Peer leadership and searching for your own Billie

Every member of your community is unique and adds to its colorful fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. And just maybe their words are the exact ones you need to hear.

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I love metaphors. The connecting of apparently unrelated items and circumstances provides a cerebral stimulation for me. Especially interesting is when I can connect pop culture to how we could better ourselves and others in this world of ours. And on top of this list is music. Maybe it’s my concert promoting experience during my formative years in college, or just the enjoyment of music I get coupled with the creative personalities of those who create it.

Pop culture is so much more than just the demeaning term of pop that’s attached to it. For much of the population in the western world (and increasingly beyond), especially the young; it’s what we choose to put in our brains when we’re not doing the things we have to do and often don’t want to be doing. And even the things we have to do are often influenced by pop culture. Assuming you’d want to, it’s virtually impossible to escape it’s grasp; whether it be music, fashion, film, advertising, and on and on. Many in the adult world, where they say the real business of life happens, make every effort to dismiss it as adolescent trivialities. This is especially the case, and always has been, with music. “Subversive messages are being put out to undermine their authority and their beloved status quo.” In reality all these dismissive types are doing is disconnecting themselves from the forbearing messages of the future that will articulate the upheaval of their positions of power in society’s hierarchy.

I’ve become addicted to Spotify; not the premium version, the free version with the commercials and random song interjections. Many of these random interjections turn out to be songs from artists I’ve never heard of and have ended up becoming staples in my favorite list. One of those such artists was Billie Eilish and the song was Ocean Eyes.’ In the summer of 2016 I first heard her ethereal voice and immediately favored it. Normally I look look up the artist and delve into their backgrounds if I hadn’t heard of them – but for some reason I didn’t with Eilish. Over the next couple years I tagged a couple more of her songs I had heard, but it wasn’t till last year I did a do deep dive on who she was. In 2018 Billie Eilish was sixteen years old: and then I realized I had been listening to her since she was only fourteen. With the vocal maturity she exhibited, I could have sworn she was ten years older. Midway through 2018 Eilish began gaining traction in my little personal attention span; much having to do with an appearance on Ellen singing the bizarre (but addictive) spider-ridden song, You Should See Me In A Crown,’ and a get-out-the-vote PSA with Eric Garcetti (mayor of Los Angeles). By the time 2019 rolled in … her popularity had exploded.

Over the last year my psyche has drifted into an abyss of malaise. Maybe it was my ongoing battle with the after affects of chemo from the year before: but probably more accurately it was the relentless bombardment of half-baked political ideas conjured up by equally half-baked political candidates, all claiming to fix all that ails us. But what’s worse than the ideas themselves is that they’re taken seriously, especially by the media. To most of them anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth must be considered legitimate policy and taken verbatim. The issues of feasibility and implementation don’t play into it, let alone the unintended consequences that could very well make things worse. We’ll deal with the messy stuff like actually doing it later. Now is the time for sound bites, the news cycle and rhetoric, specifically rhetoric for the white working class in Trumplandia. Regardless, I’ve been in a dark place. Then Billie Eilish thrust herself front and center in my mindspace – literally jump starting my synapses. Music, specifically its sociological implications, has always been a huge influence in my life.

But there was something different here.

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Billie and Finneas

Billie Eilish (age seventeen) and her brother Finneas (age twenty-one) grew up in Highland Park, California, a predominately Latino inner suburb of Los Angeles. They’ve lived in their current two bedroom house their whole lives. Each kid has a small bedroom and their parents, working actors, slept on a futon in the living room. Both kids were home schooled with their curriculum being their daily lives where music and creativity was in abundance. Finneas began musically collaborating with his sister when Billie turned thirteen. A year later, ‘Ocean Eyes’ was uploaded on SoundCloud; intended only as Billie’s dance choreography assignment. It went viral and very soon there after the young sibling collaborators and their parents were meeting with music executives.

At present Billie Eilish is the #4 most streamed artist on Spotify and has eight songs over 100 million streams each. Her latest release (and first official album), ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 with 313,000 units in March of this year; the second-largest sales week for an album in 2019. It also made her the first musician born in the 21st century to top the chart; as well as the youngest female act to top the chart in 10 years since Demi Lovato did so, and the youngest female artist to spend more than one week at number one since Britney Spears in 1999. Billie Eilish has officially arrived.

Billie’s music is beyond genre classification. You could hear, ‘Bad Guy and say it’s pop and then listen to “Bitches Broken Hearts” and think Frank Sinatra was about ready to step in and sing the second verse. Her influences growing up, seeded by her parents, range from Green Day and the Beatles to Sinatra and Peggy Lee; from Linkin Park to Etta James. What comes from Billie and Finneas is a synthesis of their lives unfiltered by conventional schooling and traditional parenting ideals with a dash of Los Angeles and all that it offers, good and bad.

This synthesis has seeded is more than just a unique sound though. It’s a different world she’s created, fueled by her muti-sensory synesthesia. Each song takes on a color, a feel, a smell and even a number to Eilish. Upon kicking off the launch of her debut album, Billie and Spotify created an immersive experience in downtown Los Angeles which guides you through the album with 14 rooms dedicated to each track, featuring the sounds, smells, colors that Billie imagined composing each. It’s essentially a look into the mind of Billie Eilish.

And what a story it is. With “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” Eilish has imagined a universe of her own making — a place that exists entirely within the miniature aural world of her LP. To say that her album possesses its own atmosphere — its own flora and fauna, even — is an understatement. “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” is like no place you’ve ever been before. Why? Because Eilish hadn’t invented it yet. (“Billie Eilish is the new pop intelligentsia” – Kenneth Womack: author of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin; and Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University.)

But maybe more than the music Billie and Finneas produce – is what it represents … more specifically what it represents to the legions of devoted rabid fans.

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Transcending the music

I may sound like a fanboy, but to me Billie Eilish represents so much more than her music. She shows us a view into humanity that has the potential to model the communities where we live … one where creativity and expression reign over conformity.

First Billie Eilish and her creations represent the disregard of existing structures, conventions and the way you’re supposed to do things – but not in an anarchist way. She’s not trying to tear anything down; but rather use love and expression as a road to connection. All her music was recorded and produced in her brother’s bedroom – not an expensive recording studio. This isn’t your basic do-it-yourself quality project though. Her latest album will likely spawn four Grammy nominations, including best album. Now the “establishment” is scrambling to replicate the magic that was born from Finneas’ bedroom. I rather doubt it will happen anytime soon.

If the oft-repeated note that the Spotify generation is one unfettered by genre is true, then Eilish is the epitome of this. She’s a new kind of star that can go from the ukulele sing-along of party favor to the industrial throb of bury a friend without apology or pretense. This refusal to be classified is unnerving to all those who strive to put everything neatly in boxes, and have their lives directed by predetermined definitions – whether it be music, politics, ideologies or just societal norms and expectations of how one’s life should go.

It’s one thing to be unique, but the bar for quality the siblings have set, especially with the resources restrictions they faced, is extraordinary. They take you to places where it’s easy to identify with – but in a way like nothing you’ve heard. For example, she recorded a dental drill taking off her braces and included it in ‘bury a friend’ – and it fits perfectly.

Billie’s creative expression at such a young age has spurred creative expression from her fans. They see it’s possible, no matter how old they are. Art creates more art – and expression creates more expression and from this expression comes confidence. That in itself is worth more than one can describe.

Her authenticity extends beyond her music to her very being. There is no one like Billie Eilish. Her fashion sense is closer to that of a male rapper than her female peers and their skin tight leggings. Her androgynous wardrobe shuns the sexualized look thrust upon teenage girls by adults in the music industry and society in general. She empowers young girls to be and dress how they want, not unwillingly having to showcase conformity to some unrealistic body image depicted everywhere and played out everyday in school. Maybe more than anything, authenticity has cemented her reputation. “I don’t care what you don’t like about me,” she says. “I care what I have to say.”

Coming of age in a decade that can feel apocalyptic, she is attuned to the concept of a future on the brink. Her music reflects that throughout as she tackles global warming, depression, suicide as well as normal teenage angst. “I really care about the world, and global warming, and animals, and how everything is ending and I feel like nobody’s really realizing it,” she says.

Maybe the most heartening thing about the Billie Eilish ascent is her connection with her fans, which she hates calling them. To her they’re siblings. I know it sounds trite, but she consistently comes across as genuinely having respect, connection and most of all love for them. She performs live not like a star on stage, but like a fan herself. Her shows are giant sing-alongs where everyone in attendance knows every word of every song. Her breathy intimate voice is most often drowned out by that of the crowd. This empathy and connection attracted the Ad Council. They are currently featuring Billie in their ‘Seize the Awkward’ mental health campaign. She is normalizing mental health by stressing to her peers (and beyond) that it’s alright and normal to ask for help – and it’s the responsibility of everyone to initiate and reach out and help. This is how you break the stigma – not sequester help to a counselor’s office next to the principal where everyone is surely to see you go in. This peer responsibility and connection at our most vulnerable times is the very definition of community. Young and old, we should all learn from it.

Billie-Eilish green hair -- yes

She has become a voice for a generation that is tired of manufactured pop stars put together by adults; singing lyrics that mean little to them. Billie speaks to them in subject material that is dark – but resonates with what so many are going through as they’re growing up. The world adults have given them is not a pretty place. It’s riddled with expectations so many can’t identify with; and an environment that continues to be destroyed as adults act in ways contrary to what the science they are suppose to learn tells them. And on top it, their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have turned over the country and their future to a bumbling narcissistic fool.

In step with what you’d assume, there are words of warning coming from the adult peanut gallery. To have their children exposed to something dark and different, especially something that resonates so deeply is to be looked at with skepticism if not dismissal. The rise of Billie Eilish shows how out of touch many adults are, parents included, as few even know she exists. We may claim to be in a digital age but most adults participate little more in it than Facebook, email and streaming Netflix. There’s a reason why young people are fleeing Facebook, it’s the platform of their parents and that of little relevance to them. Gen Z is using the internet, especially Instagram and Twitter, to rally its brethren around issues such as gun control (MFOL), climate change (#fridayforfuture) and now Billie Eilish and her therapeutic lyrical discussion of mental health, depression, suicide and other teenage issues of angst. Adults get sucked into the propaganda of cable news (regardless their political persuasion) and the vacuous promises of the next messiah, regardless if it’s Trump or Bernie Sanders. It seems most are yearning for a time pre-Gutenberg when thinking was not part of the human repertoire.

Many adults look at Billie and see baggy clothes and blue hair (or white, depending on the week or whim). They see a slacker, someone who doesn’t care about anything; and this is what they see influencing their kids. On the contrary, her and Finneas are the antithesis of that. They are accomplished professionals of the highest degree (again, wait till the Grammy nominations come out). On the song ‘Bad Guy’ Billie re-recorded one word forty times to get the tone and intonation just how she wanted; how she felt it would best reflect the song’s message. I would hardly call that slacking.

Our children on the other hand are looking for and willing to give and receive empathy, and want permission to know that they can be who they think they are. They see that in Billie; someone their age who has shattered the creepy adult-driven sexualization of their their still developing teenage bodies and emotions. They want to be part of creating the world they live in for themselves. They want the issues that should matter to everyone, regardless of age, addressed – and addressed now. Tradition and institutional process is not to be revered for the sake of its existence, but rather questioned and confronted head on. It’s an attitude we all should adopt; one where we actually use our minds, not just ignorantly search for next “savior on the white horse” to protect us from whatever demon of our own making lives under our beds. We are bumbling through life doing what we’ve always done, because we’ve always done it, letting anything or anyone lead us over a cliff if it’ll absolve us from thinking too hard.

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Looking for leaders among us

Billy Eilish has urged her fans not conform to the sexualization of teenage girls through the baggy clothes she wears. She’s also advocated against drug and alcohol use by writing, xanny,’ a song that depicts the unattractive and stupid side of getting high and wasting your life on drugs and booze. These are issues that hit her demographic square on. ‘xanny’ currently has 79 million streams on Spotify (up 6 million from two days ago). Her matter-of-fact anti-drug message hits a huge a amount of young people and reinforces it every time they listen to the song. Her unique look is ubiquitous as kids (and adults) are reminded of it in every picture, video and interview she does. It’s textbook marketing; authenticity, honesty, and then repeat … and again. She is setting the foundational values and norms for young people in our communities everywhere. It cool not to get drunk or use drugs and your clothes don’t have to be for other people to judge your body by. Add to that her outspoken advocacy for mental health – her value as a positive influence is infinitely more valuable than any endless parade of politicians pontificating values and vacuous legislation from their disconnected viewpoint in their ivory towers.

How can we populate our communities with Billie Eilish type peer leaders who embody the the traits we value in our communities; authenticity, inclusion, expression and awareness? How can we find these people who are individuals, not mindless conformists; not afraid to call out difficult issues, and propose and implement solutions, not unrealistic political rhetoric and ideological nonsense. And how do we find these people who are doing it by example – not just talk.

Our communities must become breeding grounds for these peer leaders, regardless their age or socioeconomic level. We need to find those who will exert the influence we need to evolve. Not everyone will be Billie, but there are people out there who will and are. And once we find them, we must nurture them. These are our true leaders who will provide the guidance and empower us to help ourselves rather than just look for next “white hat on a white horse.”

Not every leader, peer or otherwise, should be expected to step up and lead in all situations though. This is the quagmire we often find ourselves in under our reliance of traditional institutional structures. We elect a leader and expect them to provide expert guidance across the full spectrum of civic responsibilities. Such will never be the case; instead we find ourselves void of true leadership in the majority of circumstances we face. We concentrate on structures, organizations and the process of anointment to positions of power – regardless of whether the competence exists to actually get anything done.

My remedy is not only peer leadership, but making that leadership situational. Situational leadership ebbs and tides according expertise levels, need requirements and resource availability. The rhizome model of civic engagement I’ve written about details this methodology well. This infrastructure template abhors static roles and instead promotes inclusion and the use of human resources and skills appropriate for the need or opportunity when and where needed.

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In much of the world, we are living in a dark place. Certain sectors of the population; often elderly, white and traditional are scared, very scared, of the changes they see all around them. They see inclusion and minority empowerment as a threat: and as a reaction they are pushing back against the exact things we should advocate for. Many are afraid of uncertainty, and anything and anyone different. Their reactive tactics are aggressive and punitive. They are actively looking to punish anyone who does not conform to their antiquated version of society: and they’re using government and many of our traditional institutions as their tools. We cannot be passive about our response to them. We cannot assume our institutions are there to support us. We must push hard and fast for inclusion, creativity and diversity. Too many in the high rungs of power are not willing to compromise – and will fight to the end for their ideologies and pathologies. We must match their commitment and their resolve. And our execution must come from the situational leadership of those we find among us – not through the traditional positions of institutional power who are there first and foremost to sustain their positions and promote the status quo.

Our future hangs in the balance.

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