Lorde Voices a Generation


Like much of the rest of the streaming-addicted world, I rushed to view my 2019 Spotify Wrapped minutes after it dropped, curious to see just how much I had moored myself to music this year. The results were, mostly, expected: Bon Iver was my top artist of the year; Maggie Rogers, MUNA, and St. Vincent predictably occupied the next few positions.

And then came my Artist of the Decade: Lorde. At the sight of her name, I exhaled: wow. Lorde? It seems strange for someone who spends an embarrassingly few number of their weekends at parties and rather minimal time indulging in completely materialistic pop music to have their decade encapsulated by a woman who has largely built her musical career off of those very themes.

Yet I could not help but agree that Spotify’s choice was not only empirically supportable—based off my listening history—but also emotionally consistent. Lorde has been the voice of my teenage experience: as I begin to near the end of my own second decade of life, I cannot think of another artist that has more transparently captured the flux of my own adolescence, a statement I am sure applies to millions of others. Naturally, differences in background, class, identity, and circumstance inhibit Lorde from narrating, perfectly, the stories of all teenage individuals. However, I think the 23-year-old New Zealander has chronicled the general emotional landscapes of youth—particularly those in America—with a meticulous amount of accuracy.

For so many, adolescence is a time of immense change, both physically and mentally; it is when identity really begins to crystallize. Contextual consciousness develops: suddenly, we are more aware than ever before of how we fit into a larger world. For the first time in our lives, we are acquainted, loudly, with new binaries of love and heartbreak, of success and failure. Joy and trauma are redefined. The dimensionality of life expands infinitely as we experiment and experience.

Somehow, despite its relative shortness with just two studio albums and a handful of standalone singles, Lorde’s discography lives and breathes the complexity of teenage narratives. It makes sense that, as a young woman herself—“Royals” came out when she was just 15 years old—she would chronicle her own adolescence. Few artists do it with the accuracy she manages, though: while other artists rely on hazy clichés and glossy fantasies to imagine the teenage years, Lorde never gets too idealistic for her own good.

Both her debut Pure Heroine and sophomore album Melodrama serve as fantastic vessels to translate her message, albeit in different ways. While fans are in constant debate about which of the two records stands superior, the truth is that both records maintain equally good quality. Where they differ is the forms of adolescence they represent.

Pure Heroine sees a young woman coming unapologetically into the world, all the while both optimistic and cynical. Generally unconcerned with danceability on this record, Lorde occupies herself more with truth-telling. The beats are, radically, minimalistic—remember that 2013 was also a year where Daft Punk and Miley Cyrus ruled the airwaves, and the industry norm was to add, not subtract. Lorde minimizes the number of layers on each track perfectly; without dampening how interesting the record is sonically, she manages to make her voice—both narrative and physical—the centerpiece. In doing so, Lorde elevates the lyrical messages on the record: the conclusive aphorisms that she implants into each track are illuminated.

On “Still Sane,” she illustrates the experience of the obsessively diligent: “All work and no play / Never makes me lose it,” she brags, a customary expression of the workaholic teenager, compulsively occupied with academics or extracurriculars or minimum wage jobs. The genius comes when she flips it the next verse: “All work and no play / Let me count the bruises.” Diligence, though facially invulnerable, also demands sacrifice and pain. This truism is lost in the mainstream, but Lorde empowers it regardless. On the flip side of the spectrum, she narrates the equally-as-teenage lax moments where time seems to slip down a drain: “I love these roads where the houses don't change / Where we can talk like there's something to say,” she croons on “400 Lux,” soaking in the mundaneness of suburbia and mindless conversation. The endlessly partying teenager gets a redemptive shoutout on “Glory and Gore”: “Everyone a rager / But secretly they're saviours.” Though typically labeled as socially disruptive, partiers emancipate teenagers of responsibility and, by extension, adulthood.

On “Ribs,” Lorde addresses perhaps the most compelling fear of adolescence: that it is to end. “This dream isn't feeling sweet / We're reeling through the midnight streets / And I've never felt more alone / It feels so scary, getting old.” Her lyrics are honest and clear, free of metaphor and rife with relatability. Being a teenager is precisely about late-night speeding through streets, about notions of loneliness and, in the later years of adolescence, a gnawing sense of youth coming to a close. Risks are taken on a presumption that chances to do so will never be offered again. Lorde captures this feeling immaculately.

Photo Credit: Krists Luhaers

Melodrama sees a much more mature version of Lorde, no longer so bright-eyed but incredibly alive. While Pure Heroine fixates on day-to-day experiences and confrontations with society, Melodrama tells stories of love and passion. This is appropriate: adolescence sees, for many, first relationships and young loves. With the loss of virginity often happening around the ages of 16 and 17 for many teenagers (at least in the U.S.), sex also newly enters the conversation for many. These strange new encounters find homes in Melodrama comfortably. Lead single “Green Light” is upfront about it: “Did it frighten you / How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?” So is titular track “Sober II (Melodrama)”: “They’ll talk about us, and discover / How we kissed and killed each other.” Adrenaline-filled affairs come to a head on “The Louvre”: “I am your sweetheart psychopathic crush / Drink up your movements, still, I can't get enough.” Clothes strewn on the floor, bodies rolling, the characters Lorde fashions on Melodrama are unashamed visions of teenage passion.

Heartbreak rears its ugly head on Melodrama too, just as it does in adolescence. “Writer in the Dark” sees a Lorde close to shrieking, clearly beyond herself with emotion. “Supercut,” one of the best songs of her career, details the excruciating mental exercise of reliving a relationship well into its twilight. It poignantly encapsulates what the secretly shameful weeks and months post-breakup look like: thinking, accidentally, of your ex, and falling into a pit of memories and nostalgia. “In my head I do everything right / When you call, I forgive and not fight,” she grieves.

Perhaps most revelatory on Melodrama is its exploration of self-love. “Hard Feelings” is unambiguous: “I care for myself the way I used to care about you,” she champions. “Liability” features a self-doubting protagonist, overwhelmed by her own apparently burdensome nature. Such is a narrative of many teenagers: falling out of place with one group of friends, only to be confronted with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. She reclaims power at the end of the song by imagining for herself a future full of happiness and light despite her initial social rejection: “You're all gonna watch me disappear into the sun.”

Lorde is, by all counts, an artist of a generation. Her work is a musical Bible of what it means to be a teenager in the developed world. It is startling, powerful, and emotional to witness and experience her music, because it tells stories that belong to all of us as much as they do to her.

Max Zhang

Photo Credit, top: Chuff Media.

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