Seeing this girl’s name and face literally everywhere for the past eight months - and especially now that her first album has been released to massive fanfare and critical acclaim - has really got me thinking about her whole backstory, the subject of “industry plants”, and what it says about the modern culture industry in general. While it’s true pop music (and the majority of the culture industry) has always been a corporate-created façade, what stands out in Billie’s case in particular is: 1. the manufacturing of her rise to fame is much more obvious than it was for pop stars in the past, and 2. a large amount of her fame can be attributed to her misappropriating a subculture known to be DIY, and also her image as a so-called “socially conscious” voice amidst the muck of the face-tatted-coloured-locs era.
Billie grew up in a gentrified neighbourhood of Los Angeles a stonethrow away from Hollywood. Her parents are actors and musicians with a long list of credits stretching back 40 years, her mother also teaching songwriting and screenwriting to industry professionals. Her brother Finneas O’Connell is an actor who has been on hit TV shows and is also a successful musician himself. According to interviews Billie has given, she and Finneas were homeschooled specifically so they could focus on acting, singing, and dancing rather than conventional academics. In other words, she wasn’t just born with a foot in the culture industry, she was raised within its waters. Her time in music began at age 14 when she recorded vocals to a song Finneas wrote and produced for his band (“Ocean Eyes”) which “just happened” to go viral once it was posted to SoundCloud. Shortly after, she was signed to Interscope Records; she had almost no prior musical experience before being signed (e.g. she was never part of an underground/local music scene, was never in a band, never made a bunch of demo tapes), which should come off as pretty sketchy to say the least. Interscope proceeded to flood her music all over platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, get her a plethora of interviews in highly credible publications, and got her going on two world tours despite at the time only having released an EP. But most of all, she has an overwhelming amount of social media clout, especially on Instagram where she currently holds 16 million followers. It could be said she’s known more for her presence on the platform than her actual music (i.e. everyone knows who she is but no one can name any of her songs). If this isn’t a textbook example of a major label planting an artist, I don’t know what is.
Billie’s image underwent a profound change sometime around early 2018 without explanation. She shed any impression she once had of being a cute little alternative pop princess for “SoundCloud rap” attire. All of a sudden she was wearing baggy designer clothes with a neck full of real chains, and began flaunting her friendships with said “SoundCloud rappers” all over her social media (most notably with XXXTentacion; she rambled on about him during her Montreality interview done two months after his death to ensure everyone knew the two of them had been close friends). She also adopted a cheesy accent reminiscent of “ghetto” black vernacular despite being white as snow and raised in a gentrification cesspool. Her actual music, however, did not change as the singles she put out remained soft alternative pop, not the blaring Miami scene-inspired trap music of her new found friends.
Media publications, however, have remained highly sympathetic to her, writing about her as if she’s a teenage sage, a soft voice of mindfulness looking to mourn over a culture of destructive self-indulgence. Her music, unfortunately, doesn’t even come close to reflecting this, probably because she simply doesn’t have much of a base to draw upon (she is still a sheltered suburban white girl, after all). She doesn’t sing about political issues and very rarely does she really touch upon the grim realities of everyday life under late capitalism. Her song “Xanny”, which is my personal favourite from her new album, does speak about youth drug culture but has little substance to it overall. Her songs focusing on teen depression come off as petty with, again, very little integrity. Ironically, the one instance of her fully venturing into the trap/industrial genre is also the only song where she doesn’t sound soulless and cavalier: her uncredited feature with Denzel and J.I.D. (certainly because she’s singing Denzel’s words, rather than something Finneas pre-wrote for her).