I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my life, and I’ve done my fair share of screaming at them, too. But somehow none of it had prepared me for witnessing my 13-year-old — not to mention the 19,999 others in the arena — sob and shriek, as if possessed, throughout the entirety of a recent Billie Eilish concert.
Now, as 125,000 excited fans prepare to hit Coachella this weekend to see Eilish headline with Harry Styles, I can't help but wonder: What does science have to say about this phenomenon, which hearkens back to the days of Beatlemania?
"Intense emotional reaction can actually trigger the body's fight or flight response, which could be part of the reason why fans cry seeing their idols in person," musicologist Nate Sloan, co-host of the Switched on Pop podcast, tells Yahoo Life. "Because that’s actually a nervous system flight response, and not triggered by fear, but just being in an intense emotional state."
Sociologist and Whitman College professor Michelle Janning has various explanations, including that entering a concert space is "a kind of vacation from control," which is especially needed post-pandemic — and particularly by girls. "There is still a lot at play at how we socialize children into gender roles that make girls and women feel like they need to be small, to gatekeep themselves, that they can’t be loud," she says, so it will be part of the equation no matter who the artist is.
Another piece, for many, is the fact that we've all been socialized to behave in certain ways (such as screaming) when witnessing live music.
"Concert behavior is very visible in our media world, so all I have to do is say 'fans at a concert' and images probably more uniform than not pop into our minds: 1950s girls screaming at the Beatles or Elvis," Janning says. "But do even girls who are like, 'Who’s Elvis?' understand the idea that this is what you’re supposed to do at concerts? Of course. It's part of the vibe and the value system at play at these events."
It's been looked at before over the years, including in a 2014 piece for the Washington Post, which analyzed the phenomenon strictly through the lens of teen girls shrieking for boy bands. "And while today's tween screams aren't reserved exclusively for young male heartthrobs," the story pointed out, "concerts by Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift don't seem to generate quite the same sonic fervor as a performance from One Direction or Ed Sheeran."
But now, for Eilish, less than a decade later, that story seems to have shifted. Social media is teeming with girls' screams drowning out concert footage of the beloved 20-year-old, who's been on tour since February — even openly sobbing for their camera, seemingly reveling in their outpouring of emotion.
Still, one shouldn't jump to conclusions about what all the screaming means: Human screams, according to research out of the University of Zurich, published one year ago in the journal PLOS Biology, actually signal at least six emotions: pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness and joy. "In nonhuman primates and other mammalian species, scream-like calls are frequently used as an alarm signal exclusively in negative contexts, such social conflicts or the presence of predators or other environmental threats," noted a press release on the study. "But humans scream not only when they are fearful and aggressive, but also when they experience other emotions such as despair and elation."
So, while the assumption about human screams has long been that they are to signal danger as a method of survival, said lead study author Sascha Frühholz, and that remains true for primates and other species, "scream communication seemed to have largely diversified in humans, and this represents is a major evolutionary step."
But why would an audience scream — or sing along at deafening levels, which Eilish concerts are known for (see above) — instead of listening to their beloved idol?
Sloan posits that it's because often, at the stadium and arena shows, listening to the actual music is practically beside the point.
"One of the really interesting facets of Beatlemania, historically, is that, in the live experience, the music was really secondary," he points out. "At the infamous concert at Shea Stadium in 1965, supposedly people there said you couldn’t even hear the band because the crowd was screaming so loud … I remember reading an interview with a fan saying, 'Well, we have the records, so it’s not necessary to hear the music' … and the live thing became something else, and more to have an emotional catharsis."
That's certainly how Yahoo Music Editor-in-Chief Lyndsey Parker remembers her first concert — Duran Duran in Los Angeles — which she says she "sobbed" through.
"I was inconsolable, and I wasn't sure why," she shares. "Neither was my dad … I just know I spent much of the actual show in a daze, not fully wrapping my fedora-hatted brain around the fact that I was in the same room as D2 (albeit a 20,000-capacity room) and quite possibly gasping in air that had once been inside John Taylor's perfect lungs." Her most vivid memory of the whole night is, in fact, “"the screaming and crying."
Despite having nosebleed-level seats, Parker says, "I was somehow convinced that John might hear me over the other 19,999 screams, if I was loud enough. Of course, I'm fairly certain John never heard me that night," causing a hurt she still remembers, over "knowing, deep down, that no matter how close I got to Duran Duran, it would never be close enough … It was almost like a tease, if that makes sense, to go to one of their concerts. I can only speak from my own fandom experience, but I imagine that's why a lot of young girls cry at gigs — it's almost too much to process."
The difference with Billie stans
The crying, teen psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Life, may also have much to do with the feeling that a beloved artist is putting words to a fan's private emotions — especially when it comes to Eilish, who places so much importance on being fully open with fans. "It's a really big deal to feel understood," she says. "When we get overwhelmed by emotions, we cry. It doesn't mean we're sad, just overwhelmed — even delighted."
Sloan agrees the dynamic with someone like Eilish may be more based on "a feeling of being seen in some of these lyrics, and the willingness for an artist like [her] to unpack her very private struggles on this grand stage, which is something that builds a sense of intimacy between fan and artist that’s different than it was in the past."
Because, Sloan notes, "Usually, this phenomenon has the directionality of a young female fan to an older male artist," though it's also "kind of desexualized and an attraction based on a sort of imagined parasocial relationship that ultimately doesn’t seek any kind of sexual fulfillment." But with Eilish, it's girls screaming for (and even tossing their bras at) a young woman — which could certainly be crush-based, at least in part, says Janning. She points out that "there's a lot of gender play going on both with young people today and with artists" and more and more teens are identifying as queer, and that means "there are more options of who they get to have a crush on and [show it] if they’re willing to show it out loud."
Still, Eilish is someone who "pretty famously dresses in a way that often obscures her physicality and sexuality, and whose songs are a lot different than the typical pop star, too," says Sloan. "I think you need to think of a different paradigm to analyze this kind of fan-performer relationship."
It's something Forbes writer Steve Baltin theorized about back in 2018 when writing about the "powerful and inspiring Billie Eilish phenomenon" of passionate fans, noting that, at a sold-out show he attended in Los Angeles, "The audience was 90 percent female and they weren't screaming literally every single word because they think she is cute, it's because she speaks for them and with them."
Parker also agrees there's something different going on here. "I think usually when kids sob over their pop idols, that reaction comes at least partially from that sense of so-close-and-yet-so-far frustration, the result of putting one's hero or crush on a pedestal," she says.
"But I don't think that sort of idol-worship is at play with Billie as much. I think with her it's more about relatability, not unattainability — she is always telling and showing kids that it's OK for them to be themselves, and crying simply might be a pure, visceral response to that affirming and much-needed message," she says. "Hearing that message on such a large scale and experiencing it with others is almost spiritual, communal, tribal. And of course, that is going to tap into a kid's heightened emotions."