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Your Semi-Comprehensive Guide to What’s Eating Lorde

lorde
Fiona Goodall, Getty Images

Lorde makes headlines once or twice a week, and it’s almost always because she’s pissed about something. This is understandable. She’s a super smart, sorta awkward 17-year-old who comes from a weird country (New Zealand), rocks old-lady shoes and Cramps T-shirts and sings startlingly self-aware electro-pop songs about being young and terrified but also kind of hopeful and invigorated.

Hers is a bizarre existence, and stranger still is just how universally beloved her music has become.

Following the success of her debut album, ‘Pure Heroine,’ Lorde finds herself in the unhappy position of Generational Spokesperson, a job no worthy candidate ever applies for. Such is the curse of being an original artist in the right place at the right time.

In writing ‘Pure Heroine,’ a record she made after her label tried to fashion her the next Duffy, Lorde drew on her preternatural intellect and unique point of view, as well as her broad taste in music. It resulted in a completely fresh sound, but completely fresh sounds don’t always translate to massive sales, and it couldn’t have been obvious to anyone involved that songs like ‘Royals’ would resonate in Auckland, let alone top the Billboard mainstream and alternative charts.

Lorde would be justified in feeling surprised, vindicated, maybe even a touch arrogant. At the very least, she’s got to be confused, right?

About some things, sure. But on certain topics, our girl knows exactly how she’s feels, and she’s always ready to share her opinion. That’s the cause of 98 percent of her problems — brutal honesty — though sometimes, controversy comes looking for her. Like when racist Instagram commenters compare her boyfriend to Long Duk Dong from ‘Sixteen Candles,’ and she gets sucked into a conversation about race she never bargained for.

"Suffice it to say Lorde is taking on way more than your average high schooler"

Suffice it to say Lorde is taking on way more than your average high schooler, and that might explain her tendency to come across as a sullen grumpy-pants. She can also be funny and gracious, and if anyone defies pigeonholing, it’s the curious Kiwi born Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor. What follows is a semi-comprehensive guide to what’s eating Lorde at this stage in her career. None of these things will devour her — not the girl who wrote ‘Biting Down.’ The real danger is on the other end of the spectrum. If she makes it to adulthood having figured everything out and learned to keep her mouth shut, smile pretty and stay out of trouble, she’ll risk becoming just another boring pop star.

The Media

Like any complex artist, Lorde has a complex relationship with the press. Upon returning home in late January after picking up Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance — both for ‘Royals’ — the Pride of New Zealand was less than flattered by the reception from local journalists. Photographers nearly knocked her and her family down, according to reports, and their aggressiveness prompted her to fire off a series of angry tweets, since deleted.

“I know that success comes with a price tag,” she wrote in one. “It just sucks when you see that in your tiny home country where you previously felt safe.”

In another deleted blast, preserved below via retweet from one of her 980k followers, she brought sexism into the debate, sharing the skeevy way photogs — males, presumably — make her feel.

Music writers also creep her out, and in an interview with Rookie, she talked about how middle-aged journalists approach her with a “definite viewpoint of the think piece by an adult writing about kids.” Whereas airport paparazzi sexualize, rock scribes trivialize, portraying her as a squealing child in a grown-up world.

Ultimately, Lorde’s relationship with the media is probably the least of her concerns. She’s played the press extremely well and constructed an image fans of all stripes can see themselves in. She’s edgy enough for the quiet middle-school girl just getting into the Cure, and yet her songs are bouncy enough for prom queens and cheerleaders, not to mention their 50-year-old mothers and 8-year-old nieces. Record execs could never engineer such a thing. Lorde has done this on her own, simply by being herself.

Regarding sexuality, looks have played a fairly limited role in Lorde’s success, and we barley see below her shoulders in the ‘Royals’ video. As for the just-a-kid stuff, if writers include in their profile pieces little asides to remind readers Lorde is only 17, it’s probably because they themselves can’t believe it. Former MTV VJ Kennedy struggles to wrap her head around it in this interview clip:

The Internet

Lorde lives and dies by the Internet. Her ticket out of New Zealand wasn’t the album of soul covers her label bosses wanted her make, but rather it was Soundcloud, where she posted her EP ‘The Love Club’ in November 2012. As she told Interview magazine, she made it a free download “because being teenager, and not having a credit card — I mean, who has a credit card at 16?! — I just thought people my age would appreciate it.” They did, and they weren’t the only ones. Before long, critics, tastemakers and fans the world over had joined the ‘Love Club,’ propelling it on to the Billboard charts and into the iTunes Top 20.

And then there’s the most-quoted non-’Royals’ line on ‘Pure Heroine’: “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks.” It comes from ‘A World Alone,’ a song whose title sums up Lorde’s relationship with digital culture a bit too neatly. As she told the Guardian in October 2013, just after she’d broken Alanis Morisette’s record for most consecutive weeks atop the Alternative Chart by a female artist, she has a “love-hate relationship” with social media.

“We all have Tumblr and we all have Instagram and everything,” she said. “People care so much about it because, now, any random can be famous on the internet if their world looks good on Tumblr. And so everyone at high school strives for this kind of aesthetic correctness. I do it as well, you know. I curate my life in a way.”

Sometimes, that means sharing intimate details of her personal life, like when she posts photos of herself and boyfriend James Lowe. Other times, it means braving s—storms of racist commentary, as was the case when shots surfaced of Lorde and Lowe — Asian and seven years her senior — embracing on the beach. Believing Lorde had talked smack about their idols, Justin Bieber and One Direction fans led the way in mocking the couple, their ugly remarks suggesting interracial relationships aren’t as accepted among millennials as one would hope. Or maybe people are just jerks.

“[I'm] not completely impervious to insult,” Lorde said in her recent Rolling Stone cover story. “I’m a human being.”

"Being a mere mortal, Lorde will never defeat the Internet"

Being a mere mortal, Lorde will never defeat the Internet, but she’s at least critiquing it in a way few artists have. When grown-up musicians — as in those over the age of 20 — write about the perils of technology, they tend to go the Trent Reznor ‘Year Zero’ route, stoking dystopian fears of corporate and governmental intrusion into our lives and the erosion of privacy. Because few teen popsters write their own material, there isn’t a huge repository of songs about Facebook and Twitter and how young’uns feel about living their lives online and in real time for the scorn and amusement of their peers. Lorde doesn’t sing explicitly about these things, but it’s all there in her lyrics. In a hundred years, when academics consider what it was like to be a teenager in the early ’10s, they might start by streaming (or whatever people do in 2114) ‘Pure Heroine.’

Bad Female Role Models

Lorde is a self-proclaimed feminist, and not one who believes dissing other women is bad for the cause. In a widely publicized September 2013 radio interview, she picked a fight with Selena Gomez, explaining, “I love pop music on a sonic level. But I’m a feminist and the theme of her song ['Come & Get It'] is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.”

Them were fightin’ words, but Gomez, who’d covered ‘Royals’ in concert, wasn’t looking for a feud. In interviews like the one below, she opted for the high road, redefining feminism as sisters standing behind sisters and dishing backhanded compliments about Lorde’s youthful naivete.

A month after dissing Gomez, Lorde went on record as saying Taylor Swift sets a poor example for girls by being “too flawless and unattainable.” Going after Gomez may have been justified, but this was a misstep, and Lorde realized it. What kind of a monster doesn’t love Taylor Swift? The pair have since become friends, and Lorde has learned to embrace Swift’s perfection. She even uses it to her advantage. In the Rolling Stone story, she texts her pal photos of two Christmas gifts she’s considering buying for her manager, figuring Taylor will know which is better.

And since Lorde is a living, breathing resident of Planet Earth who’s neither comatose nor sentenced to solitary confinement, she has an opinion on Miley Cyrus.

“I just don’t think that there’s anyone in Top 40 pop that’s ‘real,’” she told Billboard. “Is there though? I’m just not sure. . . . I mean that Miley Cyrus song ["We Can't Stop"]; that could be her life. Who knows what’s real? That’s the point though; who knows what’s real?”

Now, looking for reality in pop music is like shopping for fine wine at Wal-Mart, and Lorde can’t really be surprised by Miley’s escapist lyrics. Why make such comments, then? She obviously believes the cred she’ll gain with certain segments of her audience — Pitchfork readers, goth dabblers, drama kids — will outweigh the goodwill she’ll burn among mainstream listeners. If she’s comfortable with the math, so be it, but that means some critics are going to see her as a joyless crank and knee-jerk hater of whatever’s popular. That’s too bad, because she’s got far more nuanced things to say about a cultural landscape she’s a long, long way from loathing.

Expectations

Much of what this boils down to is expectations. As early as grade school, Lorde’s teachers were calling her brilliant, and even though she enjoyed a happy childhood, she must have felt some pressure to justify their praise. Now, she’s got photographers telling her to smile, Beliebers telling her to shut up and date a white guy and feminists urging her to speak up and take down more pop tarts. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is her talent, but even that’s a source of contention, as Lorde has gone to great lengths to downplay the genius of her breakout hit.

"Lorde has gone to great lengths to downplay the genius of her breakout hit"

“Writing ‘Royals’ was sort of like: ‘Why the f— isn’t anyone talking about this?’” she said in her Guardian interview. “I feel like I’m late to the party saying it, but actually I’m not, there’s nothing here, how is there nothing here? And so all these people started telling me that what I’m saying is, like, profound. Are you serious? No, it’s not. It’s hugely concerning for me.”

Either she’s being modest, or she genuinely doesn’t get why the listeners might be amazed by a sharp yet ambivalent examination of hip-hop culture set to a quirky-catchy backing track and performed without a trace of hesitation. Whichever it is, she’s won’t be the Voice of the Millenials people want her to be. Nor will she shake her ass in booty shorts or bite her tongue when a celebrity peer does something worthy of criticizing.

For the time being, Lorde’s going to keep on being herself, and as any teenager will tell you, that can be a real drag.

Next: Watch Lorde's 'Team' Video

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