Five minutes into her global livestream extravaganza, Billie Eilish froze – left arm aloft, one finger pointing – and remained there for the duration of an entire song. A message flashed on my screen, Page Unresponsive. It’s not a problem you usually get at live gigs.
I wasn’t alone in experiencing high-tech stage fright, with issues reported amongst online audiences around the world. But it was a temporary glitch in the boldest virtual concert since Covid brought the live scene to a grinding halt last March.
Eilish had embarked on a world tour for her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? But the teenage sensation only managed three dates before she had to shut down. “In quarantine I realised that onstage is the only place I’ve ever felt like myself and like I belonged,” Eilish gushed during her debut pay-per-view concert, Where Do We Go? The Livestream.
Performing in a Los Angeles film studio, the 18-year-old superstar was accompanied by just two musicians, with her multi-instrumentalist brother Finneas pressing assorted buttons, and drummer Andrew Marshall adding beats. A small crew of cameramen and computer operators could be heard clapping between numbers, which sounded more like friendly encouragement than the euphoric roar of a crowd.
According to music website Bandsintown, there have been over 50,000 livestreams since March 25. For Eilish’s generation, raised in a computer world, these are not so much a substitute for gigs as an artform in their own right. Working with cutting edge XR (Extended Reality) technology, Eilish appeared to occupy an infinitely mutable space. She dodged a giant arachnid on a spooky You Should See Me in a Crown, sat beneath a giant moon for the tender ballad I Love You, and sang the delicate Ilomilo underwater before being consumed by a giant animated shark.
The only thing that did not change was her phosphorescent green and black hair, and her baggy Gucci outfit. For a household name star, Eilish is proud to be perceived as a weirdo, restoring some oddball individuality to mainstream pop. And this was a genuinely weird art pop experience.
While Eilish danced about in multiple worlds of her own, audience members filmed themselves at home. “One advantage is you’re not all in the pit fainting, as usual,” Eilish noted during a sleekly groovy Everything I Wanted, as she interacted with a bank of screens displaying homebound fans. But even she seemed unsure whether that was really an advantage, sighing deeply every time she mentioned how much she missed performing.
In many ways, Eilish is the ideal star for the brave new world of online concerts. She sings gorgeously, all fluttery notes and breathy emotion, but does not even try to project. Her trademark style is a form of intimate bedroom pop, the urgency of her vocals communicated as whispers amidst streamlined tracks tailored to the tiny speakers of earbuds. Her songs (written with Finneas) are beautifully constructed, rich with meaning and emotion. She expresses intense teenage vulnerability, anxiety and depression, set against idealism, optimism and faith. It has struck home with an audience for whom Eilish is not simply another pop star; she is the voice of their generation.
That has its downside. Whenever I have seen her in concert, the hysteria has threatened to flatten the richness of her material, drowning out her tiny voice. Online, she was in full control of an audio-visual environment that emphasised every nuance. But it remains impossible to really get carried away by a glorified TV show, no matter how brilliantly executed.
That longing for things to get better fed into a political message underpinning the whole gig, with Eilish repeatedly exhorting her young American audience to “vote”. Global warming and extinction imagery flooded the screen during All the Good Girls Go to Hell, which ended with message NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET. Any attempt at non-partisanship had vanished by the end. “If we vote the orange man out, maybe we’ll get to see each other again,” she gushed as she fled the stage. “I’m not even joking!”
Available until 10pm GMT tonight at livestream.billieeilish.com