Gen Z’s queen of alt-pop proves that she’s more than earned her title as she closes out the weekend
There are groans throughout the crowd, some laughter, a few disbelieving shakes of the head. It’s Sunday night. The crowd at Little John’s Farm have spent three days in this field, dancing, drinking, and slowly losing their voices along with all feeling in their legs. And now Billie Eilish is asking them to crouch.
“I want you to get as low as you can,” she instructs. “Lower. Lower…”
Tired as they are, the crowd of around 100,000 comply. When Eilish says crouch, you crouch. When she says scream, you scream. And when she tells you to jump, you don’t pause to ask how high. You go ahead and lose your sh*t.
At 21, Eilish is the youngest ever Reading headliner. She’s in possession of the kind of magnetism you need to convince the music industry that you are its next phenomenon at 15, to win all four major Grammys at 18. She leads the Reading masses through a darkly cathartic setlist, at times moving, at others ridiculously fun.
Opening with sleep paralysis anthem ‘bury a friend’, a nightmarish piece of alt-pop, she moves through hits from both her hit records, as well as deep cuts from her debut EP ‘bellyache’ and ‘COPYCAT’. In a brightly-coloured baseball-inspired get up, she dances her way up and down her sloped stage with a cheerful abandon, despite the often-nihilistic nature of her lyrics.
Although she has fans of all ages, as has been much reported on, Eilish is Gen-Z’s darling. She’s able to flip easily between extremes; from tearful self-loathing ballad ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’ to ‘you should see me in a crown’, a confident industrial pop offering that sees Eilish quite literally don a crown as the reigning queen of alternative pop. She speaks to a generation raised by the internet and crippled by climate anxiety – something which Eilish addresses towards the end of her set with a plea to “be kind to the planet”. Eilish represents what Gen Z pop is beginning to demonstrate: that pop music can be confronting, uncomfortable and sometimes depressing, and that those engaging with it can still have a great time.
There are sombre moments in the set. Eilish is joined by brother and collaborator Finneas for a seated acoustic duet of ballads ‘i love you’ and ‘Your Power’, as well as recent track ‘TV’. Going this small and soft with a festival crowd of 100,000 hanging on your every note can be a risk, but the two are spellbinding together, breathing especial excellence into ‘Your Power’, which speaks to the pattern of age gap relationships in the entertainment industry and the damage it can inflict upon the young women in these situations. A set highlight is Eilish’s new track, ‘What Was I Made For?’, from Greta Gerwig’s enormously successful Barbie.
“I know you know this bit,” says Eilish, holding her microphone to the crowd. A choir of voices join her in asking – “Where did it end, all the enjoyment?”
The night’s penultimate track is Eilish’s smash hit ‘bad guy’, a raucous four minutes as the song’s insanely catchy riff echoes around St John’s Farm. And then comes ‘Happier Than Ever’. It remains to be seen whether Eilish will top it, but currently the track stands apart from the rest of her work. It’s song that, no matter where she goes in the world, will always be roared back to her. After much celebration and many tears over the last hour, the track acts as one final, cathartic scream. Fireworks go up. The field takes over, nearly drowning her out. The lingering question, as Eilish takes in the scene from her sloping stage: is there any other 21-year-old in the world who could have done that?
Photo credit: Simone Joyner/Getty