Billie Eilish scarfs down spiders, scowls at cameras, and sings about murdering all her friends. She wears sneakers scrawled with the words FUCK U, and she makes music with dental-drill noises. She’s a creep; she’s a weirdo. What the hell is she doing here, on the Grammys stage, as the consensus pick of the music biz’s masses?
The 18-year-old Eilish took home five of the six trophies she was nominated for last night, including all of the “big four” awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist. (Her 22-year-old brother, Finneas O’Connell, who produces and co-writes her songs, shared in the big four and won two awards of his own.) The only other time someone swept the general categories was in 1981, when the ultrasoft and now-obscure rocker Christopher Cross bested Pink Floyd’s The Wall in a year when Prince’s Dirty Mind and the Clash’s London Calling weren’t even nominated. Cross’s milestone is now often referenced to demonstrate how uncool the Grammys are, and Eilish would seem a much hipper pick. (Her songs are not about yachts, to start.) But for all her supposed edge, there’s safety in her sweep.
After years of mounting anger toward the Grammys for feting blockbuster wedding singers over innovators, this year’s nominations had a genuinely thrilling class of popular rebels. The whimsical rap-country of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which broke Billboard chart records in its 19-week run at No. 1, seemed a lock for Record of the Year. The empowering rap-singing of Lizzo was a plausible winner in all the general categories, alongside Eilish’s rappish whisper-pop. “We want to be shifting to realness and inclusivity,” the host Alicia Keys said in a musical monologue (don’t ask) that made the evening’s only nod to the ousted Grammys CEO Deborah Dugan’s recent account of sexism, racism, and corruption at the Recording Academy. A diverse slate of winners in the general field might have signaled the very shift that Keys crooned about.
Instead, Eilish beat them all. This is not quite undeserving: She is a clever talent who made an addictively distinct album, and she used her performance slot last night for a lovely ballad that showcased her singing ability. She is also a young, willful woman who refuses the sexualized template and cookie-cutter sound that the music industry has foisted onto other young, willful women in the past. But the totality of her sweep hints that her acclaim owes not only to her significant artistic ingenuity. She has positioned herself to have multi-quadrant and oddly traditionalist appeal. She is also well connected, popular, and white, and those things still trump most else at the Grammys.