In the grand parade of lifeless (but generally good-looking) packaging that is contemporary pop, Lorde is the bookish, dark-haired, pale-skinned and mascara-adorned beauty lurking in the corner at the party, glowering at all the Barbies and Kens while they play beer pong and hook up.
Her success, which has been considerable, is a victory for the other half – the kids who spent far more time reading than dating, and who harbored a distinct outsider’s form of talent, one that might not have made them the most popular figures in high school, but one that will likely serve them well for the rest of their lives.
Born Ella Yelich-O’Connor in New Zealand just shy of 18 years back, Lorde arrived in the middle of Miley-mania and the crush of Kardashian-ism like a badly needed femme fatale, a chanteuse with a poet’s pen in the midst of the most banal of pop-culture beach parties.
Her single, “Royals,” came across as more manifesto than pop tune, though its infectious hooks cannot be denied. While most of the folks who might reasonably be considered her peers were celebrating a well-funded life in the fast lane, Lorde had the audacity to posit the notion that maybe all of this luxury, this worship of mammon, was not necessarily a positive thing.
“And we’ll never be Royals/It don’t run in our blood/That kind of luxe just ain’t for us/We crave a different kind of buzz,” goes the song’s chorus, and in these stanzas is presented as a stance of defiance.
Many have noted that this is a bourgeois defiance, and rightly so – Lorde is both a poet’s daughter and a child of the middle class. And yet, that’s not really much of a criticism – so many of pop’s truly groundbreaking and game-changing artists were middle class, from Bob Dylan and John Lennon forward. It was in their insistence on at least partially denying their roots and crafting from whole cloth new identities for themselves that their art gained its precocious power. Lorde has never denied her past, nor attempted to brush her intellectual life beneath the carpet, but like Dylan – the former Robert Zimmerman – she created an identity at least somewhat separate from her own: a new name, for a new performer, who appeared “in costume” as a mildly “gothy,” sultry siren with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.
It’s telling that, when Bruce Springsteen played New Zealand in March, he chose to open his massive stadium show with his own version of “Royals.” Less an attempt by an older artist to appear hip and in touch than a genuine recognition of the ageless spirit of defiant questioning, Springsteen’s cover in a sense anointed Lorde and suggested that, should she stay on track, a career as long as Springsteen’s could be hers.
Of course, this might seem like an awful lot of pressure to place on an artist with a single full-length album to her credit – an artist who can’t legally buy herself a drink if desires one while in Lewiston to perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at Artpark.
Many is the young hopeful responsible for an inspiring debut album who then proceeds to lose the plot and, artistically speaking, pull a crash-and-burn. Lorde seems built from stronger stuff, though. Her outsider status, cradled and cultivated in much the same way that David Bowie has done for decade after decade, is likely to work in her favor.
Unlike Bowie, or even Springsteen, Lorde displays no loyalty to certain periods of music or particular genre classifications. As a child of Generation Soundcloud, she’s got limitless styles and subgenres of music at her disposal, and she is not likely to favor one over the other. You can hear this all over “Pure Heroine,” a collection that subtly borrows from countless genres and crafts its own mildly electronic gumbo. Rummaging through the virtual pop culture scrap heap, she chooses what interests her, and thinks nothing of it. The result is pastiche, to be sure, but it’s a pleasing and unusual pastiche, one marked by lyrics that avoid the narcissism displayed by so many of Lorde’s peers.
It’s the lyrics, in many ways, that set Lorde apart. Evocative and understated, her imagery is both abstract and inspired. “A lot of the writers that I like aren’t really about narrative; they’re just about perfectly formed sentences,” she told Vogue earlier this year. “That’s always been something I’ve been drawn to – one word or five words that sit perfectly.”
Which, of course, sets her in good stead as a songwriter, an art form in which short, rhythmic phrases of sound construction married to memorable melodies tend to be the most effective.
What will album No. 2 bring, when it finally arrives? There are many reasons to suspect that it will not sound much like “Pure Heroine,” not least of which is the restless creativity displayed even within that album’s microcosm of a world. There’s also the fact that Lorde crafted that debut largely in obscurity; the sophomore effort already is being made under much different circumstances.
Somehow, though, it seems silly to worry about Lorde. Her success is predicated upon what appears to be a hard-earned and treasured sense of self. That should serve her well. High school is over, after all.