From outward appearances, the sudden worldwide success of New Zealand teen-songstress Ella Yellich-O’Connor (nee, Lorde) seems like an anomaly. After all, she’s not a Disney child actress-turned-pop-star like Selena Gomez (or a Disney child actress-turned-slut like Miley Cyrus); nor is she a used-up-and-spit-out femme fatale persona like Lana Del Rey. Look at a picture of her; nothing about her says bigger-than-life. She comes across as just about as normal a teenage girl as “normal” can be—kind of like Anne Hathaway on The Princess Diaries before the new hairdo.
And yet, this young singer-songwriter puts out a single called “Royals,” and within months she’s the world’s sweetheart. What is this all about? Is this really the “next big thing,” or is Lorde just a flash in the pan, just a young girl who is benefitting from the age of instant information?
Let me tell you this: her debut album Pure Heroine lets us know without a doubt that there is definite talent and substance beyond the hype.
Now, to be clear, Lorde is not simply a viral sensation; she’s been somewhat groomed for this moment, discovered at a talent show at age 12 and signed to Universal at age 13. But Pure Heroine is not simply a concoction of industry star-makers who happened to like her look; there’s a reason Lorde was noticed as a ‘tween, and that reason becomes evident when you hear the music. It’s new, it’s different, it’s current, and it’s remarkably understated and mature—and yet, it seems to come from such a….normal place. That, I believe, it’s what is striking such a nerve around the world.
Lorde’s musical style is very distinct and consistent: slightly jaded lyrics sung over a minimal, slightly dark electro-pop ambience (thanks in part to producer Joel Little). She writes her own material, but this is not your typical teenage boy-girl-gossip bubble-gum drivel, nor is it overly angsty, drug-fueled rage. Instead, her lyrics are reflective, poetic and self-aware, delivered with a level of self-controlled emotion that belies her sixteen years. Don’t get me wrong; these are very much the lyrics of a 21st-century teenager, touching on young love, the perils of small-town boredom, emptying bottles of liquor, etc., but presented in a way that will be palatable to more than just the under-20 crowd.
That said, there is a running theme throughout Pure Heroine, a theme that is both ironic and endearing: the lyrics play almost as if they come from the pages of Lorde’s own diary. She seems obsessed with class struggle and her own place within it. We find repeated references to two conflicting worlds—the uninteresting world of the New Zealand townie, and the glamorous world of the pop celebrity—and Lorde seems to be vaguely dissatisfied with both, even as she realizes she’s moving out of one and into the other. We have the self-deprecating allusions to her roots (as in the opening lines of “Royals:” “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh…and I’m not proud of my address”) right alongside scathing critiques of the empty facades of the wealthy (as in “Team”: “Call the ladies out / They’re in their finery / A hundred jewels on throats…and everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive.).” Meanwhile, in several places Lorde seems to be reflecting on the fame and fortune she already heading toward; in “Tennis Court” she wonders, “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane…how can I f**k with the fun again when I’m known?” And in “Still Sane,” she seems to be pleading with herself not to forget who she is in the process: “I still like hotels, but I think that will change / I still like hotels and my newfound fame / Hey, I promise I can stay good.”
Musically, the production is very smart in that it showcases the expressiveness of Lorde’s voice and range by keeping things understated—and perhaps the only critique I have of the record itself is that perhaps the tracks are a bit too consistent in tone, as though the producer overcompensated for the singer’s vocal range by not allowing enough musical range. (Drum loops and deep bass lines can get repetitive after awhile if they aren’t changed up enough.) That being said, there is enough depth and raw talent displayed on this record that Lorde is going to have plenty of time to grow and expand her musical palate. Pure Heroine is a solid debut for a young artist who is proving she has the staying power to last beyond the initial crush the world now has on her. This is no flash-in-the-pan; trust me, Lorde isn’t going anywhere.