Is Lorde just another product of the celebrity culture we live in?

Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star. But there’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space.

Pure Heroine (Universal)
Lorde

The billboards glower on high streets in black and white, their closest visual neighbour in music being the artwork for Joy Division’s final album, Closer. A young woman poses like a religious icon, dead eyes to the heavens, Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc for the 21st century. The title would be a lame drug gag in the hands of a punk artist but for a pop singer it works, somehow.

Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, is the biggest new star of the year, with a number one single already on both sides of the Atlantic. This song, “Royals”, also soundtracked the arrival of New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, on to his victory platform on 5 November. The weird tableau is on YouTube: a silver-haired Democrat walking through a sea of red flags, while a woman sings in a deep, bluesy voice, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh/I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/And I’m not proud of my address/In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.”

In “Royals” and across her record, Lorde, whose pseudonym reflects her love-hate fascination with the titled, sings about young people’s experiences, especially their contradictory reactions to fame. She could be singing about the rich-poor divide in Manhattan, although she was writing about the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, where she grew up. She turned 17 earlier this month.

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

Her comfortable background plays a part. The daughter of a prize-winning poet and a civil engineer, she was a voracious reader as a child – she has said that she loved Raymond Carver’s economy of style at the age of 12. Signed by Universal when she was 13 after a friend’s father sent a video of her singing a Duffy song at school, she insisted on writing her own material, not recording an album of soul covers.

Lorde’s precociousness extends to her relationship with the media. On 3 November, she retweeted a post from the 17-year-old magazine editor Tavi Gevinson: “‘She giggles, lacing her Chuck Taylors. She may be famous, but she’s still just a kid’ – end of every profile of a well-known young person.” She appears to be analysing everything, acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.

Clever female teens in pop are nothing new. Kate Bush was in her heights of wuthering at 18; Carole King was the same age when she wrote the one-night-stand pop shocker “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. Perhaps Lorde stands out today because girls in pop exist in such a visual media culture. Rihanna dry-humps a golden throne in a thong in her latest video. Miley Cyrus stares straight at the camera before swinging naked on a wrecking ball.

In the video for “Royals”, Lorde just sings – and she stares. Likewise with the video for “Tennis Court”, the song that opens Pure Heroine. Though its first line smacks of Kevin-the-Teenager-grade ennui (“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”), it launches us firmly into the World of Lorde the Pop Star (“How can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known?”).

Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star; perhaps Lorde is another product of the celebrity culture we live in. People who crave fame are able to achieve shades of it quickly these days. Yet her lyrics satirise the pop-star world refreshingly (“I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings in “Team”). There’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space. The song “400 Lux” starts with a repeated, single, slow drone; “Ribs” takes a whole minute to layer a hazy line of vocals. Lorde’s producer is no hotshot but New Zealand’s Joel Little, who had minor success with pop-punk bands back home. Here are two people from outside the system and they’re certainly refreshing.

Pop’s great heritage of youthful melancholy is also here. Lorde’s voice is a mass of contradictions, its many sweet moments undercut with sourness. In “Buzzcut Season”, with its lovely minor-key chiming bells, there’s a line that she never follows up: “And I’ll never go home again.”

Today’s 17-year-olds know their power and the pivots on which they are placed. They are the children of parents born not into rock’n’roll but into pop, folk, punk, indie and beyond, contemporary music’s rich and varied thick soup. They know how to access and shape the world, adapting their influences, not just absorbing them through a needle. In Lorde’s case – so far, at least – she knows how to make them work, too.

As the chorus of “Still Sane” rings out, that billboard looms large in my mind again. “I’m little,” the lyric deadpans, “but I’m coming for the crown.”

Teenage riot: Lorde's minimalist style is a refreshing contrast to hyperactive mainstream pop. Image: Charles Howell

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear