A cursory YouTube search of Billie Eilish’s name won’t quickly reveal the music video for the pop star’s second standalone single, “Six Feet Under.” The followup to Eilish’s dreamy Soundcloud debut, “Ocean Eyes,” as well as the singer-songwriter’s first release through Interscope Records, the 2016 clip may be the forgotten gem among Eilish’s 20 visuals to date (though, at 26 million views, its reach is nothing to balk at). Visually, it remains a standout within her catalog, in part because it’s Eilish’s only video in which the artist is not present. Where her better-known visuals boast highly produced body horror fit for a David Cronenberg feature — as in “When the Party’s Over,” where her eyes bleed black tears — “Six Feet Under” has the DIY appeal of the Blair Witch Project: A smoke bomb placed before a wooden fence is ignited by a disembodied hand and spouts plumes of yellow, teal, and red. The footage was edited by Eilish’s mother Maggie Baird in reverse, at times, so that the clouds spread, then recede, ebb and flow. This was also the first of her music videos Billie Eilish directed herself.
At the time of its release, Eilish was 15, living with her parents in a Highland Park, Los Angeles, bungalow, where she was homeschooled and collaborated on music from the childhood bedroom of her brother and primary creative partner, Finneas. She began writing music at 11, but before that, “since I was, like, nine years old, I was making music videos to songs that I just liked, ‘cause I just wanted it so bad,” she tells MTV News.
By 14, directing her own visuals was already a major dream, the beginning attempts at which can be seen in “Six Feet Under,” but Eilish found that her passion and experience weren't valued early on, particularly as a young woman in the industry. “There’s this weird world of ‘You don’t have any experience so you can’t have the job; — it’s like, well, how am I supposed to get the job if I can’t get any experience?” she once posed to The Guardian. “I think that’s a big problem in the world with women. I don’t think people like us being the boss.” As her sound evolved from ethereal, fairy pop to incorporate a convergence of influences (she’s often cited rap’s resident weirdo Tyler, the Creator as a perennial inspiration), her earliest visuals reflected the teenage state of an identity in flux.
Eilish has synesthesia, a neurological condition that makes her uniquely able to visualize music as vibrant hues, and her earlier videos appear to nod to that experience: “Bellyache” finds the singer exploring a canyon rendered in high-contrast technicolor, while she dons an all-yellow sweatsuit. But it was with “You Should See Me in a Crown” that Eilish fully stepped into the macabre aesthetics for which she has become known, as well as back into the director’s chair. Released in 2018 as the third video Eilish self-directed, it shows the singer mouthing lyrics to-camera while wearing a glittering diadem roughly the size of her head. Tarantulas crawl across her arms and inside her mouth as her body shakes and spasms, perhaps a reference to her diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, which often appears as facial tics and muscle tension.
Regularly incorporating characteristically nightmarish fantasies the likes of which haven’t been seen in the mainstream since the ’90s heyday of industrial titans Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, the visuals that followed were meant to haunt and discomfort. “I love bugging people out," she said in a New York Times Magazine profile earlier this year. "Freaking people out. I like being looked at. I like being in people's heads. I feed off it."
By the release of her debut album in March 2019, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Eilish was fully in control of her sound — beat-heavy electronics and droning synths; whispered, spoken-word vocals that dissolve into guttural sighs — and her image, even while collaborating. For “All the Good Girls Go to Hell,” which is up for three VMAs on Sunday, she brought her most ambitious concept yet to director Rich Lee: Riffing off the song’s title, she would become a fallen angel, plunging into a tar-drenched hellscape. Together, the pair referenced images of oil spills in the ocean, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood.
“She wanted to have these angel wings burn off, and what you're left with are the charred remains of the wings underneath,” Lee tells MTV News, “to become the devil, basically.” The transformation involved the design and fabrication of a pair of wings, each extending 15 feet, which were strapped to Eilish via harness and puppeteered by an off-camera crew. Covered in black, crude oil-like Nickelodeon slime to communicate a harrowing warning about the climate crisis, Eilish lugged the full weight of the goo-soaked wings across the set. “You can see just how far she's willing to go to almost endure pain to make art,” Lee says.
That sentiment translates especially viscerally when viewing Eilish’s “Xanny” video, which transposes the uncomfortable experience of breathing in secondhand smoke into a muted gray tonality. In the vein of “You Should See Me in a Crown,” the singer remains passively center-frame, slowly mouthing her lyrics to-camera, as hands holding cigarettes reach in from beyond the frame to extinguish the butts on her cheeks, leaving temporary marks across her face. “It was just so natural, and kind of magical, the way that it came,” Eilish says of the inspiration for the visuals. Directing it herself, however, was another matter. “It’s a lot, a lot more work. It’s definitely a lot less... I want to say fun, but it is fun. It’s fun in a different way, though,” she says, comparing the experience to being directed on set. “But really, it was exactly what I’ve needed, because I’ve wanted to direct my own stuff for my entire life."
Now, it seems the tide has finally shifted. This year, Eilish’s direction for “Xanny” earned her a VMA nomination for Best Direction, while another video with Eilish at the helm, “Everything I Wanted,” is up for Video of the Year. Meanwhile, her latest visuals for the up-tempo “My Future,” an animation that sees a cartoon rendering of the singer literally grow and blossom as the song’s beat picks up, seems to shirk off some of the darkness. Perhaps, it is even a message of hope in what’s to come. “I love the idea of making you think about something that you didn’t even know you thought,” she says. “The songs that I’m working on currently, the videos I’m working on currently, I got a lot of things I want to say about my life and about the world in general. And you know, why not say them?”
The 2020 VMAs will air live at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Sunday, August 30 across MTV's linear and digital platforms, as well as with several outdoor performances around New York City. Find everything you need to know at vma.mtv.com.