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Billie Eilish’s pop nightmares extract teen-scream terror-glee from a sold-out Armory

Billie Eilish onstage at the Armory.

Billie Eilish onstage at the Armory. Lucy Hawthorne

Has pop music ever before given a roomful of young women the excuse to shout “Duh!” in ecstatic, ear-bleeding unison? If not this was a grave oversight that I’m damn glad Lucifer put Billie Eilish on earth to correct.

Now, all pop audiences are loud, yes, but there are lots of louds. There’s your garden-variety beyond-conversational-volume loud, your all-caps loud, your blaring-flashing-resounding bright-red 96-pt-font + infinity-!!!s loud.

And then there are Billie Eilish fans.

The 17-year-old pop star opened her Minneapolis show Saturday night with the most incendiary bunker-blaster in her arsenal, “Bad Guy,” which but for the grace of Lil Nas X would be the number one song in America right now. The sold-out Armory returned fire, shouting each syllable of the friskily ominous gender-fractured stomp so forcefully that Eilish and her two-man band were all but drowned out. I mean, will you listen to this?

And if you think that’s loud you should hear them scream “You Should See Me in a Crown,” and if you think that’s rapt, the crowd stayed so keyed in they added the “aww” and canned laughter to “Wish You Were Gay” on cue. During “Copycat,” Eilish instructed us to crouch down low until it was time to “jump like kangaroos,” and everyone with better knees than mine obeyed with impressively patient anticipation; during “Bellyache,” Eilish waded mid-venue to be met with respectful adoration rather than overheated grasping.

The night’s shouted lyrics and between-song squeals were the sound of relief, of finally being allowed to express the prickly chiaroscuro emotions that pop has sidelined for a few years. Gothy, witchy, snide, murdery, Eilish is a counterbalance to the reigning archetype of female pop star as superhero. But where the traditional cyclical response to glossy arena pop has been acoustic and “authentic” (remember Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton rising to counterbalance Britney’s pre-fab glam?) Eilish offers instead an alternative mode of girl power, a smirky shiv in the ribs rather than the prevailing patent-leather spiked domme heels. She reimagines puberty as trashy cineplex nightmare fodder rather than grand tragedy or bittersweet melodrama or blockbuster CGI battle sequence. Her mood isn’t so much melancholy vibing to sad-girl Tumblr angst as snort-giggling during your fifth time through an Annabelle movie, when you already know where the scary parts are.

Eilish’s stage moves resembled a rapper’s low center of gravity bob-and-weave more than a pop star’s choreo, and she was attired for action, comfort, and getting high at the cemetery after curfew. A baggy black sweatshirt displaying the Blessed Virgin made way for a t-shirt, no less baggy or black, of cherubim hovering blithely above hellfire. Black shorts and black boots, two top-knots, crucifix earrings, and chainlink neck gear completed the ensemble. In contrast, relatively few of Eilish’s fans were sartorially goth themselves, and some could be heard debating whether they could afford Ariana at the Xcel. Call them both/and rather than either/or pop fans.

Casually unjittered on stage, Eilish dropped asides like “My shin splints are acting up” then asked who wanted a water bottle she’d just guzzled from (she flung it a respectable distance), with just enough “fuck”s peppered throughout the night to make tweens glance with cagey, apprehensive defiance at their unphazed moms. Eilish crosses over to lots of those parents, and it’s easy to hear why—she’s a little bit SoundCloud Shirley Manson, a little bit Fiona Trap-ple, and I for one eagerly await her inevitable call to arms as she leads her combined Gen X/Z army to obliterate our overpopulous Boomer/Millennial foes.

Eilish was flanked by two musicians, a drummer and her brother/songwriting partner Finneas, who doubled on synth and guitar. It’s Finneas who’s crafted much of her sound, which is anchored by of-the-moment 808 skitters and slightly dated divebombing bass drops and filled the Armory with a crisp boom. Also of note: The staccato piano and tunefully wending synth whine on “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” weren’t the only musical trappings that recalled classic Eminem.

The visuals were top-rate for an Armory-sized room—for any room, really. Eilish’s onstage appearance was preceded by an extended animated sequence, set in ghoulish Babadook black-and-white, of a flashing-eyed doll-like moppet beset by nightmare images of gnashing teeth and satanic flames. (She seemed to survive these, but when she reappeared onscreen later that night a shark chomped her. Tough luck, kid.) During a more upbeat moment Eilish introduced Finneas and the two sibs lolled together on a bed to perform “I Love You” “the way we wrote it”; soon they were bed levitating high above the stage like the homeschooled dreamers they are.

Eilish packed 18 tracks of her roughly two-dozen-song repertoire into a little less than an hour and a half, performing almost all of her chart-topping When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and revealing how consistent her small songbook is. Even during the second half of the set, which was backloaded with the kind of ballads—five in a row!—that are ideal arm-swaying bestie singalongs, only a middle-aged rubbernecker with a short-attention span would dare get a little impatient. But. Hear. Me. Out. Eilish is more conventional when she proves she has a heart than when she brags about how she’s gonna sink her fangs into yours, and I'm sorry but it’s my job to care about these things.

Fortunately the glib suicidal ideations and gory self-mutilation fantasies of “Bury a Friend” were on hand to climatically darken the mood. A PG-13 variant of Tool’s claymation visuals loomed above as Eilish climbed back aboard her gravity-defiant bed, its ascendence now less Bedknobs and Broomsticks than The Exorcist. Then, as a nice little punch line of a coda, her voice sang “Please don’t leave me” as When We All Fall Asleep’s closing track, “Goodbye,” provided the exit music.

On my way out of the Armory, I heard a teenboy, in that authoritative manner native to his kind, opine "Her dancing was dope, her singing was dope…" before an accompanying teengirl, in that even more authoritative manner her kind has evolved in self-defense, interjected, not exactly contradicting his point but for damn sure mooting it, "Her presence was dope."

What can I add to that?

Click here to see a photo slideshow of Billie at the Armory

Setlist
Bad Guy
My Strange Addiction
You Should See Me in a Crown
Idontwannabeyouanymore
&burn
Copycat
When I Was Older
Wish You Were Gay
Xanny
All the Good Girls Go to Hell
Ilomilo
Bellyache
Listen Before I Go
I Love You
Ocean Eyes
When the Party’s Over
Bury a Friend
Goodbye

Overheard in the crowd: (Outside, before the show) “Billie’s a girl, dad.”

The crowd: Predominantly female, not entirely Eilish-aged—lots were at least old enough to secure wristbands that got ‘em to the bar—but the teens set the mood. More moms than dads, plus a smattering of couples.

Critic’s bias: Here's how I raved about When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? here in CP earlier this year: “Death makes sad teens horny, a timeless truth Eilish is precocious enough to exploit for dark lulz where she might be expected to strike a supposedly gender-appropriate pose of somber, witchy melancholy.”