Billie Eilish, Lorde and the Push for Women Pop Stars to Constantly Reinvent Themselves
With new music coming this summer, both Billie Eilish and Lorde have chosen to present themselves in a whole new light. Why is this expected of female artists?
When Billie Eilish graced the June cover of British Vogue, jaws dropped. Gone was her signature dark, shaggy hair with slime-green roots and her usual ensemble of baggy pants, paired with oversized shirts and hoodies. Instead, she presented as a soft femme fatale with angelic platinum-blonde hair in old Hollywood curls, strappy, blush-colored lingerie, and corsets.
The images sent a shock wave through the internet, with fans initially stunned by the out-of-the-blue switch-up. But surprise quickly turned to praise, sparking a discourse on the male gaze and societal pressures placed on women and how they dress.
It was Eilish's decision to be seen in the magazine as a “classic, old-timey pin-up,” saying she felt like “more of a woman” with her new hair and look. “It’s about taking that power back, showing it off and not taking advantage with it,” she told the publication. “I’m not letting myself be owned anymore.”
As expected, along with her newfound image came new music mirroring the 19-year-old’s dramatic transformation. The first two singles from her upcoming album Happier Than Ever were different from the dark, synthy bops such as “Bad Guy” and “bury a friend” that turned her into a superstar, or even slower, moodier ballads “wish u were gay” and “Ocean Eyes” from her EP Don’t Smile at Me.
In her new music video for “Lost Cause,” Eilish embraces her femininity, dancing around a mansion in pajamas for a girls’ kickback. The filtered lighting, the silliness, and playful manner of it all feels like a complete departure—albeit not a bad thing—from what Eilish’s fans have come to know.
Of course, reinventing oneself is nothing new. Half the appeal of fleeing a small hometown, changing careers, or even getting a new haircut is the chance to try on a new identity. Especially in the music industry, change is encouraged, presented as an opportunity to create something unique that stands the test of time.
But it seems that more frequently, female pop artists are not only being pushed to challenge themselves artistically, but to transform everything about themselves with each new release.
They become chameleons, shedding the current version of themselves, and emerging as a shiny new thing, complete with a different look, aesthetic, and sound.
This week, Lorde whipped her fans into a frenzy with the release of her new beachy single “Solar Power,” announcing that an album of the same name would soon follow. But it wasn’t just the news that the New Zealand singer had new music out after four years that got people worked up, it was the cheeky cover image of the single—a worm’s-eye view of a thong-clad Lorde skipping past the camera lens.
It seemed Lorde too was shedding her dark, brooding, angsty persona for something more carefree and sunny.
“There’s someone I want you to meet,” she wrote in a letter announcing her third album. “Her feet are bare at all times. She’s sexy, playful, feral, and free. She’s a modern girl in a deadstock bikini, in touch with her past and her future, vibrating at the highest level when summer comes around. Her skin is glowing, her lovers are many. I’m completely obsessed with her, and soon you will be too.”
Currently, no one does new eras better than Taylor Swift. When she came on the scene in 2006, she was a fresh-faced, curly-haired country singer armed with love songs and her acoustic guitar. She racked up acclaim for her debut album, as well as Fearless and Speak Now, until she suddenly departed from her signature country-meets-pop sound with her 2012 album Red.
Gone were the cutesy ringlets and bejeweled dresses—a new Swift had arrived. She oozed hipster-cool, with a bold red lip, straightened hair, and a fedora. It wasn’t just a wardrobe change and a fresh haircut: her Instagram feed was also overhauled to roll out anthems “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” The songs were a declaration that the innocent Swift of previous years was gone, and in her place was a sassy 20-something who wasn’t afraid of heartbreak and to drop names.
Next up, was a more mature but young-at-heart Swift, who was trying to figure her life out in New York City in her album 1989. She was intentionally personal with this new phase, literally inviting fans into her Tribeca apartment for a listening party.
But the biggest and most startling departure from Swift’s image came in 2017 with Reputation—announcing the new her by wiping her Instagram account, teasing new music with an image of a snake. When the album dropped, Swift was seen with a harder, edgier look. She wore a choker and slicked back her hair—no longer some lovestruck pushover, she was now a bad bitch.
Swift’s vengeful alter-ego took center stage in her music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” announcing in the song, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? ’Cause she’s dead.”
Swift announced that she’d effectively killed off her sweet-girl image and was no longer playing nice, perhaps sparked by her feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. The singer had been furious with West for referring to her as a “bitch” in his song “Famous,” claiming she’d never agreed to the line. Of course, matters were made worse when Kardashian released an audio recording of their phone call and West hired a Swift lookalike to lay naked in bed for the music video.
When done with that phase, Swift came back with the softer and whimsical Lover. That was followed by her indie sister albums, Folklore and Evermore. Swift adapted to her new sound with braided hair, neutral makeup, and lots of cardigans and flannels.
The 31-year-old recognizes the absurdity that to stay relevant, female musicians must constantly up the ante. “It’s a lot to process because we do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard at 35,” she said in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana. “Everyone is a shiny new toy for like two years. The female artists have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. They have to or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent, constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny.”
There’s a handful of women in the music industry Swift’s comments apply to. Lady Gaga had her outrageous, avant-garde persona, wearing a dress made of bloody meat to the VMAS one year or arriving at the Grammys in a futuristic, galactic egg. She then stripped back her larger-than-life character for the toned-down Joanne.
Rumors are already swirling about pop’s newest darling Olivia Rodrigo, who just released her smash debut breakup album Sour, with heartbreak anthems “Drivers License,” “Deja Vu,” and “Good 4 U.” Instead of just looking forward to a tour they are anticipating her next era, theorizing that her next album will be called Sweet and include only love songs.
This phenomenon of constantly evolving can be traced back to Madonna, who at 62 is still finding ways to switch things up. Since her self-titled debut album in 1983, she’s reinvented herself several times over: as a classic ’80s pop star with “Material Girl” before her controversial performances for “Like a Prayer” and “Of Father” enraged the Pope in 1990. Over the course of her 14 albums, she’s been a disco diva, cowgirl chic, classic Hollywood glamor girl, a spiritual woman, and most recently a provocative Madame X.
Perhaps the most transparent way Madonna seemed compelled to stay relevant while being pitted against decades-younger pop stars is when she planted a smooch on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the VMAs in 2013.
But in the pressure to constantly reinvent themselves, sometimes artists can end up with a character they aren’t necessarily proud of.
Who could forget Miley Cyrus’ startling 180-degree turn from a Disney child with friendly teen bops “7 Things” and “Party in the USA,” to a wild child with her 2013 hip-hop album Bangerz. Cyrus twerked, swung naked on her infamous wrecking ball, and recruited a host of rappers to appear on the album, including Ludacris, Future, French Montana, Big Sean, and Nelly.
But it was just a fad for Cyrus, who while promoting her new dream pop ballad “Malibu” sneered at her former association with the hip-hop industry because it was “too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock.’”
“I can’t listen to that anymore,” she told Billboard in 2017. “That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little… I am so not that.”
For men, there’s really no comparison. They are allowed to experiment with their sound without having to overhaul their image. For example, Drake is teased for suddenly gaining a new accent with each album, but at the end of the day, the music still sounds like Drake and Drake always looks like Drake. Justin Bieber might have bleached his hair when he came out with his dance-pop album Purpose in 2015, but a dye job and a quick haircut will never amount to the lengths that female artists are expected to go to. (The one glaring exception is David Bowie, with his iconic alter ego Ziggy Stardust and transformative sounds, though he was always viewed as the exception to the rule.)
When it comes to Lorde and Eilish’s new albums and looks, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with switching it up. But female artists should be wary of the growing expectation that they should crack themselves open and erase elements of their identity simply to stay relevant and entertaining to fans.
As Swift added in her documentary, it’s perfectly OK to welcome change and new eras, “but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you.”
“Live out a narrative that we find to be interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.”