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The Trap of Relatability

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If teen pop stars once buckled under the pressure of maintaining perfect images, today they face the equally heavy burden of appearing perfectly imperfect – flawed, authentic and honest, at all times. In ‘Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,’ a documentary marking the ascent of anti-pop star Billie Eilish, a debate erupts between her mother and one of the film producers, Chelsea Dodson. Eilish is considering speaking out publicly against drugs and alcohol. Dodson interjects, ‘my only thought is how you say things, and might grow up to feel differently.’ Eilish’s mother retorts, ‘Are you actually not going to let her be authentic to who she is now in case she grows up to do drugs.’ But, Eilish is highly proficient in these sorts of calculations, they are decisions she makes almost continuously. At times it seems, being real is an exhausting endeavour. It is hardly surprising that many pop stars that came before her chose the alternative. 

Eilish is an unconventional popstar and ‘The World’s A Little Blurry,’ is an attempt at an appropriately unconventional take on the popstar documentary, now a routinely promotional format in the age of content. Instead of flashy graphics and edits, the project is presented as authentic footage with the intimate feel of home video; perhaps a reflection of Eilish’s personal life, which has been remarkably family-centric. 

The documentary is designed to underscore Eilish’s creative agency in her own career– she works on music almost exclusively with her brother and records at home – and, as a result, the pressure of artistic integrity. Indeed, Eilish demands near-complete control; her Instagram, production and image a child of her own creativity. Her brother, Finneas, cast as her close collaborator and best friend, explains; ‘But Billie…is so woke about her own persona on the Internet, that I think she’s terrified of anything she makes being hated.’ 

Indeed, as Eilish’s success is rooted in her own relatability, it is easy to see why she is so consumed by it. She is well-versed in the language of mental health, often speaking openly about her own struggles with depression. During a promotional tour for her 2019 album, she tells an interviewer,

“People are always like, ‘It’s so dark. Have happy music.’ But I never feel happy. So why would I write about things I don’t know.”

Everything about her striking visual aesthetic seems to challenge societal expectations; performative dead eyes, bright blue or green hair, and an all-baggy anti-silhouette – a middle finger to the confines of teen-pop sex appeal. 

In February, the documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears,’ was released, charting the rise and fall of a teen star, beginning with Spears at the same age as Eilish when she released her own first song. Spears is cast as the tragic victim of voyeurism and a corrupt puppeteer industry. Indeed, robbed of agency and held to unrealistic expectations, Spears implodes in spectacular fashion. It seems that Eilish’s approach is in direct resistance to the pressure cooker that crushed Spears. 

But this perceived creative freedom has its’ drawbacks. A career defined by agency and candour – or at least the performance of agency and candour – is held to continuous account. Eilish has been criticized in the past on social media for being rude to fans. She muses, ‘If I don’t keep smiling, they hate me and think I am horrible.’ It seems it is impossible to overcome fame’s most oppressive elements; a desire to be liked consumes all.

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