There are pop hits, and then there are songs that take over the culture, however briefly: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for example. They become widely popular not simply because they’re catchy, but because they latch onto common anxieties. Lorde’s “Royals” is one of these songs. Composed mostly of voice and electronically processed drums and finger snaps, it holds your attention from the first syllable. Her vocals hop up and down a major triad—“gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom”—before ascending to the top of the chorus: “And we’ll never be royals (royals)…. / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us / We crave a different kind of buzz.” The song retains the us-against-them, can’t-lose quality of a playground rhyme: Lorde declares her—“our”—loyalty to youth, to a girl gang and their neighborhood (“no postcode envy” in her “torn-up town”), and against a global elite that insists on visible riches, on brands, drinks, and sex, as measures of success.
Lorde was 15 when she recorded “Royals” and distributed it, with her record company’s blessing, on social media, as if to make sure her peers heard it first. Other songs on Pure Heroine, the album that followed, also played up the idea that Lorde and her posse didn’t need help from adults. “Tennis Court” contemplated her potential stardom along with her youth (“Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane”), then segued into minor-chord bravado: “It’s a new art form, showing people how little we care.” On “Team,” a chorus studded with relative minors asked uncool teens to stick together: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen…. / And, you know, we’re on each other’s team.” The video for that song depicts dirt bikes, dusty back lots, and shipping containers in what could be Lorde’s subtropical Auckland. When the Lorde of Pure Heroine came off as jaded, she sounded that way because she wasn’t ready for adult experience, but felt too old for kid stuff.
With the release of Pure Heroine, however, Lorde shot into the pop stratosphere; you could also say that she walked into a paradox. Lorde became famous by singing about not being famous, and she wrote songs about coming from the edge of the map, but she was now a habitué of London and Los Angeles. She sang about being too young to go out, but soon she’d be going out plenty; she sang about hiding, in bedrooms and city buses, from the big, bad world—a world that has now embraced her. Interviews from 2013 show her acutely aware of the problem—“What happens by the time I’m 21?” she asks one journalist—which did not mean that she knew how to solve it.
Maybe she still hasn’t—who could?—but her second album, Melodrama, released in June 2017 (a few months before her 21st birthday), addresses that problem, and thoughtfully, too. On the surface, the album is a set of songs about growing up, hooking up, and going out to parties, about bodily pleasure and erotic attachment (puzzles that being famous won’t fix). But less obviously, it’s an embodiment of millennial anxieties about growing up in 2017, and along the way it reminds us—by calling attention to mothers and collaborators, and to our own stubbornly mixed emotions—that no life course is sure, and no form of independence absolute.
Extraordinarily—especially for a multi-platinum record by a teenage girl—most of Pure Heroine’s songs had subjects other than dating, sex, and love. You could sway with your friends to those songs, but you wouldn’t drop a needle on them to get a club hopping; nor would you use them to propose marriage, or to get between anyone’s sheets. Melodrama, on the other hand, is a panorama of big sounds that advertises its sexual energy: It recommends, with an enthusiastic stutter, turning our bodies into “homemade dynamite.” But it’s also an album of ambivalence, of dissatisfaction with a world where “the evening passes” and someone has to be “cleaning up the champagne glasses.”
Plenty of pop songs focus on falling in love, or on breaking up, or on the day when you find your own voice. They often rise toward, or fall away from, these big reveals. Melodrama has as many radio-ready hooks as any of them, but its key moments—verbally and musically—are moments of irresolution, of indecision or double—mindedness: inviting us to play along, ride a thrill, chase the rush, while asking, as one of Lorde’s choruses has it, “But what will we do when we’re sober?”
“You could listen to [Melodrama] not knowing I was a famous person,” Lorde has said. That’s true, but if you do know, you can treat her thoughts about hookups and breakups as a way to think about fame. “Yellow Flicker Beat”—the single Lorde wrote for a Hunger Games film in 2014—begins almost inaudibly and builds toward a sonic apocalypse, like the series’ bloody revolution. On Melodrama, though, the sonic buildups end anticlimactically or inconclusively: In “Green Light,” the first single, Lorde ends up still “waiting” for a signal to leave a boyfriend, and paired chords swing back and forth beneath the vocals, impatient for decisions that never come.
The story of Lorde’s early life says less about youthful rebellion than it does about timely assistance for the gifted young. Born Ella Yelich-O’Connor in New Zealand/Aotearoa in 1996, Lorde grew up with a brother and two sisters in greater Auckland. Despite that video for “Team,” her hometown—Devonport—was no “torn-up town,” but a leafy suburban peninsula. Her father, Vic O’Connor, is a civil engineer; her mother, Sonja Yelich, is a recognized poet (her last book came out in 2008). In childhood, Lorde was rewarded mostly for academics. But then she sang in a local talent show, and family friends sent a tape of her performance to an executive at a major record label in New Zealand, who took an interest in her voice and lyrics and set her up to write songs alongside the Auckland producer Joel Little. (Lorde may compose lyrics and melodies by herself, but she doesn’t write and arrange the full songs unaided: The New York Times reports that she “does not play an instrument,” which, taken literally, seems hard to believe, though she doesn’t play one in concert.)
Local shows, an EP, a bevy of posts on Instagram and Tumblr, and a well-managed launch (not releasing a single until the album was ready, for example) let her ascend within months from near anonymity to worldwide celebrity. Lorde sang on network TV in the United Kingdom and the United States. She got mocked on South Park. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made “Royals” the theme song for his victory speech. Later she would stand in for Kurt Cobain and David Bowie in posthumous tributes, singing their best-known songs. She had achieved what many musicians want and almost none get: Multinational capital had made her a star, without erasing what felt like her own voice.
To judge by the gossip pages or by her own words, Lorde found the ride awkward, but she didn’t mind. She spent months in London, New York, and LA, where her friends include Lena Dunham (at whose house she worked on Melodrama) and Taylor Swift (who knows a few things about fame). To write Melodrama, though, Lorde went back home. The Times said that she rented a house “on a remote island called Waiheke,” which is like saying she fled San Francisco for distant Marin County: The ferries leave Auckland for Waiheke every half-hour.
Yet her Auckland roots do matter. Like other medium-size, prosperous cities (Stockholm, Atlanta, Minneapolis–St. Paul), it’s big enough to supply collaborators and mentors, small enough that unknowns can get heard. You could say the same thing about all of New Zealand, whose writers also echo some of what Lorde has to say about girls, and youth, and privilege: If Lorde seems to address a generation, so does Hera Lindsay Bird, now 29, who became New Zealand’s best-selling poet last year.
Bird and Lorde are fans of each other. Both grew up, in part, online, and both make art that seems, in some ways, meant to be popular, and in other ways naive, awkward, overexposed. Like Dunham and Tavi Gevinson of Rookie magazine (another friend of the singer’s), Bird and Lorde represent a generation that sees less power in adulthood—with its hypocritical rules around privacy, its false promises of autonomy and security—than in the sometimes frenetic sincerity of girls’ early teens. Their detractors like to call these artists twee, frivolous, and juvenile, as well as oppressively white; their fans reply that to view the first three qualities as insults is to reinforce norms made for adult, straight men, and as for the fourth, if you want more nonwhite sounds, there are plenty of nonwhite artists making them. While these writers may aspire to speak for a generation, none of them claim to explain everything.
You can describe growing up as an effort to figure out who you are, or who you want to be when you turn 21, or how you might fit into your generation. (Lorde calls her own a “L-O-V-E-L-E-S-S generation,” as if spelling it out for adults.) Older writers often see growing up as a path toward independence or autonomy, which can be a misleading ideal.
People who write about Lorde tend to credit (as she does herself) her older male co-writers and producers for some measure of her musical success. On Melodrama, it’s not Little but Jack Antonoff, Dunham’s boyfriend, formerly of the band fun. and now of Bleachers. But if you listen to fun., or to Bleachers, or to Broods—the pleasantly gloomy Lorde-like New Zealand band whose album Little produced—it’s easy to see what’s special about Lorde’s voice, and even easier to see how her songs are distinctly hers. Two piano ballads on Melodrama (there were none on her debut) establish the singer as someone whom nobody owns, even if she has to present herself as a mess to keep it that way. In one of them, “Liability,” Lorde croons: “Better on my own.” And yet the long vowel in “own” sounds as if Lorde doesn’t quite believe it—indeed, a few bars later, she sounds resigned and expects to “disappear into the sun.”
The other ballad, “Writer in the Dark,” also explores Lorde’s ambivalence about independence, invoking her poet mother. “I am my mother’s child,” she sings. “But in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power / I’ll find a way to be without you, babe.” Lines like these, and rhymes like “hours” and “power,” return us to the interminable debate as to whether pop lyrics are, or are not, poems: They’re aesthetically interesting and effective when—and only when—they come with music. In this case, the music throbs and recedes like a heartbeat, the vocals never leave the piano behind, and the sound implies that taking control of your life means taking the lead, not doing it all yourself. What Lorde seems to want in Melodrama is not to stand on her own, but rather to lead the team—peers, musicians, romantic partners. It’s more fun that way, and it’s also, she realizes, more realistic for her than pure DIY.
With so many “brand-new sounds” (as “Green Light” has it), so much new experience, and even newly minted words (“it’s just a supercut of us”) on Melodrama, Lorde’s team effort seems complete. But it is missing some things that other members of her generation can’t avoid: questions about money, or class, or scarcity. Pure Heroine sometimes sounded like an inexpensive bedroom recording, though it wasn’t; Melodrama, whose tone shifts hard from track to track, sounds like the work of a singer who has all the resources (sonic and otherwise) she could want. And yet even with her newfound economic security, the experiences of precarity, of not knowing whether your good luck will last, are certainly present in her new record’s overtones and its anxious falling away from joy. If Lorde doesn’t know what’s next for her, or how to settle down, maybe that’s not because she got so famous; maybe it’s because, these days, no one knows. The younger you are, the more reason you have—as “Perfect Places” puts it—to “hate the headlines.”
Tracey Thorn writes in Naked at the Albert Hall that nonmusicians often mistake a pop singer’s art for unmediated emotion: Instrumentalists rely on craft, but singers supposedly “offer…a direct expression of their own inner self.” That’s especially true if they’re young and female and seem to sing about their own lives. But like songwriting, singing is work, as Thorn explains, and it’s rarely done entirely alone. Melodrama suggests that growing up (whatever that means) is never over, and that partial control is all we ever get—whether we find an international spotlight (“Seven countries in seven days,” Lorde recently tweeted. “Popstar achievement unlocked”), or whether we continue to write in the dark.