About a month ago, I watched a music video in which a young woman with blue hair and a badass expression stumbled down a dark corridor, as gloved hands plunged needles into her back and clawed at her face. Set against a menacing electronic backdrop, her singing was gauzy and hushed, like a ghost whispering in your ear. While the video had shades of The Shining, the singer brought to mind early Lorde or – for those with longer memories – Martina Topley-Bird, whose gently cracked voice gave Tricky’s Maxinquaye its eerie pleasure. The song was “Bury a Friend” by Billie Eilish. Weeks later, I still can’t get enough of it.
Eilish – who has just released her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – is 17 years old. She lives with her parents and still wears braces. Her constituency is mostly teenagers looking for an alternative to the shiny, pseudo-sexualised upstarts often pumped out for their demographic. My daughter, who is 12, thinks she’s the business. I do too. But it’s probably safe to say that, when Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell set about writing songs about mental health, night terrors and breakups, they didn’t have me – a woman in her forties – in mind as their target audience.
Unlike my parents’ generation, I don’t believe that pop music is the preserve of the young. The once-prevalent idea that pop is something you should grow out of, like stuffed toys and Disney films, is odd and actually quite insulting. In the throes of middle age, I can still be knocked sideways by a beautifully turned lyric; certain singers’ voices still slice through my internal organs as sharply as they did in my youth. But I also know that pop music is rarely as dementedly life-altering as it is when you are in your early teens – those precious years when your brain is unfurling and your personality is in flux.
In the book This is Your Brain on Music, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks about the brains being “maximally receptive – almost spongelike – when we’re young, hungrily soaking up any and all sound they can and incorporating them into the very structure of our neural wiring”. This would explain why I can recite the lyrics to The Smiths entire back catalogue but why I now find it impossible to separate George Ezra from the scores of Ezra-a-likes on the radio.
The music we like is, of course, closely wrapped up in our identity. Generation Z may be less tribal about their listening habits than my teen peers were – in the early Nineties, a person’s choice of clothing was a good indicator of their musical proclivities, but now you can dress like Lydia Lunch circa 1980 and still go berserk for Little Mix. But the deep connection between personality and musical taste remains. Our heightened passion for music, and for pop culture in general, often arrives when we are trying to assert independence and forge a life away from parental influence. It’s a time when our sense of self is a work in progress. During these years, music was a lifeline for me, a voyage of discovery that I embarked on alone and away from the family from whom I felt increasingly estranged.
And yet, in contrast, I now see cross-generational bridges being built through music. One of the most heartening changes I have seen in 25 years of gig-going is parents and their offspring watching bands together. There could be a financial aspect here – given the exorbitant price of arena shows and festivals, why not get mum or dad to cough up instead? But the fact that teens are able to enjoy the same music as their parents still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. I grew up in a house where there was no music until me and my brother made our first forays to a record shop clutching birthday money. I’ll never forget my dad’s crestfallen face every time I produced a cassette to play in the car. By contrast, my daughter has been raised with access to a large record collection and the wonders of Spotify; no one, to my knowledge, has ever yelled at her to “turn that racket down”.
Naturally, she was on to Billie Eilish way before me, which is exactly as it should be. When you’re young, part of the thrill of music lies in the process of discovery. It’s also reassuring that there are things on her cultural radar that I find baffling, chief among them the fascination with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos on YouTube, and films of youngsters trying to create gourmet Cheetos in their kitchens. But on music, for the time being, we seem to be in agreement. Apparently, it’s OK for me to think Billie Eilish is cool. Just as long as I don’t try to dress like her, and I never, ever sing along.
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