Billie Eilish and the art of radical care
What this 20-year-old superstar can teach us about staying hydrated, asking for what you need and creating safe spaces.
The day before Billie Eilish met the president of the free world, she gave a master class in self care on a stage in front of a few thousand screaming fans.
This show in Pittsburgh was one of the first stops on Eilish’s world tour for “Happier Than Ever,” the 20-year-old pop star’s second full-length album, which came out last year.
You see, in Julian’s mind, Billie Eilish is the leader of the free world.
My 15-year-old has been captivated by this singer, songwriter and L.A. native for several years now, so last year, when she announced her tour, I asked him if he wanted to go.
Julian had been in the thick of the Zoom Gloom. An eighth grader who spent half of middle school slouched over his Chromebook, staring at black boxes and hiding behind one, Julian found joy in few things during those 18 months.
Except Billie Eilish. Her songs — moody testaments about being a teenager today — carried him through what I think has been the most difficult time of his life.
We have a tradition in our family that when you graduate from one school to another, you get to pick a trip to mark the occasion. Three years earlier, when he was leaving elementary school, we’d traveled to Mexico City, a pre-pandemic experience that felt even more special looking through a rear view lens smudged by a global quarantine.
I told him to pick a city on her tour. Any city. “We’ll make a trip of it,” I told him.
We knew she would perform at the Austin City Limits Musical Festival, but that would be a short set and Julian knew he wanted the whole experience. So, he looked through the cities, considered the dates, and finally landed on Pittsburgh, a city neither of us knew much about.
That’s how we ended up in this frigid City of Bridges last week, touring museums and exploring the industrial capital of the Gilded Age in anticipation of the concert on Tuesday night.
I first learned about Billie Eilish at some point, probably around the same time Julian did, but I didn’t think much of her. Another young pop star. A breathy singer whose appeal I didn’t totally understand, but then I started to see clips of her wearing baggie T-shirts and shorts and started to get curious.
A teen singer who wasn’t relying on sex appeal to sell her records? A songwriter still living at home with her parents, who didn’t seem to be micromanaging her career for their own benefit?
Tell me more.
When I finally watched the excellent documentary, "The World's A Little Blurry," which came out last year, I fell into Billie’s blurry world and loved what I found.
In one scene, she removes an Invisalign mouthguard and jokes with her brother about what a funny way that would be to start her much-anticipated full-length album debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” (Her first EP “Don’t Smile at Me” came out in 2017 and includes her first hit “Ocean Eyes.”)
They ended up keeping the audio exactly as it is, including their spontaneous laughter and her suggestion that this unguarded moment be the clip that starts the record.
It was a quirky, vulnerable few seconds that shows her willingness to take on a different kind of celebrity form.
As her popularity grew, Billie has grown increasingly protective of her fans’ safety — she stopped her show recently to make sure a fan could get an inhaler — and her own. I knew I was experiencing something special at her concert when, about halfway through, she asked everyone in the audience to take a deep breath together.
(I found the clip online, so you can watch the moment for yourself. It’s around the 55:00 mark.)
“I want everybody to take a step back. Make some room” she says. “Look around. Ask people how they are doing. I want us all to breathe and just be present and grateful that we are here and alive. And well. And safe. I hope you guys feel safe because you are.”
I thought about Julian standing next to the catwalk, just a few feet from the stage. I’d dropped him off a few hours earlier in the cold line outside the arena and shed a few tears at this monumental moment. My firstborn was on the floor all by himself at a mega concert, surrounded by strangers and in a strange place.
Was he safe? Was he doing OK? Did he need water?
Billie was thinking about hydration, too. “Anyone want water? We’ve got water coming. Drink water, go to the bathroom constantly. Not constantly, but enough. Let me tell you, UTIs are really not fun.”
Julian later told me that people passed the water bottles around, using a heretofore unknown (to me) technique called “waterfalling,” where one pours water from above their mouth so as to not contaminate the bottle.
So everyone can have some. So no one who needs water is left without.
The next song was called “Your Power,” a cautionary tale about abusive power dynamics. “I needed a song like this when I was younger,” she tells the crowd.
The following performance – “Getting Older” — was the song I needed to hear when I was younger. A younger mom. A younger daughter. A younger feminist.
“Things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now,” she sings. “Things I’m longing for, someday I’ll be bored of.”
As she sang, images and videos of a Little Billie appeared on the giant screen behind her. Because she was born in a fully digital era, her parents have endless archives of footage of their now famous daughter.
We get to see her how they saw her: An innocent toddler, free from the demands of society, of her fans, of her employees. Free from the gaze of people who crave someone like her to look up to.
The song goes on: “I'm getting older. I've got more on my shoulders, but I'm getting better at admitting when I'm wrong,” she sings. “I'm happier than ever, at least that's my endeavor.”
In “The World’s A Little Blurry,” viewers had a backstage pass to what was clearly an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend at the time. We see her parents adjust to having a teenager with a driver’s license. We watch the young singer reach a breaking point with too many commitments and expectations and people wanting something from her.
You have to protect yourself, a family friend tells her in the documentary. We’re here for you, but you have to prioritize yourself. Nobody can do that for you. Even this family that loves you so much.
At some point over the past few years, Billie Eilish seems to have heard the message and started passing it on to others. Through her lyrics. At these concerts. On her social media, encouraging a kind of self care and community care that — in today’s capitalistic culture of Get What You Can Get and Don’t Throw a Fit — feels radical.
It seems as though Billie Eilish is preaching from the gospel of emergent strategy.
How to take care of one’s own needs and the needs of others, in that order.
What it means to create a feeling of safety without compromising your own.
How to slow down when everyone else wants to speed up.
I wasn’t expecting to get this much out of a concert that, 18 months ago, you probably couldn’t have paid me to attend.
But getting curious about this artist that means so much to my kid opened up a pathway for connection. And an intensely personal and meaningful experience for myself, both inside and outside the context of being a parent.
I’ve had Billie’s songs stuck in my head all week since we’ve been back, but it’s that line she tossed out during that break that I’ll never forget.
“I hope you guys feel safe, because you are.”
Thanks for your Substack support, friends! We’re in the doldrums of winter, and I hope that these dispatches are bringing you a little love and light during the time of year I need it most.
And happy one-year birthday to The Feminist Kitchen on Substack! It’s been a wild year with lots more indie journalism to come. And yes, you *can* sign up for one-on-one tarot readings with me via http://calendly.com/addiebroyles or dontfearthedeathcard.com.
Some exciting news on the tarot front: This month, I was the featured teacher on Wise Skies, an alternative healing website that features workshops and lessons with practitioners like me. I presented a one-hour workshop on ancestral healing, which is free for members who are part of the Wise Skies Collective. (I’m a member and LOVE Tiffany’s monthly tarot and astrology readings.)
She also featured me on her recent podcast episode about ancestral healing, so have a listen if you’re curious about this work.
Until next time, be well (and drink lots of water!).