The 20-year-old musician’s staging at Madison Square Garden was minimal compared to many pop extravaganzas. Her energetic presence increased the concert’s impact.
- Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to donate each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Billie Eilish’s latest album, “Happier Than Ever,” is a rather muted affair — acoustic ballads, fluttery, crooned tunes, even a hushed bossa nova number — so it was worth wondering how such material would translate in the arenas the 20-year-old pop phenom is playing on her Happier Than Ever: The World Tour. Yet the roughly 20,000 passionate fans yelling along to every word during her victorious Madison Square Garden show on Saturday night demonstrated that there is no such thing as a quiet Billie Eilish song, at least not when played live.
Eilish owned every inch of the stage during the second of two back-to-back Garden performances. During the more macabre hits from her 2019 album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” like “Bad Guy” and “Bury a Friend,” the signature mischievous glint in her eyes transmitted all the way to the cheap seats. Eilish dressed her jet-black hair in high pigtail buns and wore shoes, biking shorts, and a punky big graphic top to accommodate her near-constant pogoing. The result was a hybrid of Harley Quinn, Minnie Mouse, and Glenn Danzig.
She established the night’s single ground rule early on: “Have fun, bitch.” She subsequently expressed thankfulness for the crowd’s presence and survival, but she never addressed the epidemic. For nearly two hours, the arena was an escape where the only lurking dangers were the powerful figures that haunt Eilish’s songs — men she handily disarmed while the crowd chanted back every word of the barbed kiss-off “Therefore I Am,” and sat rapt as she strummed “Your Power.”
The set was minimally adorned — the only other musicians onstage were the drummer Andrew Marshall and Eilish’s multi-instrumentalist brother Finneas — but visually compelling, and digital projections transformed it from a nocturnal highway to a fiery hellscape. It’s a testament to Eilish’s magnetic stage presence that she seldom used augmented reality to make an impression. She danced and kicked down a narrow catwalk that divided the area floor and strutted across the center of the stage, which became an inverted plane that she tumbled down like a playground slide at the show’s end.
But Eilish’s most impressive feat was the way she enlivened and electrified some of the more subdued material on “Happier Than Ever.” One of the album’s snooziest sections, “Goldwing,” was converted into a dynamic call-and-response piece. The low-key diss tunes “I Didn’t Change My Number” and “Lost Cause” were transformed into hard-hitting, crowd-pleasing bangers. Even the subtly sensual “Billie Bossa Nova” turned into a libidinous rager, as several fans flung bras onto the stage and Eilish playfully slung one of them over her shoulder.
The accompanying video projections showed a sequence of faceless, scantily clad dancing figures – sexualization in the abstract, rather than centered on the performer herself. Last May, Eilish ushered in the “Happier Than Ever” phase with what seemed to be a transformation of her image, dying her hair bombshell blonde and posing in a figure-hugging corset on the cover of British Vogue. It is notable, then, that she has ditched this aesthetic on the tour promoting the same album, opting once again for inky hair and the signature baggy silhouette of the “Bad Guy” era that allows her to move freely onstage.
Throughout the night, Eilish led the audience like an expletive-obsessed yoga teacher. She advised us when to sit, when to put our phones down and engage in the moment for a few moments (a current stadium pop music cliche), and when to “go wild.” The only flaw in the production was when she was transported to the rear of the arena by a hydraulic crane for a few songs. That enabled some audience members to get a closer look at her, but it also limited her mobility and demonstrated how important Eilish’s restless leaping about is to the infectious spirit of her presentation. Some of her older material, particularly the 2017 ballad “Idontwannabeyouanymore,” felt awkwardly shoehorned into the set list, even as it served as a reminder of how rapidly and precociously she has refined her talents over just a few short years.
The night finished on an explosive high note, as Eilish carefully kept the shape-shifting title tune from “Happier Than Ever” for last. The song is possibly the most dramatic illustration of Eilish’s interest in experimenting with loudness and dynamics in her collection. “Happier Than Ever” begins as a soft, ukulele-strummed ditty — made even more dreamlike by the confetti that slowly drifted down from the Garden’s rafters — and then morphs into a thundering, cathartic emo-opera.
Nevertheless, a more penetrating moment occurred during a much calmer tune. As Eilish sang her latest album’s opener, “Getting Older,” a montage of home videos documenting her and Finneas’s childhoods played on the huge screen at the back of the stage. Her voice cracked during the second stanza, and she burst into tears. “You all just witnessed me weep, that’s humiliating,” she stated at the end of the song. “Seeing myself as a newborn and then witnessing Madison Square Garden brought tears to my eyes.” Yet it was far from humiliating, and it was an evidence of Eilish’s astute connection with her fans: such private demonstrations of emotion are, after all, a big part of what keeps them coming back for more.