Billie Eilish recently shocked the world with her new hair, and then a few days later, her Vogue cover shoot. It meant only one thing: a new album. While many lauded her new image, some mourned the death of Eilish’s previous identity, of angsty teenage grunge and baggy clothes that felt universally relatable rather than cringeworthy. For perhaps the first time, a mainstream female pop singer wasn’t leaning into her femininity and this reclamation of androgyny felt liberating. The idea to be seen while unseen was radical – the effects of her baggy skater look are still seen today, and although she can’t be credited for a look which has been around for decades, some of its popularity is because of her.
Even I thought it was interesting – as an adolescent, to combat being watched, objectified, leered at, sexualised, I began to cover up and dress like Eilish. It felt like a panacea for the male gaze that infiltrated everything. But this status of body positivity icon was forced upon her, and her new agency over how she is presented must feel liberating.
Regardless, her transition is entirely valid – she told Vogue “you shouldn’t try to be a person that your old self would like, and you shouldn’t try to be a person that your future self is going to be. You should be exactly who you feel like you are and want to be in that moment”. People change, and along with it how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Eilish preempts the backlash: “Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore. If I am, then I’m proud.” Her public sexual agency blew up – her photos are now some of the most liked on Instagram ever. And yet, is this a commentary on our fascination with the female form, or is it the shock of such a drastic change?
Her new blonde hair and softer colour palette seems to suggest growth and a move into a more mature era; you can hear it in her sound already from the few singles she has released. They hold the same silky quality and stellar production but they’ve moved away from the gothic tones of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Upon reflection, in trying to understand part of Eilish’s desire to drastically change her identity, I felt that this aesthetic transition was a particularly female condition.
The first example that comes to mind is Taylor Swift, who constantly reinvents herself, and although you can argue each album demands a new era, she maintained this creative reconstruction more often than men. She went from country singer to pop icon, then after the Kanye drama she became the blunt antagonist back for revenge in Reputation. Later she switches back to casting herself as a sickly sweet Taylor for Lover, and adopts a cottage core aesthetic for folklore.
The industry demands constant novelty and entertainment from women in order to stay relevant, a demand that is not extended to men in the same way
Ariana Grande switched from a brown high ponytail to a blonde low ponytail for the cover of Sweetener, again harking attention to a sense of maturity. She also moved away from black and white album covers to a lighter colour palette. Lady Gaga is another: Joanne is a lot softer visibly than earlier records like The Fame Monster. Beyoncé also reinvented herself for Lemonade, but went in the opposite direction, becoming harder in her sound and look.
But change brings attention and is perhaps the most effective tool for publicity. You can make the case that any artist needs aesthetic change: The 1975’s change from black to neon, or Beach House’s white to red. However, the industry demands constant novelty and entertainment from women in order to stay relevant, a demand that is not extended to men in the same way. Male pop stars like Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, or Ed Sheeran (who, like Swift, often sings about love, relationships, and heartbreak but has not redefined himself with every album) seem to have a relatively constant aesthetic. Although they may have change ups, they don’t have to completely change their identity as frequently as women do. Change is good, and can be organic, but this preoccupation with women and the need to provide constant fascination and attention to secure their position is dated and rooted in something deeper and more misogynistic. The music industry is fast-paced, and it’s hard to keep up – but it’s even harder if you’re a woman.