“It’s A New Art Form” Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’ At 10

A marker for modern pop songwriting...

No one anticipates a sixteen-year-old to start a revolution. Ten years ago Lorde jolted the world awake with a snap. Her down-tempo, snappy, practically acappella single ‘Royals’ diagnosed mainstream music consumers with a collective delusion. We were hypnotised by potential opulence; hungry for the all-you-can-eat buffet of hollowed out dance music. Maybe it was a post-2008 recession response, or some sort of capitalist diversion tactic, but every song, as Lorde gleaned, was like “Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom.” According to the radio, life was all one big never-ending party. But what Lorde understood was this: we were never really invited. In reality, “that kind of luxe ain’t for (most) of us.”

It’s ironic: one of the best-selling pop songs of the past decade is the very antithesis of what the genre stands for – at least what it used to. During the week of ‘Royals’ release Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ held the top slot on the Billboard chart, followed by Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, and then Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. Once it hit the airwaves, ‘Royals’ maintained number one for nine weeks, breaking the record for the longest run atop the Alternative Songs chart by a woman. Lorde’s rise came around the same time when Lana Del Rey, The 1975, The Neighborhood, and Arctic Monkeys were gaining traction, albeit mostly on Tumblr. It was an era where “alternative pop,” was beholden to mostly online subcultures. In the mainstream, promiscuity rubbed shoulders with the girl-next-door. It was just one or the other. You couldn’t just say, hey instead of a Disney pop star, let’s maybe try this gothic marxist one? You had to set everything ablaze with a fiery condemnation and then rise from the ashes before anyone else could. There she was: the leader of the new regime, wearing all black and shielding her eyes from the blinding spotlight. 

Now, ten years later, Olivia Rodrigo’s break-up track about fame and naivete, ‘Vampire’, is currently claiming the number one Billboard spot. It’s the same as it ever was, but different, like any era of the post-digital culture where trends move in circles and then disguise themselves as ovals. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where Rodrigo, or say, Billie Eilish, or any other whispery, ballad-prone pop singer would be this desired, or generally successful, if it weren’t for their Kiwi predecessor. And sure, maybe Lorde just struck at the right moment, but it was a forceful uppercut to the face. Her swing gave you no choice but to listen, and its touch left a bruise. Although soft and subdued, those whispers of Lorde were loud, commanding, and containing profound truth about the only world she knew: the life of a suburban teenage girl growing older, and growing closer to fame. 

As the daughter of two poets, Lorde was – is – wise beyond her years. So much so, that people were convinced she was lying about her age. Signed to a label at just twelve years old after being discovered at a local talent show, all signs pointed to stardom. But in her mind the signals read: WARNING. DANGER AHEAD. And this is the tension and very essence of her debut album ‘Pure Heroine’: The road toward the throne is clear. It’s even newly paved. But can’t she just drive around for a while and take in the landscape? 

However, like most teenagers, Lorde’s afraid of something, but not really admitting to it. For much of the album she’s still denouncing the contemporary pop scene like how she does on ‘Royals’. On opener ‘Tennis Courts’ she asks over a pacing, subdued 808 “don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” And, like Royals, she’s still putting herself in its vicinity, but not fully in the crowd. She’s close, but not quite there, so she isn’t implicated by everyone else’s fallacies. On the same song she’s the tarmac to prominence and “getting on [her] first plane,” and making a “new art form showing people how little we care.” It’s so very I’m-not-like-the-other-girls of her, but she’s insistent about this, continuing in this vein on ‘Team’ admitting she’s “kind of tired of getting told to throw her hands up in the air.” On ‘Glory And Gore’ she even likens celebrity to the depraved kind of entertainment that watching gladiators duel championed. 

If Alice knew she’d end up in Wonderland, do you think she would’ve voluntarily jumped down the rabbit hole? Lorde, whether she wants to admit it or not, does want to fall into that fantasy land. Maybe that’s why she feels so inclined to critique the very thing she aspires to be: she wants to relieve herself of the companion guilt that accompanies consumerist desire. Whether she likes it or not, she is entering the society she so detests on ‘Royals’, ‘Tennis Courts’, and ‘Team’. But still she’s adamant: she’s not falling into the trap of prestige, she’s just on her way to change it. On ‘Still Sane’ she swears she won’t “be her, tripping over onstage” and that she can “stay good.” It’s a sort of naivete mixed with precocious wisdom – and what’s a better descriptor of adolescence than that? So yes, she’s jumping into the fantasy, but she’s clinging onto the rocks as she goes down to try to still ground herself. She’s trying to protect herself from her biggest fear: once she reaches the land where everybody is like “Cristal, Maybach, and tigers on a gold leash,” will she lose herself? 

Deeper than that, this journey to fame means she’s growing up and leaving her home. Although she’s from a city “you’ll never see on-screen,” there is a sense of pride in the mundanity. Although still technically an adolescent, there is some pre-grieving of childhood, and in turn, innocence, being done on ‘Pure Heroine’. The prophecy states she’ll has to mature quickly, and whilst in the limelight, so she spends some time meandering in her quaint, condensed world delaying the inevitable. 

‘400 Lux’, is a clear ode to the suburbs. She sits shotgun as her and a friend drink orange juice and throw their heads out the window. “I love these roads where these houses don’t change,” she sings. She’s “got a lot to not do” and although feels like she’s “never done with killing time,” she’d like to “kill it with you.” But then, ‘Buzzcut Season’ the approaching transformation starts to pick away at her, as she now knows she’ll “never go home again.” She’s already reminiscing the summers of just a few years past, realizing her friends, and herself, too, will be young only in their memories; she’ll remain “in a hologram with you.” Whether she’s okay with that or not is hard to tell. 

The real standout, however, is ‘Ribs’. A deep, resonant synth builds as ahhhs swirl and harmonize sounding like memories sifting through a brain as and a far-away drum pulses like a racing heart. “It drives you crazy getting old,” Lorde sings, building to the pre-chorus, adding a kick of a snare like a sudden dash of intensity — a thrust of reality. As the song and instrumentation grows, now, she’s “never felt more alone’ and getting old doesn’t just drive her crazy, “it feels so scary.” At the bridge her voice deepens, reaching a higher register so that she’s almost yelling, pleading: “I want ’em back” she confesses, “The minds we had.”

‘Ribs’ is one of those songs that is easy to hold dear against your chest. You cling to it so tightly it molds into you. It becomes a part of you so you no longer need your arms to carry it. It is with you, wherever you go. That’s what a good song does: it follows you, whispering its melody whenever you need it. Whenever you feel it. And most of the time: it feels so scary getting old. 

So while teenagers’ feelings are often dismissed as a symptom of puberty and inexplicable angst, the success of ‘Pure Heroine’ proves that there is something to learn from someone who sees the world as a terrifying wonderland. Sure, the songwriting was exemplary; and yes, the sound was unorthodox for a pop album, but really it was a fifteen-year-old taking herself seriously and expecting others to do the same. 

And since ‘Pure Heroine’s release Lorde has been  lauded for her point-of-view and idealized for her poetry. Somehow she knows exactly how you feel. And she knows how to explain it in song. 

But there are so few fortunate enough to scream into the void and have it reverberated back. Not with an echo but with Swarovski Crystal clarity. And when you’ve only ever been in one room, or one city, like in ‘Pure Heroine’, there is all the space in the world for contradiction. Especially when every door suddenly swings open at the same time. There is all the possibility to prove yourself wrong. How easy it must be to get caught in the windfall. 

Perhaps that’s why going two-for-two made her recent third album, ‘Solar Power’, taste so sour as it didn’t deliver in the same, expected way. While her sonic explorative sophomore follow-up ‘Melodrama’, found Lorde heartbroken at a house party. ‘Solar Power’ finds Lorde amidst the jet-planes-islands-tigers-on-gold-beach and it felt like a personal insult. She wasn’t the angry teen, or the confused twenty-something; she was basking in the privilege she stuck her nose up to. Now, you’re all the outsiders, there is no more “we” or “us.”  It was as if she was biting the hand that fed her. And it’s her own hand, and yours too. And now it’s stuck in her mouth and everything is coming out subdued and muddled. She wasn’t razor sharp like in the past; there were no white teeth. After a certain point though, maybe the bite can’t be that hard if you’ve already felt the ridges. If something, like ‘Pure Heroine’ or Melodrama already left an indent on your skin. But then again, we’re so full of flesh, and time. 

And there is really no such thing as a “pure” heroine, is there? There are no guts without the glory. You’ve got to slay the dragon to get to the treasure, so you have to expect her to take some side quests, even if one of those is vacationing on a private island during COVID.  I mean, it’s no secret she no longer lives like her fans do – she’s now worth 18 million. This economic shift was already starting to happen a decade ago on ‘Pure Heroine’, so s’he can’t mirror the blue collar exactly like the way she did when she was fifteen. I mean, she’s twenty-six and blonde now, so obviously she’s different. One would hope she’s learned a little something over the past decade. And although she may not be the same, Lorde has always been honest about where she is and what she knows. So in many ways she is the same: she’s telling you the truth, whether or not you like to hear it. In the end, you have to remember: there are no gods, no masters, or idols. There is only Lorde.

Living That Fantasy: Re-visit our Lorde cover story from 2014

Words: Sam Small
Inset Photography: Billy Ballard

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