Books

What Makes Billie Eilish’s New Book Different From the Typical Celebrity Memoir

Starting with challenging what a “memoir” even looks like.

Pouting Billie Eilish, her hair black with green roots, wearing a visor.
Billie Eilish attends the Brit Awards on Feb. 18, 2020. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Many of us spent our months in lockdown picking up crafts and getting into baking, and so, too, did Billie Eilish. When she wasn’t releasing new music, readying her second album, or winning yet another Grammy, the 19-year-old singer-meets-style icon was assembling a scrapbook with her family that tracks her life from birth to, well, quarantine. The difference between the O’Connell family’s photo album and yours or mine is that they had the business savvy to publish it at the usual steep price of a famous person’s hardcover release. No one wants to see my baby photos, yet even Eilish skeptics will find her massive collection of old photos worth flipping through—if only to challenge their mindsets.

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There are nearly 350 pages of photos in Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish, ranging from never-before-shared pics of smiley baby Billie to more familiar shots from photo ops or fashion shoots. Although the book has been marketed as a cross between a photo book and a memoir, it falls firmly in that former camp. Flipping through the pages is like watching a beloved teen pop star grow up before your eyes, an evolution that is particularly fascinating when it’s that of Billie Eilish. The artist whose first EP release asked that listeners “Don’t Smile at Me” went from a dirty blond with a big smile and a Justin Bieber iPod case into a much surlier teen—when, at 14 she dyed her hair the soon-to-be-iconic platinum, it “really switched something in me,” she writes.

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From that point on, we slowly see Eilish’s smile fade, replaced by stoic expressions. Her T-shirts and sweatshirts become more and more oversize, her jewelry heavier and heavier. For the fan and even casual observer, this is the part of the book where Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell—yes, that’s her real name—becomes Billie Eilish, the subversively blunt, fashionably alien, undeniably angel-voiced teen star. It’s a striking transformation in how familiar it is to someone much older than her; these photos chart how aging can make you change from happy-go-lucky to unbearably moody on a dime. But Eilish’s moodiness is so crucial to her aesthetic that seeing her as a normal little girl is much more surprising.

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A young, blonde-haired girl sticks her tongue out at the camera, holding a sandwich crust and leaning on an adult-size guitar.
A photo of young Billie Eilish from Billie Eilish. Grand Central Publishing
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Or, it would be, if the book provided any meaningful insight into what’s going on behind the scenes—or even within the scenes—of these photos. The majority of the book offers no commentary, and even when a photo is accompanied by a caption, it’s often inscrutable. (Examples: “ha ha” below several photos of Eilish’s badly bruised ankles; “Babieeeeees” attached to photos of fans waiting outside an unspecified venue; copious uses of “lol” throughout.) This is not an educational text on The Tao of Eilish, a glimpse behind the persona. Why did she want to dye her hair green? Why start wearing baggy designer clothes? Why, in one of the book’s more memorable photos, does she dress up in “normal clothes”—including skinny jeans, glasses, and a wig—for Ellen DeGeneres? And what do all of these moments reveal about this subversive teen? Eilish ain’t telling.

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Eilish is such an intriguing public figure, yet when she has a chance to put forth a tome cataloging the creation of this image, she offers little to justify or prove what makes her intriguing in the first place. Instead, we’re expected to be well aware of that It Factor before we even open the book. There is rarely any context given to references made to some of her songs and videos, which might leave certain photos’ importance frustratingly vague. One innocuous photo is captioned as “the night we wrote about in ‘i love you,’ ” a song off her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?; I love that song, but even I had to look up the lyrics to try to make the connection.

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The audiobook companion, in which Eilish and her parents reflect upon some of their favorite photos and ultimately give a chronological reflection of the artist’s life, is slightly more helpful in this contextual regard. But the family isn’t waxing philosophical, just nostalgic, and the experience is often more like sitting with people you don’t know very well as they force you to go through their extremely long family scrapbook with them, sometimes even skipping around without warning. Eventually, lost as to which photo the family was talking about since they had long stopped referring to any specific details, let alone page numbers, I preferred to just flip through the book on my own.

Maybe to expect Billie Eilish to offer buzzy breakout items or never-before-told tales of her short life is unfair. (That’s what the excellent Apple TV+ documentary The World’s a Little Blurry, released in February, is for.) Eilish herself writes in the book’s introduction that she wants the book “to feel like a photo book you might have of yourself. I don’t want to spell out everything for you. I want to give you a big pile of pictures that speak for themselves.” And that is exactly what she did—which frankly, for someone as uniquely visual as Eilish is with her work, makes a whole lot more sense than the alternative.

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Eilish is not pretentiously trying to frame the first 19 years of her life as a story that would enlighten and inform her public. According to her, she’s not that big ol’ sad weirdo her music and image make her out to be. She’s a pretty dang normal girl from a doting nuclear family in Los Angeles, who loves her friends and makes goofy faces—well, except for that part where she’s achieved unfathomable amounts of fame before her 20th birthday. “We’re all just our three-year-old selves,” she writes in the intro, asserting her relatability. “No one doesn’t go through different phases.” This is the best, perhaps only, takeaway from Billie Eilish’s Billie Eilish. And now, onto the next phase.

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