Billie Eilish’s Music Revealed What Her SNL Sketches Couldn’t

As host, the pop star embraced mainstream celebrity. As a singer, she revealed the journey that got her there.

Billie Eilish performing her monologue on "SNL"
Will Heath / NBC

The first time Billie Eilish appeared on Saturday Night Live, the then-17-year-old put her famously green hair in two topknots, donned a graffiti-print outfit, and climbed the walls of a rotating room to underscore her eerie, enigmatic image. She rose to fame creating dark, ASMR electro-pop that distilled the fears of her generation with wry directness. Yet months later, she swept the 2020 Grammys with her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and her rising star turned meteoric. On this weekend’s SNL, pulling double duty as both host and musical guest, the now-19-year-old asserted part of her refashioned identity: that she’s made peace with fame.

Whereas Eilish once shied away from the hypervisibility of public life, she’s instead embraced mainstream celebrity—and the branding it so often requires. In the past year, she’s recorded the newest James Bond theme song, dropped her second album, released an Apple TV+ documentary, put on a concert on Disney+, co-chaired the 2021 Met Gala, and prepared to launch a perfume. Eilish’s SNL appearance added to that indefatigable output, offering her an opportunity to act—something she said she used to hate—and lean into the multifaceted nature of modern celebrity.

The singer took the opportunity to show off her more playful side. Like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift before her (all of whom hosted and performed on SNL before they were 20), Eilish used her monologue to poke fun at herself. Dressed in a wedding cake of a dress, she delivered canned jokes about her style, especially the baggy garments she’s known for wearing. “The real reason I wore big, oversized clothes back then is [that] I was actually two kids stacked on top of each other trying to sneak into an R-rated movie,” she said. But with her typical candor, Eilish unpacked the attendant traumas of adolescent celebrity too. “I am actually really excited to get older, because I am just now starting to understand who I actually am as a person,” she said. “And the scary thing about growing up in the public eye is people just decide that everything you say and do and look like is who you are forever. It’s not fair.”

With that weighty notion hanging over the episode, Eilish gamely participated in several tepid sketches that oscillated between trying to play into her new, loose persona and trying to play against type. Ultimately, SNL didn’t quite know what to do with her. In one particularly bizarre sketch, she played a nativity-show co-director who’d decided to liven up the story of Jesus’s birth by adding crude, allegedly hip-hop elements. “The streets are in the knees,” she said, and bounced her body stiffly to demonstrate how to twerk. To salvage the premise, Heidi Gardner, who played the other director, tried to out-express her counterpart, making for a lopsided sketch that felt frenzied and pointless. SNL’s style of comedy favors guest hosts who can either cling to their brand no matter the sketch or dissolve into their roles. As someone whose brand and acting chops are both still taking shape, Eilish couldn’t quite achieve either.

She did find a comedic groove with the SNL cast during a digital short called “Lonely Christmas.” Partnered with Kate McKinnon, who’d returned to the show for the first time this season, Eilish could step back and let the golden goddess of character work do her thing, twisting a seemingly sweet holiday tale into a delightfully dark blend of The Act and Rear Window. Eilish’s reactions, based in the sincerity that make her such an intriguing pop figure, showed her acting capability. But it’s also ironic that one of the best sketches mostly required her silence.

If Eilish set out to claim a new image on SNL’s stage, she achieved that in her musical performances. Her frankness as an artist—her appetite and talent for honestly casting ugly moments—has made her fascinating to watch compared with her pop peers, and she leaned into that theme. During “Happier Than Ever,” Eilish sat singing in a beige room before the walls peeled away to reveal the studio audience watching her. SNL has stretched the performative power of its musical segments in recent years, and this was a remarkable representation of Eilish’s reality. She seemed to offer viewers a stark visual of the voyeurism that shadows celebrity. On her second song, “Male Fantasy,” Eilish’s brother and collaborator, Finneas O’Connell, joined her in a makeshift-bedroom set, reminiscent of where they began making music together. Inhabiting the space, Eilish connected her past with her present—the person she was with the person she’s becoming. The sketches couldn’t quite reconcile those identities, but she was perfectly capable of doing it herself.