In recent years, many journalists — including myself — have noticed that culture journalism has suffered from a widespread loss of access to those who create the culture we write about, an essential component in producing a unique and compelling piece of journalism and/or criticism. The more time you spend with someone, the more you learn about them, and the more you’re able to glean from the interview process as your mutual familiarity increases. But in an era in which celebrities can speak directly to fans via social media without any mediation, and in which the power of the press is no longer singular across generations, there’s no longer any pressing need for a celebrity or celebrity-adjacent person to allow an interloper to linger in their space for several days just so they can tell your story in a way they would likely find unfavorable but is more interesting for the reading public.
We are more often presented with a particularly odious model of celebrity journalism, in which a famous person is interviewed by a friend/other celebrity or a very sympathetic journalist/stenographer who mostly goes on about how tight the interviewee is. In this model, we rarely get a full, human portrait of an artist; and even if we do, it is never the holistic parts of portrait that are seized upon but whatever element can be singled out and turned into a controversy of its own. Something like this happened to Billie Eilish this week, following a recent cover story in Vogue. During an exchange with writer Rob Haskell about songwriting, Eilish said: “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story. There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got my AK-47, and I’m fuckin’ . . .’ and I’m like, what? You don’t have a gun. ‘And all my bitches. . . .’ I’m like, which bitches? That’s posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.”
Eilish is 18 years old, and anyone who has ever been that — and not even just a privileged, white 18 year old, which she is — will likely recall a juvenile preoccupation with what’s real, and what’s fake that most likely arose during high school. However it expresses itself — whether realness means skipping college, or not eating meat, or listening to Mos Def, or whatever — the ages when you are beginning to see the world for what it is, rather than how it was presented to you in your youth, are when you are most passionate about declaring how the world works. That you are most likely to be wrong — and, in fact, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply wrong — about this is just another part of the process, until you get older and realize separately that wrongness is a semi-permanent facet of the human experience, and one’s dogmatic insistence about the nature of reality recedes to a more nuanced perspective, especially if one has begun to smoke weed. (If not, then you start a podcast.)
What Eilish said was wrong for many reasons, among them: the differences between “lying” and “storytelling” are essentially semantics; even if they weren’t, it’s hard to tell who’s lying and who’s not, though in this regard Eilish’s close proximity to peer musicians is potentially informative; the stereotyping of rap songs she doesn’t like as being about AK-47s and bitches is years old and, given the genre’s breadth and demographics, sort of racist. Also, lying in rap is fun, and part of the genre’s appeal is when someone is saying something that’s obviously bullshit but so entertaining/catchy/clever you don’t care. (Here’s a “lie” that’s stuck with me, because it rules: “Big ass shotgun look like Lauri Markkanen,” from Sada Baby’s “Bloxk Party.” Lauri Markkanen is a seven-foot-tall Finnish basketball player, and the shotgun is nowhere near that big, but who gives a shit?)
There is almost no upside to being ensnared into a controversy like this, even if it’s manufactured.
Nonetheless, if Eilish had said this 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have received prolonged attention among music critics who like to argue online and before online in bars, and stopped there. Maybe a radio host would’ve gotten wind of it eventually, and dedicated an annoyed segment about it on their show. But for the last several years, online media has warped into a delivery system for inflammatory information taken completely out of context. Hence Eilish pretty much ate shit all week, facing a dreaded “backlash” and dozens of shallow, aggregated write ups across the internet’s content mills. There are thousands of people who began their week not particularly wondering whether Eilish was racist or just an idiot; now, they do.
As Craig Jenkins pointed out at New York, the idea that Eilish looks down on rap is flatly incorrect: Asked about her favorite artists by NME last year, she named three rappers, and she wrote a song about the late XXXtentacion, who definitely rapped about guns and bitches. “Billie Eilish can care about rap music and also have said a dumb thing about it,” Jenkins wrote. It’s the second part that’s magnified by a factor of 100,000 on the internet, because of the media’s general shift toward low value, clickable content given undue weight in the algorithms that dictate what people should care about because people are talking about it, without giving any weight to the human question of whether or not it matters, or whether or not a full picture is being presented. (Many of these writeups, in their moral stridency, failed to account for Eilish’s on-the-record rap fandom, because that would complicate the narrative.)
It’s not surprising that a rich, successful, socially isolated teenager has incomplete ideas about a complicated subject. I also don’t want to wave Eilish off as “just a teen” — plenty of teenagers retain their dumb ideas into old age if they aren’t corrected, and in entertainment there’s certainly a double standard about which teenagers are taken seriously (consider the moral panic around drill music, which is largely made by black teenagers, both here and abroad) and which are forgiven for their youth (spoiler: it’s the white ones). Still, given the stakes and context — one short passage in a lengthy profile, during which she talked about many other interesting things, and generally came off well — it’s very hard for me to get worked up about this, even if I disagree wholeheartedly with what she said.
But when no part of our context-collapsing feedback loop is built to accommodate stakes, and considering the speed and vitriol with which Eilish was attacked, I can further understand why artists choose to distance themselves from the press in favor of doing their own. There is almost no upside to being ensnared into a controversy like this, even if it’s manufactured. It’s like when a journalist tweets something idiotic, goes viral with the wrong people, and ends up publicly apologizing for it by the day’s end, which I have seen happen way too many times in the last year. Even if the other people are assholes for making such a big deal out of it, that’s just how it works now, and you’d have to be stupid not to acknowledge that. Rather than trying to marshal the feelings and reactions of millions of strangers, it’s much easier to opt out entirely. I hope that doesn’t happen with Eilish, though — I’d love to see what else she has to say.