Review: Billie Eilish’s new photo memoir is unpretentious to a fault

Two children sit on the floor
Finneas O’Connell and his sister Billie Eilish in a family photo, from Eilish’s new book, “Billie Eilish.”
(Family of Billie Eilish)
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On the Shelf

Billie Eilish

By Billie Eilish
Grand Central: 336 pages, $35

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At the ripe age of 19, pop phenomenon Billie Eilish seems to have entered her memoir era. Her autobiographical songs are increasingly vivid, and earlier this year, Apple+ released “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” a documentary capturing the recording of her debut album and meteoric rise to cultural juggernaut. Social media’s grip on culture has made it socially acceptable for everyone, celebrity or not, to be perpetually telling their life story (or some spit-shined version of it) as it unfolds. Eilish’s platform is bigger, and her methods are more formal, but in many ways her public persona embodies a typical teen experience, perfected and idealized.

Now Eilish is publishing an actual memoir of sorts, simply titled “Billie Eilish,” a book of photographs with sporadic, pithy captions. If any teenager could pull off telling the story of her life thus far, surely it is Eilish, whose youth is at once a huge asset to her art (she speaks the language of now intuitively) and immaterial to it. Eilish’s smoky voice and sharp lyrics evoke someone decades older; she is not a kid artist, just an artist who happens to be a kid. (Let’s not forget that when Kate Bush released her debut single “Wuthering Heights” and Prince released his debut album, both future legends were also 19.)

Eilish, who adroitly executes her songs’ high concepts (devised alongside her brother Finneas O’Connell) and directs her own videos, is defined in no small part by her ambition, which makes her book feel somewhat out of step. The early press cycle ahead of her sophomore album, “Happier Than Ever,” has found Eilish complicating her image, releasing a MeToo-adjacent single (“Your Power”) and posing in a corset on the cover of British Vogue. She is evolving before our eyes, and yet her book mostly panders to her existing fanbase.


It’s jarring to see someone so invested in complexity release a book this basic. Imagine if the glossy insert of relevant pictures tucked into most celebrity memoirs were the whole book and you have a good idea of this one. Make no mistake: The book is hefty, comprising hundreds of snaps spread out over 335 pages, dating from her time as a fetus to the young woman she is today, a fully gestated visionary capable of making idiosyncratic art that speaks to the masses.

A man and baby at a piano
A snapshot of Billie Eilish’s father Patrick O’Connell with infant Billie in a sling at the piano.
(Family of Billie Eilish)

“I don’t want to spell out everything for you,” writes Eilish in the book’s introduction. “I want to give you a big pile of pictures that speak for themselves.” It turns out, though, that this isn’t really true. Coinciding with her book’s release is an audio component, in which Eilish and her parents narrate highlights, as though they’re looking over your shoulder as you page through a giant family photo album in their den. It’s more a commentary than an audiobook, and it makes perusing “Billie Eilish” much more of an experience. It is also sold separately, another piece of merchandise for Eilish’s insatiable legion of fans.

Six-time nominee Billie Eilish could have the night of her life at the Grammy Awards. But today, she has her mind on more pressing concerns.

Dec. 4, 2019

So much of what’s presented is anodyne, which seems to be the point. Eilish, the book conveys, experienced an average, white, homeschooled California upbringing in a household that emphasized creativity. She took dance class, sang in chorus and studied aerial arts. As a toddler she played an electronic piano her father bought from a discount store. She loved her dogs and held a snake (a precursor to the anaconda that co-stars in “Your Power”?). She had friends and wore princess dresses and tiaras. We get only a sliver of the eccentricity that would become her calling card: At an early talent show, she sang the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” She was 6 years old.

Eilish’s narration is unpretentious, sometimes to a fault. Playing Coachella was “so fun and so exciting,” her 18th birthday party was “so fun,” a trip to London was “so surreal and beautiful.” More frustrating than a lack of insight is a repeated inability to put her thoughts into words. Dyeing her hair white at 13 changed her as a person, “and yeah that’s all I can really say,” she explains. “I can’t really describe it. Look how good it looks, too. Jesus!” And then later: “Dude, Grammy day, man. So surreal. I don’t really think I can describe it but it was magical.”

Book cover
(Grand Central Publishing)

Part of what makes Eilish so charming is her apparent nonchalance, and throughout the book, she wears an expression as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s. (This is particularly glaring in a shot alongside artist Takashi Murakami, who directed her “you should see me in a crown” music video and collaborates with her on a Uniqlo clothing line). But for someone so aesthetically particular, Eilish’s lack of precision in describing mostly amateur photos is surprisingly phoned-in.

There are moments where she seemingly gets real, saying she felt dismissed as weird after releasing the “crown” video, in which a live tarantula crawls out of her mouth. Eilish’s engagement with darkness is particularly enticing. She invokes monsters, suffocation by snake and suicide with the aplomb of a kitten batting around a dead rodent. In interviews, she’s discussed her depression, but in her book — over which she ostensibly has full control — she only vaguely acknowledges it. A picture from a tour finds her in “the worst mental state” she was ever in. She recorded her debut album during “a period of life when I was not mentally very stable…a period where I really, really did not like fame.”

A woman and man asleep in a car
Finneas O’Connell and Billie Eilish sleeping off jet lag in a family photo from the book “Billie Eilish.”
(Family of Billie Eilish)

There’s a bit more to be read between the lines. Eilish wears the price of fame on her body, as the book documents a number of battle scars sustained on tour. There’s a two-page spread of pictures of her injured feet. Shots of Eilish’s soiled white outfit after her first time in a mosh pit are accompanied by narration in which she rhapsodizes, “It’s the most freeing feeling to be just in a group of people that don’t care about you.” A picture of her asleep on a train bears the caption: “Back when I could use public transportation without being mobbed.” One recent Halloween, she was determined to go trick-or-treating, so she found a sheet and cut out holes to make herself an unrecognizable ghost. “It was really fun,” she reports.

“I just want you to see me and see my life, with your own eyes,” writes Eilish in the intro. Her book provides plenty of showing, and the audio component is all telling, but somehow it amounts to very little, as if this project is one big, disorienting sleight of hand. It bombards you with superficial information, filling your mind with empty calories. “Billie Eilish” seems to have been crafted with fans in mind and nobody else. You do get the sense that Eilish still has quite a story to tell. She’s got time.

‘The Meaning of Mariah Carey,’ the pop star’s tell-some memoir, sparkles and entertains and explains its subject, despite a few too many I-don’t-know-hers.

Sept. 23, 2020

Juzwiak is a senior writer for Jezebel and co-writer of Slate’s “How to Do It” advice column.