(Sorry. Sometimes the opportunity presents itself and I can’t resist.)
I’m a big fan of Lorde. That’s not really news, because she’s the first New Zealand solo artist to top the US charts. She’s not exactly underground.
But she feels underground. She’s a New Zealander, singing in her own accent about the experience of being on the receiving end of the USA’s cultural imperialism.
On the other hand, let’s reiterate, number one song on the US charts. I’d imagine lots of Americans have taken her to heart.
And why shouldn’t they? We live in a time of shocking disparity between the wealthy and the poor, so a song critiquing consumer culture in music is going to strike a chord. (So to speak.) And I’d argue that the Feministing posts are incorrect when they argue that Lorde singles out African American pop culture for critique. “Royals” also refers to rock culture (“trashin’ the hotel rooms”), pop (ball gowns), and more. It’s not just about consumption, but destructive consumption.
Maybe Feministing’s blogger would have preferred if Lorde had taken an apologetic approach to discussing the different experience of the Antipodean pop singer. Take, for example, Australian Iggy Azalea, who raps:
Walk a mile in these Louboutins
But they don’t wear these shoes where I’m from
I’m not hating, I’m just telling you
I’m tryna let you know what the fuck that I’ve been through
Two feet in the red dirt, school skirt
Sugar care, back lanes
Three jobs, took years to save…
But I got a ticket on that plane…
People got a lot to say
But don’t know shit ’bout where I was made
Azalea is kind of the anti-Lorde. And not just because of the traditional (loving) rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. Azalea is older and tougher, and in contrast to Lorde’s apparent overnight success, Azalea is still bubbling under. She has a mix tape, she’s supporting Beyonce, but her actual debut album isn’t out until next year. Lorde sings with her own accent; Azalea raps with what the local media call a southern drawl that she picked up in Miami, although many Americans have told me the Florida accent is not actually considered southern.
(Azalea also raps about being a “runaway slave master”, and put out this video for “Bounce”. So, yeah. This is why I have a playlist called “catchy/problematic”. Well, that and Amanda Palmer.)
She’s also overtly sexual, where Lorde appears ambivalent about romantic and sexual themes in music, and is critical of pop songs she considers unfeminist. Lorde sometimes comes off as a bit judgemental in this respect, but it’s a natural phase that teenagers go through, I think — well, I did — and I’m really just as happy for a teenage girl not to explore her sexuality in public, especially in light of Charlotte Church’s comments about young women in the pop industry being coerced into doing so.
(I have a lot of feelings about how the current discourse around sexuality in pop music features a lot of ugly remarks about sex workers, and how these remarks are generally applied to women of colour, or in Miley Cyrus’ case, women appropriating the culture of women of colour. Lady Gaga was an actual burlesque dancer, but you’ll note she’s never the subject of such “concern”.
On the other hand, I also have feelings about the exploitation of women in the guise of empowerment. It’s complicated!)
Billie Piper (SHUT UP, SHE IS AMAZING) tells a story in her autobiography (SHUT UP, IT WAS AMAZING) about how, at eighteen, releasing her “sexier” second album, she agreed to do a photoshoot for a particular magazine, but she flat refused to pose in underwear. She arrived at the shoot and found an entire rack of bikinis instead.
In short, it’s difficult to be a young pop star, or even an adult performer, and still own your sexuality. Lorde walks an interesting line — she is young, beautiful, white, slim and has amazing hair, and photographers take advantage of that, but she’s always fully dressed, looking straight at the camera with a solemn, uncompromising expression. I’m really curious to see how she grows up, and what her next moves will be.
Because they are moves. As this fantastic blog post discusses, Lorde’s image is as carefully crafted as any other pop star’s. The level of control she herself exercises might be unusual, but the image that we see is not necessarily the genuine Lorde. (And why should it be?)
But people are oddly uncomfortable with the idea of a woman’s image being artificial. We see that in the way women are criticised for wearing make-up, slimming underwear and heels, even as we’re also criticised for not doing these things.
And it’s particularly true in the music industry. We want to believe that Stevie Nicks and Tori Amos are really manic pixie dream girls, that the Spice Girls really were/are BFFs (despite all evidence to the contrary).
There was a lot of backlash when PJ Harvey abandoned her raw, indie persona to wear heavy make-up and hot pink catsuits, and some fans I know can’t forgive her for plucking her eyebrows, wearing make-up and performing in a Victorian dress with a bird on her head. (I was there. It was great.)
Harvey herself has said, “Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they’ll listen to ‘Down by the Water’ and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her.” (Source)
Men aren’t immune from the expectation of honesty, but they seem to have more flexibility. Well, whichever way they go, they have flexibility — Lindsay Buckingham has been writing songs about his ex for decades, and he doesn’t get half the shit that Taylor Swift does. (He’s still the better songwriter, though. Sorry, Taylor.)
With all this in mind, it’s quite interesting that Lorde is often compared to Lana Del Rey.
Del Rey, again, stands in opposition to Lorde. (Although Lorde was listening to Del Rey when she had the inspiration for “Royals”, and in my opinion, the musical influence is visible — audible? — when you look for it. Listen for it.) Her image was carefully crafted, and is frequently derided as “fake”. Her first two albums (one released under her real name of Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant) bombed, and her stage name was created by her managers.
But all this works, because it’s part of the mythos she has created: whoever Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant is, Lana Del Rey is “a gangsta Nancy Sinatra”. She’s Doris Day after a bender. Lorde may paraphrase Joan Holloway, but Born to Die is an entire album about Betty Draper.
Both artists are critiquing the American entertainment industry, and both do it through highly produced pop music. Del Rey’s take is glossier, and appropriately so — she adopts the persona of the girl who has swallowed the American dream myth and is choking to death, “a freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens”. On her Paradise EP, she responds to critics, describing herself as “a groupie incognito posing as a real singer”.
Lorde, by contrast, sings as an outsider who has an ambivalent relationship with the trappings of the American dream. She knows it’s an illusion, but still, “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” In “Tennis Court” she sings:
Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen, in tears
It’s a new art form, showing people how little we care (yeah),
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear,
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (yeah)
It’s introspection and adolescent melancholy wrapped up in the language and cliche of the American high school drama. Whether or not it’s a true reflection of Lorde’s experience almost doesn’t matter, because the feeling is surely universal: “These feelings don’t look like they did on TV.”
Lorde sings, “And I’m not proud of my address, In a torn-up town, no post code envy”. But Ella Yelich-O’Connor comes from a well-off middle class suburb in Auckland. Does it matter? Is she lying to us through song? (“I hate when people do that!”) If her next album is a synthpop confection with videos full of pole dancers and bikini shots, has she betrayed us?
“Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane,” Lorde sang. That first plane trip was long ago, now. She’s an international pop star, not a kid from the suburbs. How far can you critique the system in which you work? Will she be allowed to grow up, or will she end up like Avril Lavigne, still looking and acting like it’s 2002? Am I just asking rhetorical questions because I’m not sure how to end this post?