Welcome to the red room. With flames bursting like panic attacks and lasers slashing across the sky, Billie Eilish bounces down a huge ramp lit blood-crimson, and sets about inhabiting a Pyramid-sized metaphor for her internal turmoil.
“Are you ready to have some fun?” she asks, between songs about suicide (muted, tribal opener “bury a friend”) and obsession (spook-disco track “my strange addiction”). Yet she’s soon asking us to scream at “whatever’s p***ing you off” during a compulsive rendition of “you should see me in a crown”. What we should really prepare for is 90 minutes of noir-pop catharsis.
In its way, Eilish’s headline set is just as significant as Jay-Z’s or Stormzy’s. Not because she’s the festival’s youngest ever bill-topper, although it certainly lifts the roof off every bedroom Tik-Tokker’s teenage dreams of glory. But because it marks the ascendence of alternative pop: a home-made, personalised imitation of the mainstream that speaks far closer to the actual teenage experience of 2022. Certainly more than any amount of ultraconfident, oversexualised break-up bird-flips written by long-in-the-tooth Swedish production teams. Alternative pop tones are dark and downbeat, its emotions raw and broken, its concerns doom-laden. Fame is wrought with insecurities, sex is regretful and drugs, when any are mentioned, are generally prescribed for anxiety.
True to form, there’s plenty of angst and insecurity running through Eilish’s set, from the crepuscular mambo of “GOLDWING” to superb nocturnal groover “Therefore I Am”. Midway through, she mourns the overturning of Roe vs Wade (“a dark day for women in the US”) ahead of an acoustic duet with her songwriting brother Finneas on “Your Power”. Ahead of “everything I wanted”, a track about the hassles of fame, she references climate anxiety, the subject of her new film Overheated and the theme of her recent six-night run at the O2.
But while stylistic forebears such as Frank Ocean and The xx have delivered subdued, glowering festival headline shows building to one dramatic crescendo, Eilish skilfully conducts a deeper and more dynamic experience. Blessed with a debut album of dank pop bangers and a richer, more introspective follow-up – last year’s Happier Than Ever – she skips easily between starting visceral pity parties with “bellyache” and a fantastic “bad guy”, charming us with her childhood home videos on “Getting Older”, and pausing the show for a self-help therapy session.
The much rumoured guest appearance from Harry Styles doesn’t happen, but it probably would have been overshadowed by the all-out rock’n’roll climax of “Happier Than Ever”. Alternative pop has arrived, with an almighty bang.