Formats Unpacked: Billie Eilish - Same Interview One Year Apart
Why have 40 million people watched a pop star answer the same questions three times?
Thanks for inviting me into your inbox and giving me a click. Recognising that I’m grappling for your attention with lots of other great newsletters, my first promise to you is to make these brief.
Here’s the format for this:
I invite someone to choose a favourite format. I then ask them one simple question - Where’s the magic that made it special?
In keeping it simple my hope is to get right to the heart of why certain formats connect with people. Formats are about structure, but the magic often sits between the pieces of scaffolding that holds the format together. Well, that’s my theory.
I’m starting this because I’m fascinated with formats yet surprised how little writing there is about the craft of format development. It would appear I’m not alone. The response has been huge and wide. So my second promise to you is to make it broad. I’ll cover formats form old media, new media and media that doesn’t yet exist as I write this. No media formats will be left unpacked.
And so on with unpacking. The first person to choosing a format is Me. Sorry. The team thought I should. Much smarter people will follow.
What’s it called?
Billie Eilish: Same Interview, One Year Apart (online video)
What’s the format?
Billie Eilish is filmed answering the same interview questions every year.
What’s the magic that made it special?
In 2016 Vanity Fair interviewed singer Billie Eilish. She was fifteen years old, and already attracting a big enough fanbase for a magazine like Vanity Fair to be interested. In 2017, now aged sixteen and a much bigger star, they interviewed her again asking exactly the same questions. A year later in 2018, close to being an adult at seventeen, and now one of the world’s biggest stars - you guessed it, they interviewed her again asking exactly the same questions.
The format came from team at Condé Nast Entertainment who are responsible for some of the smartest, witty, shareable, and most copied video formats on the Internet - things like Vogue’s 73 Questions. They are brilliant at finding new formats for getting celebrities to reveal something interesting about themselves. They are also great at taking a set of information then feeding it through a new lens to get a different result. I want to see more of this series where they takes a complex subject and explain it to five people of different ages and abilities.
Similarly, Same Interview One Year Apart series is basically the same set of questions fed through the lens of time. For me, the magic is this process. It’s not just the ‘time’ thing. It’s the ‘when’ - when this is happening in the life of Billie Eilish. And there are two ‘whens’ that come together so beautifully here. The first being ‘when she is transitioning from childhood to adulthood’. The second when is ‘when she is tasting fame for the first time, through to becoming a global megastar’.
We go through some of our most incredible transformations, physically and emotionally, as we pass from childhood into adulthood. How we look, how we think, and how we feel can change on a daily basis (never mind yearly) between the ages of 15-20.
So watching Billie squirm as she is reminded of her answers from the previous 12 and 24 months is glorious - and sweet. We can all relate to feeling embarrassed by our former selves. It’s just brilliant when the former self she hardly recognises existed only a year ago. This kind of self loathing doesn’t happen between the ages 20-21 or 21-22 as time tends to slow down a little. So capturing Bille when he did was perfect.
The gap is also as wide in the answers she gives regarding her fame. Across the three films she goes from 257,000 followers on Instagram to 6,300,000, to 40,700,000. The most famous people that watched her perform at the age of fifteen were friends of Jared Leto. By the time she reached seventeen pretty much every A list star had seen her perform live.
It’s beautiful because, despite all the challenges she is facing, she clearly appreciates what she has and what she is experiencing. The wonder of it all is there to see on the screen. Billie has been captured during ‘the good years’. They may not last forever. As we know, a decade of fame has a habit of beating every ounce of joy out of young stars (leave Britney alone!). Eventually, the complexity of living your life in public takes its toll. So I’m glad this series has started where it has, and I’d love to see it continue, but a ‘once every five years’ check-in might be the way forward once she hits 20.
That’s it for now.
If you have thoughts send them over. And let me know if you’d like to contribute. More unpacking next Wednesday.
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that formats developed for Condé Nast, including Vogue’s 73 Questions, were developed entirely by Joe Sabia. It has since come to our attention that the team at Conde Nast Entertainment, consisting of producer Shruti Ganguly, director of photography Vincent Peone, and director and head of development Joe Sabia, collectively developed 73 Questions. We regret this error.