In the crowd of the Manchester Arena, a girl holds up a homemade sign that reads ‘Billie’. “We will never outgrow you”.
It’s a strangely moving and appropriate message. The last time Billie Eilish played a solo show in Britain was in 2018. Her debut album When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? had just been released, and the venues where she was booked were clearly too small to cope with her burgeoning success among a largely female audience of early teens. But four years is a long time in teen pop — the things you like at 14 aren’t usually the things you like at 18 — and a lot has happened to Eilish in the meantime. She canceled a world tour due to Covid and released a new album, noticeably light on the kind of electro-goth bangers that helped propel its predecessor to multi-platinum success, but heavy on wistfully opaque tracks that suggested a global becoming a teen idol when you were a teenager yourself wasn’t so much fun. Appearing on the cover of Vogue, she looked less like the sulky, skatewear-clad figure her audience was used to than the kind of blonde vampire Raymond Chandler had invented to give Philip Marlowe a hard time. A common theory was that Eilish had lost the audience, perhaps intentionally, as the teenage audience switched to other teenage stars, such as Olivia Rodrigo.
This theory is not gaining much credibility tonight. The crowd is slightly older than the 13- and 14-year-olds crammed into the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2018, but the noise they make when Eilish shows up — back in a baggy T-shirt and shorts, her hair dyed black and in bushes – sounds pretty much the same: a huge chorus of screams, followed by word-perfect en masse accompaniment to every word Eilish sings, followed by more screams.
If you wanted to pull out some sort of decibel reader, you could probably notice a slight drop in volume when she writes some of Happier Than Ever’s more opaque songs – Billie Bossa Nova or a reading of Your Power that’s stripped down even further than the largely acoustic studio version. , to better reveal the lushness of the melody – but it’s not much. There’s something strange about hearing thousands of voices sing along to songs that seem to be about being dulled by the kind of celebrity where thousands of voices roar at every word – “things I once enjoyed,” she sings on Getting Older, “Hold on just working on me” – but Eilish seems to be having a good time here. Bathed in red light, she unconsciously plunges into unfettered, unchoreographed dances during You Should See Me In a Crown and All the Good Girls Go to Hell. Her declarations of love to her fans between songs sound sincere rather than memorized, a rare occurrence on pop shows than you might think.
Bolstered by her early big hits, her more recent songs often sound richer live than on record: Goldwing’s choral intro feels like it digs deep into California’s pop past, remembering the Beach Boys to say the least; the piano part that underlies Everything I Wanted sounds as impossibly beautiful as that of the Smiths’ Asleep.
Best of all, arguably the song she premieres during the acoustic portion of the show. It’s called TV, and it’s been written recently enough to slander references to the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp cases as well as attempts to overthrow Roe v Wade, and it’s bleak and incredibly striking: at the end Eilish sings the loaded phrase “maybe I’m the problem” over and over, until the crowd agrees too. You’re struck by the feeling that, even in a changed pop landscape – a landscape in which Eilish seems to have more influence than an outlier, where teenage performers speaking directly to a teenage audience feel much more ordinary than four years ago – she still cuts a unique figure.