March 3, 2021

Teenage singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has two trademarks: showing a lot, and showing nothing. She delivers lyrics about suicide, self-harm, Xanax, heartache and trouble, baring all the seething trauma of adolescence. Since her debut single “Ocean Eyes” became a hit, when she was just 14, she’s been baring her soul to the world. But her body has not been on display. While pop music in general trades on female flesh, with maximum tits and ass at every opportunity, Eilish dresses in baggy streetwear-style outfits.

Her most revealing video, “Not My Responsibility”, is so dimly lit that she’s barely visible at all; it feels more like a confrontation than a seduction. In the shadow, you can just make out that she’s wearing a bikini top, while her whispered voiceover challenges the viewer for all the ways they might judge her body. But of course, keeping her body relatively concealed didn’t actually stop people from judging it: a paparazzo shot of her wearing a perfectly decent strappy vest and shorts kicked off a tiresome round of body-shaming followed by clapbacks to the body-shamers.

“Not My Responsibility” was released when Eilish was 18, by which time she’d passed from “promising” to “successful” to “terrifyingly, staggeringly famous” in a remarkably short time. The documentary The World’s a Little Blurry (new to Apple TV) tracks this extraordinary path, bringing home how bizarre her life has been: fly-on-the-wall style footage shows her with her family, working on music with her brother in his shabby-looking bedroom, then heading out out to play the global superstar. Her designer stage outfits go through the family washing machine.

Other stars say they’re like their fans, but with Eilish — at least at the start — it’s really true. In concert footage (recorded pre-Covid), she performs her songs of melancholic ecstasy to an audience of girls who look just like her — one mass of self-ironising, tragic girlhood with their eyes closed in the bliss of pain and their phones held high. In Salt Lake City, she descends from the stage to embrace them. “They’re not my fans,” she tells the camera later, “they’re like a part of me.” She’s still a child at this point: 17 years old and about to record her gigantically successful debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We All Go?

That’s near the start of the documentary. Towards the end, we see another encounter between her and the public, from about a year later, by which time When We Fall Asleep has become number one in 37 countries and made Eilish the youngest female artist to top the UK album chart. She’s doing a post-gig meet-and-greet in New York, but it doesn’t have the spontaneous affection of the earlier scene. Instead, it goes off-script and Eilish walks away.

Of course, someone comments on social media that she was rude. Eilish then berates her team (which includes her mother) for leaving her exposed:

“I don’t want anyone who knows who I am, who is any sort of fan or knows a fan, to see me in any sort of awkward situation. It’s embarrassing and I have to keep smiling and if I don’t they hate me and they think I’m horrible.”

She sounds like any teenager dealing with a fraught social situation; she sounds like no other teenager in the world, negotiating global scrutiny of her every scowl.

The film, directed by R. J. Cutler, is a document of the costs and calculations of fame — and the way those costs and calculations are heightened when the subject starts young. Eilish has now been living in public for about a quarter of her life, and the film shows her to be both adept (like most teenage girls, social media is her natural element, and every time she makes a decision she asks herself what the internet will say about it), and overwhelmed.

Because how can you foresee what an existence like this will do to you? And how much protection can the people around you give? There’s a scene where a representative from Eilish’s record label discusses the song “Xanny” with Eilish and her mother. The song is critical of substance abuse; but, counsels the label rep, “maybe you grow up and feel differently and then get dragged for it.” Eilish’s mother is outraged, partly at the suggestion of Eilish compromising her voice (although elsewhere, she also questions her daughter’s use of suicide themes), but mostly at the implication that Eilish might “fuck up” in her future.

The spectre of the fuck-up. The label rep feels it and Eilish’s mother feels it and Eilish feels it too, because everyone knows that this is what happens to those who become famous when they’re young. The one-time child actor Mara Wilson, best known for starring in the film of Matilda, recently wrote about this in a column for the New York Times which looked back on her own experiences in light of the recent reassessment of Britney Spears’ career.

Wilson calls it “The Narrative” — the arc from prodigy to tragedy that defines Spears, and Judy Garland, and Drew Barrymore, and Corey Haim, and River Phoenix, and Aaliyah, and Lindsay Lohan, and any number of others you can think of. These children were all exposed to the corrosions of an industry in which punishingly hard work is demanded and sexualisation is standard. (From the age of six, interviewers would ask Wilson whether she had a boyfriend.) And their falls, says Wilson, were all helped along by prurient journalism and the public that consumed it, something now amplified by the panopticon of social media.

They were adored for their youth, then tried as adults in the court of reputation. But a child star, however autonomous they might seem, is still foremost a child, and to say otherwise is to write a licence for those who would abuse and exploit young people. Or as the writer Tavi Gevinson (a famous style blogger at 12, editing her own magazine at 15) put it in an article for New York Magazine, also inspired by Spears: “even if someone is precocious, it is their youth that makes them precocious. If you can still be considered ‘mature for your age,’ you are not an older person’s equal.”

There’s another potential price to child stardom, though — a price that’s less horrific than mental illness or sexual violence or addiction, but that is still colossally bleak. What if early fame leaves you fixed forever in the shadow of the child you were? Gevinson is an intimidatingly good writer, but there is still a part of me that, having followed her career since she was a tween, reflexively and superfluously adds the words for her age (she is now 24). And Wilson, though she has evaded “The Narrative”, is still essentially famous for being the woman who used to be the girl who was Matilda.

When you’re beloved for being young, ageing can only make you a disappointment. John Logan’s play Peter and Alice imagines the real-life templates for John Barrie’s Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland meeting as adults. “Here’s a burden: the only reason anyone remembers me now as Alice in Wonderland is that I decided to sell my hand-written manuscript of the book,” Alice tells Peter in the play:

“But do you know why I sold the manuscript? Because I needed the money. To heat my house… Now, is that the Alice people want to know? Or is it just possible they would rather remember that little blond girl in the dress, eternally inquisitive, impossibly bold, never changing and never growing old?”

For Eilish, never changing and never growing old has a particularly grim implication. In the documentary, we see her looking at her journals twice. Once near the start of the film, when she excitedly shares her doodles and lyric ideas; and once when she’s 18, looking back on how, aged 14 or 15, she would lock herself in the bathroom and self-harm. Some of the girls who adore her for articulating that pain could make a snare of their love, demanding that Eilish go on hurting for them, rejecting her if she threatens to leave them behind.

Becoming an adult means letting things go as well as embracing the new experiences of maturity, and there’s a grief in that — even if what you’re letting go of is grief itself, as you resolve the anguish of your teens. Those who truly survive child stardom are the ones who get the opportunity to grow up, reinventing themselves in public as their adult selves. Think of Taylor Swift, Thomas Brodie-Sangster or Justin Timberlake, who no longer really count as child stars now: they’re just stars, their career beginnings a mere anecdote eclipsed by ongoing success.

The test of whether Eilish lives through her fame or ends up destroyed by it isn’t only in whether she “fucks up”. It’s also in whether she’s trapped forever as this Billie, or gets to become the next version of herself. In the future where she makes it, we’ll never talk about her age at all, and the incredible, inhuman fact that she had to navigate all this when most people are still messing up their homework will be forgotten.