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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Billie Eilish and the Future of the Pop Star Documentary

Here’s the thing about pop stardom: The world is unable to divert its stare. Like a vortex, it sucks in eyes. It’s a disco ball, reflecting humanity onto itself. For women especially, it’s a minefield. When you’re famous, people feel entitled to look at you, then critique what they see. Artists in revealing outfits are slut-shamed, and others are greeted with headlines like “Every Time Billie Eilish Ditched her Baggy Outfits for Tight Clothes.” (I will not be linking to that piece.) It is so prevalent that Eilish herself once made a short film to address it. “Some people hate what I wear; some people praise it,” she says in the voice-over. “Some people use it to shame others; some people use it to shame me. But I feel you watching—always—and nothing I do goes unseen.”


It’s a reprieve, then, that Eilish’s new Apple TV+ documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, devotes almost none of its 2-hour, 20-minute run time to talk of Eilish's body or the people who want to comment on it. Instead, RJ Cutler's doc limits discussion of her corporeal form to talk of shin splints, sprained ankles, and other ailments brought on by her extremely committed live performances. Instead, the film takes an open, and almost radically vulnerable, look at the future of being famous, a hereafter Eilish is crafting before our very eyes.

Eilish speaks, as most stars do, about how much she appreciates her devotees, whom she says aren’t fans, but rather “part of me.” But she also talks frankly about depression, standing up for herself in relationships, and her history with self-harm, which came from a belief in her early teens that she “deserved it.” She shares the anxiety associated with wondering if the internet will dislike her work, something that her brother and producer Finneas says makes her terrified of writing catchy songs, because “her equation is, the more popular something is, the more hate it’s going to get.”

When, in the documentary, she experiences a series of Tourette’s syndrome tics while reviewing marketing materials for her Grammy-winning album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, her mom notes they could be the result of additional tiredness and stress. “I’ve done some crazy shit because of my Tourette’s,” Eilish adds. “I fucking broke a glass once—in my mouth—because I have this one [tic] where I’ll bite down on something. If I have something I’ll just go [chomps down], because my brain is like [snaps fingers] ‘Do it!’” For a condition so often misunderstood, and misrepresented, in popular media, it feels like a gift to witness someone talk about it so frankly.

It’s hard not to see how much Eilish’s life, and what she’s willing to share of it, is being informed by what stardom has done to so many before her. In one telling scene, someone on her team asks whether Eilish is comfortable sharing a video in which she says “drugs and cigarettes are you killing yourself.” The potential PR nightmare, presumably, is that she may one day consume a substance and be labeled a hypocrite. Her mom protests that there’s no reason she shouldn’t be authentic, and that Eilish could remain a lifelong teetotaler. Eilish agrees that the woman “has a point.” But, Mom counters, “you’ve got a whole army of people trying to help you not decide to destroy your life like people in your shoes have done before.” Eilish, out of Mom’s eye line, reacts with an Office-worthy, straight-to-camera “Welp!” grin-frown. Shortly thereafter, at Coachella, both Katy Perry and Justin Bieber show up to tell Eilish the next decade of her life is going to be incomprehensible, “wild.” When Bieber says it, it sounds like encouragement. When Perry does, it feels like a warning.

Considering the microscope she’s already under, it’s easy to wonder why Eilish would participate in a documentary at all. Her deep-seated intentions may never be known, but it almost feels like an attempt to avoid what her team was talking about, a gambit to take control of her narrative now, rather than correcting the record later.

Such was the case with Taylor Swift in Miss Americana. It may have happened a seemingly long time ago (13 months) and on a different streamer (Netflix), but that doc, made in the lead-up to Swift’s seventh album, Lover, spent a considerable amount of time unspinning Swift’s story. She, like Eilish, started making music when she was barely in her teens, but as Swift explains in the film, she spent a lot of her early life seeking approval, and working in the world of country music, where the overt politics of the Dixie Chicks are held up as a cautionary tale. By the time Swift was nearing 30 and wanting to speak about queer rights, violence against women, and even her own struggles with body image, she practically had to rewrite her own history to interject the things she’d kept silent. Or, as she put it, to take the “muzzle” off. Eilish has been fairly transparent from the start. Blurry exists merely to fill in around the edges.

None of this is to say either Swift's or Eilish’s method of dealing with fame is superior. Coping with patriarchy is a journey with an array of side quests. Comparing the trajectories of these women is a way of noting shifts in pop stardom. The differences are also left in more stark contrast by the recent release of the New York Times doc Framing Britney Spears, which took great pains to detail how the media talked about Spears’ appearance and sexuality, and how the constant throngs of paparazzi in her life plucked out image after image of her, feeding the hunger of a public consumed by her life with little regard for her mental health. Swift, in Americana, seems painfully aware of this cycle of stardom—“Everyone’s a shiny new toy for, like, two years. The female artists that I know of reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. They have to, otherwise you’re out of a job,” she notes. Eilish may be among the first pop stars free enough to evolve however she wants. 

This level of “Oh, we’re going to go there?” coming to pop documentaries seems to be the tone of the next wave. Being unvarnished has always been the promise of such docs, but so often—as with the Amy Winehouse film Amy, Netflix's forthcoming Notorious B.I.G. flick Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, the Nina Simone movie What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Whitney Houston doc Whitney, or the forthcoming HBO project Tina, about the life of Tina Turner—that part of the narrative comes largely after the fact, pieced together from the past. Films like Swift’s and Eilish’s, and Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two, push less towards rawness and more toward honesty, or at least earnestness, and they're provided in real time, while each is still at the height of their fame. Every artist claims to “keep it real,” but when a former Disney star like Demi Lovato looks into the camera, as she does in her forthcoming YouTube doc Dancing with the Devil, and says she had three strokes, a heart attack, and “five to 10 more minutes'' to live following a heroin overdose in 2018, there’s a self-awareness that’s impossible to miss. While some could side-eye these projects for their close artist participation rather than journalistic remove, there is something to be said for the fact that cultural narratives, whether created by mainstream media or social media, have rarely done women any favors. It seems cruel to fault them for telling whatever story they want, even if it is polished.

None of the recent spate of pop star docs are without flaws. They often follow the same Campbellian arc; an outsized number of them focus on young white women. And many of them suffer when they can’t decide whether they’re documentaries or live concert films. None approach the life-as-performance-art levels of swinging big that Madonna attempted with Truth or Dare. She managed being watched in a way few others could. The closest Eilish gets to thumbing her nose the way Madge used to was when she outright guffaws at a woman on the internet calling her music “satanic.” But pop stars now are inheriting different struggles. Neither Taylor Swift nor Billie Eilish is likely to ever be at loggerheads with the Pope. And Madonna, in her ‘80s and ’90s apex, never had to deal with Twitter. The 2020s are an era when the public feels more entitled to its artists than ever, while at the same time feminist strides have made it so that people are at least aware that the internet hates women. Mental health has become a public discussion, not something brushed off when someone asks why Britney Spears hit a paparazzo’s SUV with an umbrella. The conversation is shifting. If Eilish makes another documentary in 10 years, after the window Bieber and Perry told her about closes, we’ll know if she’s changed it for good.

Toward the end of Blurry, an interviewer asks Eilish why she’s so forthcoming when talking about depression and anxiety. “I never decided to. I never was like, ‘I’m going to talk about this, and I’m going to talk about this,’” she begins. “Then it became ‘Oh, she’s making a statement,’ which I actually love, because I didn’t realize I was, and now that I think about it, I realize how many people aren’t talking about that kind of stuff and why people are so shocked when you do talk about it. To be honest with you, I didn’t think I would make it to this stage.” It’s almost as if, in that moment, she realized the world would be watching.

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