Pure Heroine (Universal)
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.”