At Billie Eilish's Arena show, the only spectacle is herself

Written By: Lindsay Zoladz © 2021 The New York Times Company The New York Times
New York Updated: Feb 21, 2022, 07:42 PM(IST)

Billie Eilish's Arena show Photograph:( The New York Times )

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At this second of two back-to-back Garden shows, Eilish commanded every inch of the stage like a hyperactive court jester.

Billie Eilish’s latest album, 'Happier Than Ever,' is a rather muted affair — acoustic ballads, fluttery, crooned tunes, even a hushed bossa nova number — so it was worth wondering how such material would translate in the arenas the 20-year-old pop phenom is playing on her Happier Than Ever: The World Tour. But the nearly 20,000 frenzied fans screaming along to every word at her triumphant Madison Square Garden concert Saturday night proved that, at least when they’re performed live, there’s no such thing as a quiet Billie Eilish song.

At this second of two back-to-back Garden shows, Eilish commanded every inch of the stage like a hyperactive court jester. During the more macabre hits from her 2019 album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” like “Bad Guy” and “Bury a Friend,” the signature mischievous glint in her eyes transmitted all the way to the cheap seats. Eilish wore her jet-black hair in high pigtail-buns and, to facilitate her near-constant pogoing, sported sneakers, bike shorts and a punky oversized graphic tee. The effect was a cross between Harley Quinn, Minnie Mouse and Glenn Danzig.

Early in the set, she laid out the night’s only ground rule: “Have fun, bitch.” She later expressed gratitude that the crowd was present and alive, but never directly mentioned the pandemic. For nearly two hours, the arena was an escape where the only lurking dangers were the powerful figures that haunt Eilish’s songs — men she handily disarmed while the crowd chanted back every word of the barbed kiss-off “Therefore I Am,” and sat rapt as she strummed “Your Power.”

The set was minimally adorned — the only other musicians onstage were drummer Andrew Marshall and Eilish’s multi-instrumentalist brother Finneas — but visually compelling, and digital projections transformed it from a nocturnal highway to a fiery hellscape. It is a credit to Eilish’s charismatic stage presence that she rarely needed such augmented realities to make an impact. She danced and kicked down a narrow catwalk that divided the area floor and strutted across the center of the stage, which became an inverted plane that she tumbled down like a playground slide at the show’s end.

But Eilish’s most impressive feat was the way she enlivened and electrified some of the more subdued material on “Happier Than Ever.” “Goldwing,” one of the album’s snooziest moments, transformed into a kinetic call-and-response number. Low-key dis tracks “I Didn’t Change My Number” and “Lost Cause” became hard-hitting, crowd-pleasing bangers. Even the subtly sensual “Billie Bossa Nova” turned into a libidinous rager, as several fans flung bras onto the stage and Eilish playfully slung one of them over her shoulder.

The video projections accompanying that song included a series of faceless, scantily clad dancing bodies — sexualization in the abstract, rather than focused on the performer herself. In May, Eilish ushered in the “Happier Than Ever” phase with what seemed to be a transformation of her image, dying her hair bombshell blonde and posing in a figure-hugging corset on the cover of British Vogue. It is notable, then, that she has ditched this aesthetic on the tour promoting the same album, opting once again for inky hair and the signature baggy silhouette of the “Bad Guy” era that allows her to move freely onstage.

Throughout the night, Eilish conducted the crowd like an expletive-loving yoga instructor. She told us when to sit, when to put down our phones to fleetingly live in the moment (a recent arena pop concert trope), when to “get crazy.” The only low point in the staging came when she was lifted via a hydraulic crane toward the back of the arena for a few songs. It may have allowed some audience members to get a closer look at her, but it also restricted her movement, and proved how integral Eilish’s restless jumping around is to the contagious energy of her show. Some of her older material, particularly the 2017 ballad “Idontwannabeyouanymore,” felt awkwardly shoehorned into the set list, even as it served as a reminder of how rapidly and precociously she has refined her talents over just a few short years.

The night ended without an encore on an explosive high note, as Eilish wisely saved for last the shape-shifting title track from “Happier Than Ever.” The song is perhaps the most dramatic example in Eilish’s catalog of her interest in playing around with volume and dynamics. “Happier Than Ever” begins as a soft, ukulele-strummed ditty — made even more dreamlike by the confetti that slowly drifted down from the Garden’s rafters — and then morphs into a thundering, cathartic emo-opera.

But an even more piercing moment came during a much quieter song. As Eilish sang her latest album’s opener, “Getting Older,” a montage of home videos documenting her and Finneas’s childhoods played on the huge screen at the back of the stage. During the second verse, her voice cracked and she broke down in tears. “You all just saw me cry, that’s embarrassing,” she said after the song was done. “Seeing myself as a baby and then seeing Madison Square Garden just got me crying.” But it was far from embarrassing, and in fact an expression of the canny relationship Eilish has cultivated with her fans: Such intimate expressions of emotion are, after all, a large part of what keeps them filling all those seats.


 

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