It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for a concert by music’s fastest-rising star than an open-air, rooftop venue beside New York’s East River, with the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges illuminated behind the stage and stunning panoramic views of the harbor and the city everywhere else. It’s mid-June, school is about to let out and the summer vibes can be felt everywhere — particularly in a place as loaded with teens and pre-teens as a Billie Eilish concert.
But instead of balmy breezes and sparkling sunlight, this particular Tuesday was one of the dreariest days in the soggiest Spring in memory, and the weather, as we emerged onto the Pier 17 rooftop venue, was downright gloomy: Dark, clammy, cloudy and threatening to rain at any second.
In short, an absolutely perfect setting for the unsettling pop music of America’s spooky sweetheart.
It’s hard to think of a real precedent for Eilish’s appeal, or a star of recent vintage who’s galvanized an audience like she has. We’ve been deafened by the screams and blinded by the phones at BTS and Harry Styles concerts and been dazzled by Cardi B’s fizzy, ‘Gram-fabulous sass and glamour. But for all the rabid fans at those shows, you didn’t get the sense that the audience wanted to be those people, or really dreamed they could. With Eilish’s crowd — and there were hundreds and hundreds of teens, primarily but not all female, proudly wearing her merch like a badge of honor at this show — it feels like they’re cheering on one of their friends: that awesome girl with the dark sense of humor who made all those hilariously creepy works in art or music class. And that’s part of what makes Dave Grohl’s rather overhyped Nirvana comparison maybe not so far-fetched. She might not speak for a generation, but she sure says a lot about it.
Anyway, although this 3,000-ish capacity show was a pretty dramatic underplay for a star of Eilish’s caliber — she’s performing at the 6,000-capacity Radio City Music Hall tonight, and could easily sell out at least one show at Madison Square Garden — the crowd got the full treatment. Her set is essentially the same one that she performed during her de facto headlining Coachella show in April: It opens with some gloriously spooky, Tim Burton-esque animation on the giant screen behind the stage, and then she and brother-collaborator Finneas, accompanied by a drummer, roar into “Bad Guy.” But on this night, the crowd was singing along so loudly that Billie’s voice was barely audible on the first verse.
Yet what may be most remarkable about the Eilish phenomenon is how poised this seventeen-and-a-half-year-old singer is onstage — at Coachella she held that massive crowd in the palm of her hand, and she’s figured out how to be a performer that’s both larger than life and just a normal, if precocious, teenager. She bounds and bounces and dances across the stage, dropping down the energy level for the ballads but jumping and waving when the music calls for it; she gave a heartfelt testimonial to Denzel Curry, who’d performed a strong opening set; when audience members called for her to let her hair down, she said, “You guys have to help me, I can’t do it with these nails,” then leaned into the crowd and a few audience members gently undid her hair. She talks to the audience like they’re her friends, but not in the coached or from-on-high way that many more conventional pop stars do. Because of the seemingly sudden way she’s burst into public consciousness and emerged as a fully-formed star, it’s easy to forget she’s been touring for three years.
Some had wondered whether Eilish has the catalog to fill a 90-minute set, and she does: There’s enough musical diversity in her well-paced setlist and enough theater in the set to make it feel full. A creepy-looking hospital bed (with spotlights affixed to the bottom) was used for two songs. On “I Love You,” Eilish said she wanted to recreate the scene where she and Finneas wrote it, so the two of them performed the song sitting on the bed while it rose about 20 feet into the air; but on “Bury a Friend,” she went full-on horror movie, looking like a cross between Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” as the bed rose higher and higher, and then Samara from “The Ring” as her hair swung in front of her face while the bed tilted eerily toward the crowd.
It was a tough song to top and she didn’t try, closing with a gentle “Goodbye” — which is usually the encore, but a light rain had begun to splatter and the end of the show was (presumably and wisely) hurried along and the crowd was quickly hustled out.
It’s an impressive set — and like most everything else in this young artist’s remarkably well-strategized career so far, it should have no trouble lighting up the arenas it seems inevitably she’ll be touring before the year is out.
Setlist (from setlist.fm)
my strange addiction
you should see me in a crown
watch / &burn
WHEN I WAS OLDER
wish you were gay
all the good girls go to hell
bitches broken hearts
listen before i go
i love you
when the party’s over
bury a friend