Ariana Grande Was Updating Pop. Then Billie Eilish Came Along.
Wednesday night at Radio City Music Hall, Billie Eilish was cavorting in a universe of her own design. On the screens behind her were crawling insects, a baby doll engulfed in flames, gloomy silhouettes of barren trees. Her hair was dyed a deep black, with tones of green and purple peeking through. For much of the show, the lighting was broodingly dark and pierced by intense strobes, and she commanded the room alone but for two musicians dressed unobtrusively in all white.
The night before at Madison Square Garden, Ariana Grande delivered a fantasia, too. Tautly controlled dance sequences. Small acts of kiss-off theater. With her hair clutched high into her signature ponytail, and wearing shimmering outfits with shoulders that pointed skyward to the cheap seats, she was part 1950s and part 2050s.
From a distance, Grande and Eilish represent two divergent approaches to pop superstardom. Grande is chromed and polished, a laser-precise, big-voiced, old-fashioned maximalist; Eilish is offbeat and earthy, with an almost shrugging approach to fame and a voice that sometimes remains at the level of a conspiratorial whisper.
But these two concerts — Grande’s was the third of four arena shows in the area last week, and Eilish’s was the second of two large-but-not-yet-arena-sized performances — demonstrated how they’re both reckoning with the same questions. The chasm between their answers reflects the ways in which the accelerant of the internet is rejiggering pop stardom in what feels like something much faster than real time.
The most striking difference was in their relationship to hip-hop, and the degree to which it belongs to pop. Grande has recently been making her connections more overt — borrowing a flow from 2 Chainz on “7 Rings,” then collaborating with him on “Rule the World”; using a sample made famous by Wu-Tang Clan on “Fake Smile”; and occasionally tabling her huge voice in favor of bouncy rapping. Though this is the “Sweetener” tour, named for her hit-packed but slightly airless 2018 album, the attitude had more in common with its admirably flexible follow-up, “Thank U, Next,” which was released in February and is one of this year’s most ambitious and forward-looking pop albums.
It’s a logical endpoint for the relationship between the two genres — any post-Taylor, post-Katy pop star was almost certainly raised on hip-hop — and these songs made for some of the most effective moments in her show. Grande’s gift for attitude is almost as vast as her voice, and in these moments, she felt the most present.
But she’s essentially solved this Rubik’s Cube just in time for an entirely new paradigm to emerge. Eilish is, more or less, the first SoundCloud-rap pop star, without the rapping. That scene’s sometimes-harsh, quasi-industrial production is an important part of her arsenal, as is its overall blend of mayhem and dismay. (Her opening act was the rambunctious Florida rapper Denzel Curry, a sort of uncle to the scene.) “If you hate yourself, this song is for you,” she said before “Idontwannabeyouanymore.” “You Should See Me in a Crown” had the beauty of a bulldozer.
And yet Eilish, like Grande, is deeply tuneful. Her haute-Hot Topic outfits and enthusiasm for the gross and gory belie the fact that her music relies on classic structures. Her debut studio album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” which was released in March, is full of suspiciously formal melodies cosplaying as goth. In places, her songs are almost cabaret: Imagine Elaine Stritch winking her way through the lyrics to “Xanny” at the Carlyle: “I don’t need a Xannnnnnnny to feel better.” And the intensity of the singalongs at this show — her fan base is young and outlandishly devoted, right down to emulating her hairdo and outfits — sometimes masked the fact that Eilish has a lovely, rich, uncomplicated voice.
It’s well-complemented by the production of her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who prefers cleanly structured music far less outré than Eilish herself. At the show, he played keyboards, guitar and bass, and toward the end, the two sat together in a bed that slowly floated up to the rafters and performed “I Love You,” mirroring how they first wrote it, Eilish said.
This gestural intimacy was part of Eilish’s gift for making very grand moments feel extremely personal. An unpretentious performer, she chatted loosely with the crowd. She wasn’t a polished dancer like Grande, but more of an enthusiastic mover, jumping wildly and bounding across the stage like she was hearing her songs for the first time, and loving them.
It was a contrast to Grande’s extravaganza, which felt casually grand but rote, making the big room seem even bigger. Grande is a powerhouse singer, one of the best pure vocalists currently working in pop, but Grande the belter is more developed than Grande the stage personality. Though this show had jolts of energy, it was meted out in controlled bursts. Her performance was a tug of war between a diva showcase, one that flaunted her singing, and a dance-pop extravaganza, which is typically the stock in trade of less polished vocalists.
Which is to say that, for all the expressiveness of her voice, there is still something distant about Grande, something slightly reluctant. Over the past six years, she’s built a presence that’s crisp, authoritative and — especially online — often fun. But this concert showed the limitations of that approach: It offers little hint of what might lurk beneath when the ponytail comes undone. And as Eilish made clear, now more than ever, what’s happening in the shadows is crawling up into the light.