Three years ago, 17-year-old Billie Eilish made a shaky start to her Coachella career. Held at the festival’s Outdoor Theatre, her set was blighted by technical mishaps: she arrived onstage over half an hour late, forgot some of the words to “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” and, worst of all, brought out special guest Vince Staples for “&Burn”, only for his microphone to entirely fail to work and leave him rapping in silence. Not ideal, then.
Still, she had fond memories of that weekend too. After all, it was backstage here in India that Eilish met her teen idol Justin Bieber. In footage captured for RJ Cutler’s 2021 documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, the pair meet and embrace for the first time. Eilish had grown up worshiping the Canadian singer, who is eight years her senior, and the moment marked a sort of emotional crossing of the Rubicon for Eilish as she was quite literally welcomed into the world of pop superstardom by the icon she’d deified.
In the course of just two feted albums (and a Bond theme for good measure), Eilish has become a Grammy magnet and all-round alt-pop sensation. Mixing retro tones with mordant lyrics about issues both universal and specific to her life de ella – everything from teenage heartbreak to NDAs and paparazzi – Eilish sings with vocals that veer from whispering to full-throttle belting without ever losing their intimacy. Hilariously, at 20, she’s still too young to qualify for one of the ubiquitous wristbands worn by attendees of the Californian festival to show they’re old enough to drink alcohol.
By the standards of a Coachella headliner, Eilish’s stage is relatively sparse: no back-up dancers, no gimmicks. Ella’s focus is all on her, and the multiple guests she welcomes over the course of the night. She arrives tonight relatively promptly – just seven minutes past her 11:30pm stage time – and quickly sets about dispelling any fears of a similarly disrupted show this time around. During her opening track “bury a friend”, a woozily pulsating song about a monster under her bed, Eilish immediately heads out to the place she always looks happiest: surrounded by her fans out on a long runway. The faces in the crowd light up as she passes, and even when she brings out Georgia-born R&B singer Khalid for their aptly named duet “lovely”, all eyes remain locked on the star in the process of becoming Coachella’s youngest ever headliner.
In the years since she last performed here, Eilish has grown into a polished live act, punchier and somehow more vulnerable than on record. She’s been forced to mature well beyond her years, something she sings about on “Getting Older”. For this, she’s joined by a genuinely surprising guest star, Blur’s Damon Albarn, or as he’s known in America: Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn. He wanders on halfway through the song unannounced to join her, as if to prove that Glastonbury isn’t the only festival where he can pop up when you least expect him. Eilish is effusive in her praise of her, telling onlookers that the Albarn-featuring supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen had been her “first favorite band” when she was six years old. “Blur changed the world and f***ing Gorillaz changed the world, and this man is literally a genius and that’s that.” As if to illustrate her point of her, the pair are joined by De La Soul rapper Posdnuos for an exuberant version of Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc”.
Her brother and repeat collaborator Finneas also joins her for two affecting numbers, “Your Power” and “i love you”. But the showiest flourish of the evening comes during her infectious breakout single “ocean eyes”. Standing in a crane-elevated platform high above the crowd, Eilish is illuminated by the lights of phones below, a moment of pure transcendence.
Eilish can now add “Coachella headliner” to her staggering CV, which already features seven Grammys and her recent Oscar win for Bond theme “No Time To Die” (which doesn’t feature during her set, to the chagrin of some). Soon she’ll add “Glastonbury headliner” too. It’s not hard to imagine Eilish looking down at the vast audience laid out in front of her and weeping, like Alexander, seeing she has no more worlds to conquer. Instead, she stays humble. Her final words of the show are: “Sorry I’m not Beyonce”. As her masses of adoring fans drift into the night, nobody else seems to be. They’re happier than ever.