate Taylor Swift and the semi-soulful but cloying Ariana Grande exist — came Eilish, a breath of smoky air during a smoggy California dusk; a spidery, strange young woman with bits of Trent Reznor, Lana Del Rey, vintage trip-hop and Fiona Apple in her mix.
Veering toward the dark side since her start (2016’s viral hit “Ocean Eyes”), Eilish showed her Hammer-Horror hand early in her career when she compared her lover’s eyes to burning cities and napalm skies on “Ocean Eyes” and talked about killing her teen pals in the strummed acoustic “Bellyache.”
When she coo-sang the line, “I'm scared/I've never fallen from quite this high,” from that former tune, you could tell that Eilish was loving her alien side, a tomboy choirgirl who had watched her native Los Angeles in flames and witnessed school shootings on the news. Through it all, she was still feeling the pangs of teen love-and-lust, churning all of this together in her head until the results poured out in a macabre, molten lava blob.
Contextualizing her lyrics and sinister-sounding tracks (written by her brother Finneas, who played keyboard, guitar and bass at The Met shows) with a graphic/visual sensibility that equal parts Guillermo Del Toro and Bjork helped push her unmerry melodies to the masses. The sound of the Eilishes is radiantly underground and purplish-ly modern: spare, punky, avant trip-hop/dubstep, with elements of early, raw house music and beautiful, simple acoustic goth balladry for shimmering, soulful effect. It’s pop, and yet you’re not always certain how.
Perhaps it is courtesy of the singer herself that the material has become so popular: her eerie drive, her simmering comportment, her willingness to prove that the current obsession with the momentary is better dealt with when slapped in the face with mortality — she sings “I wanna end me” on “Bury a Friend.”
Rather than manicured and content, Eilish was restless, messy, ill-fitting and provocative on her debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” as well as during Saturday night’s live show at The Met. She played to a group of cheerful young children who could have just as easily been bussed to see a Broadway matinee of “Beetlejuice” or “Be More Chill.”
Together, Eilish and her crowd engulfed each other and regaled in an off-black celebration, what it meant/means to be the odd-woman-out, a child of the revolution, not quite the kind that Kendall Jenner-wearing fans are used to. Eilish’s revolution is filled with non-confidence, sadness, hurt — and lots of images of spiders and falling bodies.
On an angled, spare and spacious LED-lit space shared with brother Finneas and drummer Andrew Marshall, Eilish looked like a boxer bouncing around the Met’s big stage. Tugging at her baggy t-shirt, occasionally sticking her tongue out at her screaming fans, her baby Lydia Lunch-like voice was usually drowned out by the 4,000 screaming kids singing every word along with their hero.
After the thump hop and synth-slabbed intro of “bad guy,” “my strange addiction” and the ominous Sherlock-Moriarty-inspired “you should see me in a crown,” the trio began peeling its sequenced layers of sound away, as if its arrangements were onions, in order to get to the dramatic, stark and softly spun ballad, “idontwannabeyouanymore.”
Don’t confuse her softness with weakness. With that game-changing song, Eilish showed how deep and genuine hurt could be rendered curt and made spiteful with an air of the dastardly film “Dangerous Liaisons” in its snide asides.
That most of her songs ended abruptly gave each moment a raw, rush-to-the-finish feel, as on the poisonous melodic line of “COPYCAT,” the amniotic fluid-feeling ballad “WHEN I WAS OLDER,” the whispering and wonky “when the party’s over” and the somnolently squelchy anti-drug screed “xanny.”
Though cute in a lovelorn teen fashion, my own jury isn’t quite out on “wish you were gay.” It was the one song that this precocious singer and lyricist doesn’t make herself clear on at a time when cutting clarity and imaginative Expressionism isn’t a problem for her. Lines such as “Is there a reason we're not through?/Is there a 12 step just for you?/Our conversation's all in blue,” can perhaps be construed as a youthful confusion as to what is going on between the characters in her song, and yet, Eilish seemed too sure of herself, and smart, on every other track to allow that one its fuzzy intent.
That Eilish returned to cocksure certainty for the last fifth of her show highlighted her pop sensibilities despite any nod to underground sound or lit-smart hissy fit. The woman knows how to pace a set like a pro.
Along with the aforementioned spooky sorts of “ocean eyes” and “bury a friend,” she performed “when the party’s over” before the song’s bright, white video — one where a blue-haired Eilish cried rivers of globbing thick blood while smearing it across her face and reveling in a loneliness (“Quiet when I'm coming home and I'm on my own/I could lie, say I like it like that, like it like that”) that’s bitterly sad for anyone even thrice her age.
She made each and every audience member — young and old, child and parent — feel the desperation of utter solitude like a gut punch, but with the throbbing mournful monologue of “goodbye” to wrap all that mad, bad, glad-to-be-unhappy feeling up in a big black bow.
Having a 17-year-old put an emotional lifetime, yours and hers, into a worldly perspective honestly proved to be both confounding and refreshing.