A Diamond in the Flesh
by ALICE BOLIN
I have to say that early 2013 was tedious for this pop radio listener. Coming off of the top 40 triumphs of 2012 — “Call Me Maybe,” “Climax,” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” all hitting in one year — this year was shaping up to be nothing but an unbearable string of Maroon 5 and Will.I.Am singles, the abomination of “Blurred Lines,” and songs with hashtags in their titles.
The eccentric length of most of the songs on Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience meant “Mirrors” was its only good radio hit. Miley Cyrus’ boring scandal mongering all but obscured her solid singles “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.” Thank God for the ascendance of Ariana Grande and her ‘90s R&B-influenced debut album Yours Truly, and thank God Katy Perry released her second-best single ever, “Roar” (“Firework” will never be matched), in August, so it could retroactively serve as my jam of the summer.
And then in September, as I was driving down Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles near the entrance to the Hollywood Freeway, a song came on the radio that started with an anti-boast from a very smoky-voiced sixteen-year-old: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh.” What followed was smooth, hooky, energetic, smart, and strange. In her first single, “Royals,” Lorde says, “You can call me queen bee,” and essentially anoints herself the ruler of a nouvelle vague of pop music. To paraphrase my new teenage queen, I craved a different kind of buzz. And I got it.
Lorde’s emergence, and the heavy beats, trance elements, and velvet vocals of her debut album Pure Heroine, are the culmination of a number of trends. She is influenced by that most Pitchforkian of genres, chill-wave, and its club beats slowed and mellowed to accommodate opiate and MDMA usage. Skrillex led dubstep’s crossover to mainstream pop. Jessie Ware reignited worship of Sade and her sultry R&B. Acts like the Weeknd and Grimes opened the door for indie artists to appropriate elements from commercial pop and hip hop. And Lana Del Rey’s brilliant gimmick — the indie chanteuse who rolls with rappers — was obviously the model for some of Lorde’s swagger.
But Lorde is also doing something very new for pop radio. She is the first New Zealand solo artist to have a number one single in the U.S., and she takes an outsider’s perspective on pop music throughout Pure Heroine. “Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom,/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,/We don’t care,” she sings in “Royals.” This amused, critical stance towards mainstream music’s bullshit opulence is, to say the least, refreshing. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings in “Team.” “So there.”
This is the voice of a girl who grew up in the suburbs in a weird, provincial corner of the globe, who runs with a gang of kids who are not particularly pretty or rich, who has had to make her own fun. Lorde sings in the chorus of “Team,” “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” and all the kids in those cities around the world silently give her an amen. I lived until I was fifteen in a small town in northern Idaho, and since then I’ve never lived in a state that doesn’t border Wyoming. When I moved to Los Angeles in August, I realized that lots of city slickers have never encountered someone like me.
My roommate’s friend asked me, “What do people do in Montana?” from which I later gathered that he envisioned the Mountain West as an Oregon Trail-style series of forts and outposts. Another time I told my cousin’s friends that I had never lived anywhere near an Ikea, and they were horrified. I had a weird impulse to tell them to get a life. Hear me: there is more to this existence than your crappy urban amenities.
Maybe this impulse to speak for all the misfits in “torn up towns” is why many songs on Pure Heroine are written in the collective. The album paints a composite picture of a team of weirdos who are scrappy, brave, sensitive, and over it. “We didn’t come from money,” she sings, and elsewhere, “We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain.” “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care,” she says on “Tennis Court.” At times the descriptions are realistic, like when she sings about “the underpass where we all sit/And do nothing and love it,” and other times they transcend realism, like when she declares, “You could try and take us/But we’re the gladiators.”
This gladiator boast is from the world of “the palace within [her] dreams” that she describes in “Team.” Starting with her monarchial stage name, adopted when she was twelve years old, Lorde has always shown an interest in royalty. But as she acknowledges, suburban teens like her and her friends will never be royal, so she has created her own fantasy aristocracy. “Team” begins, “Call all the ladies out/They’re in their finery,” as she imagines her retinue entering before her. “I’m in love with being queen,” she sings on “Royals,” the new monarch of the small-town teens, and she’s looking to take over the world.
But when the queen bee mask slips, we get a vision of Lorde as an ambitious artist who is ambivalent about her impending mega-stardom, who can’t take any of her friends with her where she’s headed. These are the moments that make Pure Heroine genius. “I’m little, but I’m coming for the crown,” she boasts on “Still Sane,” but then she makes sort of an apology for her professional drive: “All work and no play keeps me on the new shit,” she explains.
On “Still Sane,” she doesn’t know what it says about her that she craves success so badly, and wonders whether she’ll be sane for long. “Only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone,” she sings. “What does that make me?” Sensitive, self-aware, super-ambitious female pop stars might be my favorite thing: I think of Taylor Swift singing on “Fifteen,” “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him some day,/But I realized some bigger dreams of mine.” Or Marina and the Diamonds singing on “Are You Satisfied?” “They say I’m a control freak/Driven by a greed to succeed.”
Lorde wants to express two parts of her experience: being a normal kid from New Zealand and also a baby genius who was scouted by record executives when she was twelve. There are many lyrics on Pure Heroine that remind us that the person we’re listening to is only sixteen, like when she sings, “My mom and dad let me stay home.” But there are also instances where she exhibits old-soul syndrome, singing on “Team,” “I’m kind of older than I was when I rebelled without a care,” and on “Ribs” (hilariously, for a sixteen-year-old), “It feels so scary getting old.” It is like Taylor Swift’s song “22,” written and recorded when Swift was twenty-two, in which she talks about “feeling 22.” If you have to mention that you feel an age when you are that age, it means that most of the time you don’t feel that age—I would guess that most of the time Swift feels about thirty-five, considering that she has been pursuing her music career for ten years at this point.
When Lorde released her first EP, she did it without any pictures or information about herself, imitating the anonymity of artists like Burial and the Weeknd. “There’s a lot of excess information,” Lorde said about her initial anonymity. “I feel like in pop you know everything about everyone, and I don’t know if that's necessary in music.” It also seems protective, projecting a mysterious pop monarch to save the sensitive, ambitious teenager behind her. This might also be true of the “we” impulse on Pure Heroine — if she can make a statement that is collective, generational, she isn’t up on stage alone and vulnerable.
Pure Heroine begins with the line “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” In a wonderful lyrical move, the album comes full circle, ending, “People are talking./Let ‘em talk.” I am reminded Sky Ferreira and her song “Haters Anonymous,” in which she sings “What’s up with all the hate lately?/It’s like, you don’t know the first thing about me,/So you’re so concerned about who I’m supposedly dating.”
All of the music twenty-one-year-old Ferreira has released has been brilliant, but her recent arrest for drug possession is more proof than ever that public attention and photo-shoots with Terry Richardson are not necessarily good for young women — and that Lorde should protect herself from the people talking with her gang and her regal persona for as long as she wants to. But I’m grateful when she gets a little confessional and just lets ‘em talk. Teenage girls have always been the most sensitive and creative subset of human beings, and today they’re cooler than ever, thanks mostly to tumblr. (“Maybe the internet raised us,” Lorde sings on “A World Alone.”) I’m glad that she speaks for them. And she also speaks for herself.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about betrayal. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.
"Still Sane" - Lorde (mp3)
"A World Alone" - Lorde (mp3)