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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt