Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, famously recorded her megaselling, multi-Grammy-winning debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” by themselves in Finneas’s childhood bedroom. The songs they made there conjure an even more tightly claustrophobic space: Eilish’s music sounds like it’s taking place within the quivering confines of a single anxious mind.
But midway through her latest single, “No Time to Die,” the swell of a full orchestra and the smoke rings of a moody guitar riff open into something more panoramic — and familiar — than we’ve heard from her before. The orchestral part was composed by Hans Zimmer, and the riff is played by the former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who collaborated on the score for “No Time to Die,” the forthcoming 25th James Bond movie.
The track makes the 18-year-old Eilish the youngest artist ever to record a Bond theme, the latest in a string of achievements that has made the precocious Gen-Z-er a regular fixture on the Guinness World Records blog. But “No Time to Die” also comes during a monthlong stretch that has felt a bit like a mainstream debutante ball for the young superstar, who until very recently was better known by her fellow teens than their parents. The Grammys changed that; Eilish’s subsequent performance at the Oscars two weeks later cemented the feeling that she was suddenly everywhere. (She crooned a solemn, tasteful cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” during the ceremony’s ultra-decorous In Memoriam segment.) In between those two busy weekends, she was revealed as the cover star of the latest issue of Vogue.
Unlike her generational cohort of anarchic SoundCloud rappers and sartorially sex-positive pop stars, Eilish has the kind of talent that is easily understood and praised by the old guard: She writes her own songs, she redirects the gaze from the shape of her body with oversized silhouettes, she has a voice that, while whispery and strange, is still classically lovely. The 56-year-old Marr summed up this sentiment on the red carpet at the Brit Awards on Tuesday. “Billie’s just the best new, I don’t want to say pop act, but it’s great when someone that cool is that popular, individual and a lot of people can relate to her,” he said. “I know a great musician when I see one.”
At the same time, the ever-expressive Eilish has a way of telegraphing a certain reluctance at becoming the next-gen poster girl of pop culture’s most time-tested institutions. Just before clinching the Grammy for album of the year — the win that completed her sweep of the big four categories, making her the first woman and youngest person ever to do so — she could be seen on-camera whispering, “Please don’t be me, please.” (A tweet captured the moment: “Billie Eilish being genuinely disgusted by her own success is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen at a major awards show.”)
At the Oscars, she was even less comfortable in her sanctioned role of Ambassador to the Youth. In an interview with Zane Lowe the day after the show, she told him that she’d been sick on Oscar night and felt that she had “bombed” her performance: “That [expletive] was trash.”
She added, “It was also, like, the Oscars is not my people. I’m not used to that.” She said as much wordlessly when the camera cut to her during an absurdist bit by the comedians Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. Eilish’s reaction shot of cartoonish befuddlement instantly went viral. “If OK Boomer were a face,” wrote one Twitter user, “Billie Eilish just nailed it.”
She has also pushed back vehemently against those who commend her for covering up her body. “The positive comments about how I dress have this slut-shaming element,” she said in a V Magazine interview last summer. “Like, ‘I am so glad that you’re dressing like a boy, so other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts.’ That’s basically what it sounds like to me. And I can’t overstate how strongly I do not appreciate that, at all.”
Eilish’s Bond theme, though, might be the Boomer-approved role she’s embraced with the most straightforward enthusiasm. “We’ve been wanting to make a Bond song for years,” she told the BBC this week.
Macabre and elegant, “No Time to Die” proves that — despite the fact that the franchise has existed for 39 more years than Eilish has — there is quite a bit of overlap between the aesthetics of Billie and Bond. Her vocal has her characteristic focused intensity, but as the strings swell toward the climactic ending, Eilish rises to belt a note that is showier than anything on her debut album. When she hit it during her transfixing performance alongside Finneas, Zimmer and Marr at the Brit Awards, the crowd went wild.
As more opportunities and accolades inevitably come her way, time will tell which pop-star traditions Eilish will wholeheartedly welcome, which she’ll rework in her own style and which she’ll reject with her signature side-eye. Given that the past two Bond themes — by Adele and Sam Smith — have earned their artists Oscars, it’s quite possible that Eilish will be invited back among the movie stars next year. Maybe we’ll get another “please don’t be me” moment right before her name is called. Or maybe by then Eilish will have had a chance to make more sense of the surreal dream that has suddenly become her life.