Pete Wentz Ran So Billie Eilish Could Walk, by Josie Cicogna
The niche that Eilish and similar artists occupy did not exist in a robust way before Fall Out Boy took the stage in the early to mid-2000s. Between the beginning of Fall Out Boy's mid-2000s fame and the band’s 2009 breakup, bassist Pete Wentz occupied a curious position. He portrayed himself as an outsider to the music industry while climbing his way to an exclusive status as a media darling.
Pete Wentz, and by extension, Fall Out Boy, defined the era of pop-punk. They were MTV stars, featured on a Rolling Stone cover (Rolling Stone also published a fawning exposé on the band’s tour life that did little to curb the media craze that swept Fall Out Boy up into fame), and played at President Barack Obama’s 2009 Inaugural “Youth Ball." Entertainment news outlets and tabloids wrote loads of articles about the pop-punk craze featuring titillating pictures of Wentz and MCR singer and front person Gerard Way.
Throughout all this, Wentz spoke truthfully throughout the band’s music about the toll the limelight took on his self-image. Despite his negative view of fame, he mingled easily with the rich and famous. Wentz later married actress Ashlee Simpson and ran in social circles with the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Most importantly, he went out of his way to connect with fans and speak about mental illness and mental health issues with fans online, at roughly the same time that Britney Spears was being publicly hounded by the media for similar mental health issues.
Thriller and The Take Over, The Break's Over are the first two songs off Fall Out Boy’s 2007 studio album Infinity on High. They feature an explicit analysis of the band’s sudden rise to fame. They also touch on Wentz's own feelings of distress and narcissism surrounding their new status as starlets. In fact, the band repeatedly returned to these themes in the albums they released following their sudden rise to fame. In Folie à Deux’s, America’s Suitehearts, and I Don’t Care, in two songs off of their 2015 comeback album, The Phoenix and The Mighty Fall, and in Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea and Young and Menace off their latest album MANIA.
Despite the highs of Fall Out Boy’s fame, the band maintained its gritty, self-aware, melancholic melody that lent itself to criticisms of media attention and stardom. Time and time again, Fall Out Boy’s lyrical messages were echoed in interviews and blog posts from Wentz that openly criticized the drug abuse, paparazzi hounding, and extreme mental toll that consumed celebrity culture. Wentz’s view was especially unique in that the band’s breakthrough to fame followed soon after his botched suicide attempt in 2005.
These days, Pete Wentz is recognized in the music industry as a smart and influential businessman. Fall Out Boy's sound as a rock band has shifted towards a much less edgy approach over time, and their prevalence in pop culture has waned with it. Wentz is certainly no longer the starlet he once was. However, Billie Eilish and artists like her are the successors of the dynamic established by the early years of Fall Out Boy's fame.
Eilish's breakthrough gimmick—her clothing choices—was intended as a pushback against the sexualization that young female artists face as they rise to stardom. Despite this explicit criticism of the music industry’s status quo, Eilish's act quickly attracted a large following and critical acclaim.
Though fans loved her, Eilish’s attempt at commentary fell flat. She didn’t take her criticism as far as Wentz did. She failed to generate nearly as much media attention on the issue she was trying to comment on. Her original message was also discounted by the sexual undertones she chose to include in her music, and failed even more when she abandoned the baggy clothes gimmick soon, as it could be deemed profitable for her to be sexy in the public eye.
The new breed of insider-critic-with-a-cult-following evolved from the heady, wildfire prominence of Fall Out Boy’s mid-2000s act. Without Pete Wentz’s melancholic diva persona, the modern pop star would look drastically different.