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After a summer when the combined age of the male frontmen headlining Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage reached 174 years, the search for a new generation of headliners at British music festivals goes on. A rare female bill topper, the US singer Billie Eilish is at front of the queue, having made history last year as Glastonbury’s youngest ever solo headliner at the age of 20.
Often described as the voice of Gen Z, it’s apt that her only planned UK shows this year are at Reading and Leeds. Unlike other festivals, the average age here is such that over the weekend a 27-year-old woman at Reading went viral for a TikTok video in which she admitted feeling so old she couldn’t face leaving her tent.
Arriving onstage at Leeds in red and blue baggy sportswear and a star-spangled beanie, Eilish immediately seemed at ease, switching from the gothic flourishes of “Bury a Friend”, from her 2019 debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? to post-fame fables such as “NDA” and the outstanding “Therefore I Am”, from 2021’s follow-up Happier than Ever. These spare, sinuous songs were noticeably more muscular and upbeat than on that record, on which at times Eilish sounded almost defeated by the onset of early superstardom.
Teenage girls made up the majority of the hardcore fans. When Eilish walked towards them, a high-pitched chant of “Billie, Billie” went up. But this was as close as things got to a singalong festival gig. For a huge show, it felt almost intimate, an outdoor arena turned into a teenager’s bedroom. This was highlighted by an acoustic interlude in which Eilish’s brother and co-songwriter Finneas pulled up a stool for a superb version of the damning “Your Power”.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest cheer was for “What Was I Made For?” from the recent Barbie movie soundtrack. Eilish, who wrote her first song at 11, seems to have answered this question at a precociously young age, but she has spoken of how this particular song was born out of a recent period of creative self-doubt. Throughout the show she offered advice to her young audience, using her platform to boost them. “I hope you feel safe,” she said.
The mood was relaxed, even after a final barrage of songs that included “Bad Guy” and the thunderous heavy metal finale of “Happier than Ever”. Eilish climbed down into the pit to go walkabout with the fans, seemingly as happy to hug them as they were to get close to her.
The next day was topped off by another young headliner, Geordie rocker Sam Fender, who showcased songs from his excellent 2021 album Seventeen Going Under. As he savoured the moment, he recalled how, as an 18-year-old, he had been in the Leeds audience watching his heroes. “I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could do that as a job’.”
Both performances were a reminder that ushering in a new wave of big acts is not just about increasing diversity but crucial for the future of the music industry.