If Billie Eilish lives in the neighborhood, is she one of us?

It might seem preposterous to think of Eilish as the California girl next door. The 18 year old is the first international pop star born in the 21st century, with the best-selling album of the past year, 50 million social media followers, and six nominations at this month’s Grammys. Her other-worldly voice, which can sound by turns angelic or menacing, is already among the most distinctive sounds in popular culture.

But, for all these exalted heights, Eilish relentlessly portrays herself as a regular kid from an unglamorous neighborhood, Highland Park, in L.A.’s northeast corner. In media appearances Eilish is often photographed at the modest home—a 1,200-square foot, two-bedroom bungalow—where she still lives with her parents.

The house is more than a symbol of her humility. It’s also the site of her creative inspiration. There, in one bedroom, Eilish and her older brother and collaborator Finneas O’Connell made her first hit, “Ocean Eyes,” and the 2019 album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” that

I confess to feeling especially connected to this neighborhood narrative, because I live along the same busy corridor as Eilish, five minutes away. Recently I drove over to check her place out. To my surprise, the house has the same simple design as my own abode—and is actually a little smaller.

There is something intriguingly irregular about Eilish’s regularity. Her choice of urban Highland Park to represent her reflects a shift in California’s cultural gravity away from the suburbs.

A half-century ago, another Southern California teenager with a magical voice, Karen Carpenter, like Eilish, collaborated with her big brother to erupt on the music scene. Carpenter also was portrayed as a regular  kid from a regular place—Downey, an L.A. suburb of aerospace plants, middle-class houses and drive-in burger joints. Downey, like Carpenter’s music, represented a sunny California stability.

Eilish’s Highland Park, by contrast, is a messy mash-up of a neighborhood. Its small homes and apartment buildings, stuffed onto tiny lots, include almost every California architectural style. And its corridors feature an artsy-gritty mix of fancy coffee shops, downscale restaurants, tattoo parlors, and car repair shops, sometimes all on the same block. Eilish—who favors baggy clothes and shocking neon blue or green hair—fits right in.

Highland Park is neither predictable nor stable. It has experienced considerable gentrification, while its middle-income and poor people cram into small rentals.

Not long ago, Highland Park was the site of serious gang violence; homes and businesses still have bars over their windows. The now-famous Eilish home is close to a McDonald’s and two auto body shops. When I visited, a half-dozen homeless people were camped 300 yards from Eilish’s home; one of them danced unsteadily out into traffic.
Highland Park is like many 21st century California neighborhoods: a place of confounding change, where things get better and worse at the same time.

It’s not hard to see how Highland Park influenced Eilish the artist. Her music, like her neighborhood, is a mash-up too, with songs nodding to many different genres, from rap to emo.

In Eilish music, the outside world sounds like a horror film. She is wary of airplanes, fame, love, beauty and emotion (“If teardrops could be bottled there’d be swimming pools filled by models.”). Her home state is a place of fires and murders. She sings:

Hills burn in California
My turn to ignore ya
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya
All the good girls go to hell

In “Bad Guy,” which is nominated for song and record of the year, she sings, “I do what I want when I’m wanting to. My soul? So cynical.”

Most Eilish songs are about her interior life—and her need to defend the emotions within in. On this subject, she is warm and confessional (about struggles with anxiety) in a way that draws you in. If Karen Carpenter represented a California ethos of sun-splashed optimism (a façade that Carpenter tragically couldn’t maintain), Eilish stands for a warier California where you must fight to keep a home, and your soul.

Eilish is unaffected by the swirl around her, or at least she tries to be. That’s the attitude you might cultivate if you live in a messy neighborhood where anything or anyone might come at you at any time.

Weird, after all, is our new normal.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.