• November 30, 2021

Billie Eilish and the Future of the Pop Star Documentary

Here’s the thing about pop stardom: The world is unable to divert its stare. Like a vortex, it sucks in eyes. It’s a disco ball, reflecting humanity onto itself. For women especially, it’s a minefield. When you’re famous, people feel entitled to look at you, then critique what they see. Artists in revealing outfits are slut-shamed, and others are greeted with headlines like “Every Time Billie Eilish Ditched her Baggy Outfits for Tight Clothes.” (I will not be linking to that piece.) It is so prevalent that Eilish herself once made a short film to address it. “Some people hate what I wear; some people praise it,” she says in the voice-over. “Some people use it to shame others; some people use it to shame me. But I feel you watching—always—and nothing I do goes unseen.”

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It’s a reprieve, then, that Eilish’s new Apple TV+ documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, devotes almost none of its 2-hour, 20-minute run time to talk of Eilish’s body or the people who want to comment on it. Instead, RJ Cutler’s doc limits discussion of her corporeal form to talk of shin splints, sprained ankles, and other ailments brought on by her extremely committed live performances. Instead, the film takes an open, and almost radically vulnerable, look at the future of being famous, a hereafter Eilish is crafting before our very eyes.

Eilish speaks, as most stars do, about how much she appreciates her devotees, whom she says aren’t fans, but rather “part of me.” But she also talks frankly about depression, standing up for herself in relationships, and her history with self-harm, which came from a belief in her early teens that she “deserved it.” She shares the anxiety associated with wondering if the internet will dislike her work, something that her brother and producer Finneas says makes her terrified of writing catchy songs, because “her equation is, the more popular something is, the more hate it’s going to get.”

When, in the documentary, she experiences a series of Tourette’s syndrome tics while reviewing marketing materials for her Grammy-winning album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, her mom notes they could be the result of additional tiredness and stress. “I’ve done some crazy shit because of my Tourette’s,” Eilish adds. “I fucking broke a glass once—in my mouth—because I have this one [tic] where I’ll bite down on something. If I have something I’ll just go [chomps down], because my brain is like [snaps fingers] ‘Do it!’” For a condition so often misunderstood, and misrepresented, in popular media, it feels like a gift to witness someone talk about it so frankly.

It’s hard not to see how much Eilish’s life, and what she’s willing to share of it, is being informed by what stardom has done to so many before her. In one telling scene, someone on her team asks whether Eilish is comfortable sharing a video in which she says “drugs and cigarettes are you killing yourself.” The potential PR nightmare, presumably, is that she may one day consume a substance and be labeled a hypocrite. Her mom protests that there’s no reason she shouldn’t be authentic, and that Eilish could remain a lifelong teetotaler. Eilish agrees that the woman “has a point.” But, Mom counters, “you’ve got a whole army of people trying to help you not decide to destroy your life like people in your shoes have done before.” Eilish, out of Mom’s eye line, reacts with an Office-worthy, straight-to-camera “Welp!” grin-frown. Shortly thereafter, at Coachella, both Katy Perry and Justin Bieber show up to tell Eilish the next decade of her life is going to be incomprehensible, “wild.” When Bieber says it, it sounds like encouragement. When Perry does, it feels like a warning.

Considering the microscope she’s already under, it’s easy to wonder why Eilish would participate in a documentary at all. Her deep-seated intentions may never be known, but it almost feels like an attempt to avoid what her team was talking about, a gambit to take control of her narrative now, rather than correcting the record later.

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