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.”