Before Billie Eilish swept the Grammys last month, she had largely flown under the radar of anyone over the age of 21. But at (barely) 18 years old, Eilish made history as the youngest solo artist to win album of the year. That might not raise eyebrows if she hadn’t also swept four other Grammy categories: best new artist, song of the year, record of the year, and best pop vocal album.
Onstage at the awards, Eilish repeatedly suggested that other nominees deserved these honors more. In one of several surprise acceptance speeches made with Eilish, her brother, songwriter and producer Finneas flatly offered, “We didn’t think it would win anything ever. We wrote an album about depression, and suicidal thoughts, and climate change, and being the bad guy—whatever that means—and we stand up here confused and grateful.”
If you’ve actually listened to a song or two, you might be confused, too. Eilish’s music is unusual. Adults are kind of weirded out by it. We don’t get it. And that’s precisely the point.
It’s also why teenagers love her.
In 2019 she raked in accolades as Rolling Stone’s Teen of the Year, MTV Video Music Award’s Best New Artist, and two Teen Music Awards. While adults arguably run all of the awards machines, it’s Eilish’s young fan base who fuel her success. They’re captivated by the way she breaks most female pop-star norms.
My 17-year-old daughter was unsurprised that Eilish swept the awards, calling her music “different from everything you hear on the radio.” Which is also part of the deal—Eilish’s music largely became popular before broad radio play, in the teen-driven platforms adults often miss. Her latest music video on YouTube garnered 33 million views.
In hailing her as The Guardian’s Artist of 2019, pop critic Alexis Petridis describes Eilish’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” as “a dark, adventurous, eclectic set of songs that appeared blithely unconcerned with chasing trends.” My daughter used the word “scary” to describe her first listening experience, but said the music grew on her as she took in the whole album.
Some of her lyrics are indeed scary. Like these lines from “Bury A Friend”: “Today, I’m thinkin’ about the things that are deadly / The way I’m drinkin’ you down / Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me.”
The darkness and absurdity of Eilish’s music, wardrobe (decidedly asexual and awkward) and facial expressions (mostly flat, peppered with cynicism) all evoke an aesthetic that today’s teenagers get. Life is hard. Adults are handing down a screwed-up world. Politics is depressing. Why not find a way to laugh about all of it?
Her understated, near-mumbling voice stands out against the likes of Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande. Eilish’s vibe endears her to young people looking for an unpretentious hero, someone unwilling to play by the rules of beauty, presentation, or even music genre itself. Because all of this speaks to what teenagers perhaps need most: hope.
Whether or not we’re new to Eilish, we need not look far to see that our teenagers are hurting. Anxiety and depression in particular are on the rise, dominating the ways young people talk about their generation. Seventy percent of teenagers in one recent study considered anxiety and depression a “major problem” among their generation. Suicide currently is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10 to 24. And it’s estimated that two out of every three young people who experience suicidal thoughts don’t ever get help.
That’s a lot of pain paired with a lot of silence.
While feeling lonely and misunderstood are hallmarks of adolescence and young adulthood (at least across the last few generations), some suggest Gen Z is the loneliest yet, and a just-released study found 7 out of 10 often feel misunderstood. A New Yorkerarticle on Eilish’s appeal to “the loneliest generation” last fall quoted a 21-year-old, “I think gen z is extremely lonely!!!! Songs like ‘When the Party’s Over’ get RIGHT at the desperate, gnawing sense of isolation social media has sewn into a generation who are becoming increasingly sequestered.”
All of these themes find a familiar home in Eilish’s music. Perhaps her popularity is rising on the wings of a generation who feels like finally someone understands and is giving voice to their experiences.
What does this mean for parents, educators, coaches, and faith leaders who care about young people? For starters, it’s an urgent reminder that if we’re not already talking about anxiety and depression with teenagers, now is the time to begin. We may be afraid of what to say in response to all the worry we see, but on this topic, our quiet doesn’t lead to more peace.
Young people need to know that anxiety itself need not be dark and scary. Everyone experiences anxiety. It’s a signal. Anxiety might be telling us something is wrong or that we’re in danger. It might be telling us something about our bodies, our relationships, or that we need more sleep. Teenagers often aren’t good at listening to what anxiety is telling them. A young person might only know, “I can’t breathe,” “My thoughts keep racing,” or “I can’t handle anything right now.” They’re novices at interpreting experiences, much less at employing tactics to wind down a panic attack.
This is where adults can help by listening as a first step. Simply observing, “Sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed” might open up a conversation about anxious feelings. This is critical because teenagers need to know they aren’t alone in their struggles. Part of Eilish’s intrigue is that she can empathize. She helps put words to feelings. She represents hope—if Billie can get through this, so can I.
As adults, we can offer similar assurance from closer proximity. The more we talk about anxiety as part of life, the more we normalize the conversation. And for people of faith, talking about anxiety, depression, and suicide can help destigmatize mental health and make it part of our discipleship journey.
Anxiety shows up all through Scripture—and not just in verses like “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil 4:6). Often, we see that while God may neither cause anxiety nor erase it, God is present and stays with biblical characters in their most anxious moments. Mark 6:45-51 recounts a turbulent night when Jesus walks on water and calms a storm. In this story, Jesus actually gets in the boat and then stays in the boat with his anxious disciples. Similarly, in some of our stormiest experiences, the promise of God’s presence with us can provide incredible comfort. Anxiety can actually become a personal and spiritual growth tool when we learn to ask ourselves questions like, Where is God at work in the midst of my worry? or, What might this anxiety be trying to tell me?
Sometimes all a teenager needs to turn a corner is to stop and breathe. Helping a young person slow down their breathing allows the heart to slow down and pump more oxygen to the brain, quieting the alarm systems triggered by intense moments. While most anxiety is manageable for most people, anxious feelings can, at times, have the potential to grow and cause a lot of disruption in our lives. Responses like “just relax” or “keep praying about it” may actually make some situations worse, especially when professional intervention is needed through therapy or medication. It can be tough to know when a teenager needs outside help.
Adults can learn key signs to watch for and steps to take when we suspect something deeper might be going on. Experts say that these signals include trouble managing anxiety, struggles dealing with everyday life, pronounced intensity in any given aspect of life, and use of unhealthy coping strategies like alcohol, drugs, or self-harm.
Parents should trust their gut to talk to their teen when they sense something is wrong, then try to listen without judgment to what the young person is experiencing. One conversation could be enough to turn a corner, or more professional help might be needed. Even if the concern is a false alarm, asking questions reinforces a sense that it’s okay to talk when feelings do become too much to manage.
Maybe Billie Eilish is just dark and disturbing. Maybe her music is a harbinger of something new. Perhaps she’s helping crack open the door for conversations we need to have with the teenagers in our lives. Let’s gather the courage to ask, and to start listening.
Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content at the Fuller Youth Institute and the co-author of several books including the new resource Faith in An Anxious World.