Is Billie Eilish 2019’s answer to Kate Bush? The parallels are hard to ignore, starting with the fact that both collaborated with their respective brothers; that each made her cultural impact in visuals as much as the music itself; and, most importantly, that the two game-changing female artists broke the pop mold.
Eilish is an outlier who arrived at a time of need: Despite her couture-in-a-blender look, her songs represent a move away from verses full of conspicuous consumption. Rather than focusing on the well-worn territory of interpersonal transactions — “Me!” “You!” “We!” — the 17-year-old vital and visual artist twists our notion of gender.
Neither Eilish nor Bush are ruled by men. Rather, they thrive in their own versions of femininity.
When English singer-songwriter Bush emerged on the music scene in the late 1970s, seemingly out of nowhere and not yet out of her teens, the mold was hers to break, and she sculpted her own. Everything about her music — notably “Running Up That Hill,” “This Woman’s Work” and “Hounds of Love” — seemed strikingly original.
She officially proved herself as a pioneer when, at 19, she released her literary first single, “Wuthering Heights” — based on Emily Bronte’s gothic romance — which topped the U.K.’s charts for an entire month. In so doing, Bush became the first female artist to score a No. 1 hit that she wrote herself. She went on to become the first woman in the history of the British charts to have eight records simultaneously in the Top 50. (To put this achievement in context, she’s now trailing Elvis and the Beatles for having simultaneous Top 40 records; Presley had 12, the Beatles 11.) Not bad for an artist who only toured twice in her entire career — with a 35-year break in between.
In America, Bush was more of a critic’s darling, perhaps because she never toured the U.S.and her records continued to push the edges sonically, but her impact cannot be overstated — she paved the way for fans of edgy, experimental pop in general and independent female artists specifically. Think: Bjork, St. Vincent and, yes, Eilish, with whom she has the most in common. Let us count the ways.
1. They keep it in the family: Eilish famously writes and performs with her big brother, Finneas O’Connell, who also serves as her sole producer. Bush too collaborated with her siblings. Patrick “Paddy” Bush has played on eight of her albums up to 2005’s “Aerial”; John Carder Bush, meanwhile, has contributed backing vocals and poetry narration to several of her albums in addition to photographing iconic covers.
2. Both are pop prodigies: Bush started writing songs at 11 but she didn’t sign her contract with EMI Records until she was 16, coming in with major credentials — Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore produced her demo tape. Eilish broke out at 15 — and quickly became sick of talking about it. “That’s all I hear: What’s it like being 15,” she said at the time, adding: “Why does it define me?” What’s remarkable is that it didn’t. But they’ve both redefined the meaning of “teen idol” in their own way.
3. They’re trained dancers: Like Bush, Eilish studied dance, but she focused more on singing after suffering from a bad injury. Dance did make it to song, though — Eilish was inspired to record her brother’s 2016 song, “Ocean Eyes,” for her dance teacher, who wanted to choreograph it for a recital. “Like music, dance has always been my passion; a way to express how I feel,” she has said. Bush used part of her advance from EMI Records to fund dance classes with choreographer Lindsay Kemp, who also collaborated with David Bowie.
4.They’re stubborn non-conformists (A.K.A. proud weirdos): “Shape-shifting brilliance and an airy indifference to what’s expected of you are not the music industry’s favorite assets in any performer, but they are probably easier to accept in a man than in a woman,” wrote Margaret Talbot, reflecting on the genius of Kate Bush in The New Yorker. Similarly, The New York Times recently said of Eilish that she “is not your typical pop star” while Thrillist dubbed her “the strangest pop act in ages” — perhaps since Kate Bush?
5. Neither grew up listening exclusively to modern music: Eilish was not weaned on radio. In fact, she didn’t listen to much contemporary music at all (with the notable exception of Justin Bieber). “My dad used to make us mixtapes of all the stuff that he liked … the Beatles was a huge thing growing up,” she told Interview of her favorite band. Her first performance? “Happiness is a Warm Gun” at the age of five. Kate Bush was raised on classical, folk and traditional Irish music. Her aversion to musical trends hasn’t changed over time. As Bush told The Fader: “I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music, especially when I’m working.”
6. They’re both album artists. Great songs make great single experiences, but they both know how to tie them into conceptual arcs — Eilish, with her stunningly circular debut “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go” and Bush with such seminal long form story side albums such as “Hounds Of Love” and “Aerial.” Centering on themes of dream states, melding death imagery with pop melodies, both artists weave a fine web of melancholy and exuberance.