The other day, a friend of mine who recently moved to New York from Salt Lake City was lamenting the collective fashion sense of her Williamsburg brethren. Back home, she explained, you could automatically tell who was alternative and who was a square, based simply on the way they were dressed. In New York, it’s different. “Everything’s blended together,” she said. “There’s no way to tell who’s mainstream and who’s not.”
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All due respect to my friend, there are still plenty of freaks walking around in NYC. But her observation is useful in evaluating the output of a new crop of indie singers, who, as Steven Hyden noted over at Grantland, don’t sound all that alternative. Like the kids in Brooklyn that my friend can’t figure out, these artists are mixing signals in a way that makes them hard to decipher and emblematic of a shape-shifting generation.
One of the best and poppiest new acts toeing that line is Lorde, a 16-year-old Kiwi with a voice like Lana Del Rey and an attitude far more interesting. Where Del Rey seems content to be a poster-girl for an industry-stamped combination of vintage style and vague, fashionable angst, Ella “Lorde” Yelich-O’Connor is more difficult to pin down, and is, as a result, a lot more fun.
The first single from her new album Pure Heroine is a good example. “Royals,” seems at first to be a straightforward song, with the same anti-consumption attitude that has powered recent radio hits (“Thrift Shop”) and avant-garde outbursts (“New Slaves,”) alike. But the song is knottier than it first appears.
For one thing, similar to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” it’s got the potential to sound like a celebration of the very things it purports to reject. The song’s catchy, elongated bridge: “gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room” etc. will no doubt lead some epic party sing-alongs. And those signifiers’ placement within the song guarantee that they’ll be celebrated with the fervor that Lorde is initially denying them.
Then there’s the chorus, where things get really tricky, as it operates on a distinction between being a “royal”–someone with money–and “ruling,” which, apparently means simply being awesome, a trickier aspiration that’s less easy to assume simply by making some money.
This is fascinating stuff, which contains an undercurrent of political thought that has (for the most part) been missing from mainstream pop since rap found shiny suits. The difference is that there’s no confusion here about “serious” music–Pure Heroine makes it clear that pop songs are as useful as vehicles for in-depth ideas as any banjo-powered protest jam.
The album is chock full of moments of genuine rebellion–a spark that can’t be consistently found in any one genre of music anymore. “Buzzcut Season” opens with a line delivered innocuously enough: “I remember when your head caught flame.” The story goes on to detail a genuine devil-may-care reaction to an unintentional hairstyle change–a rebellion more difficult to signify than the simple mention of molly in an otherwise perfectly bland anthem-by-numbers. But at the same time, the song is pure pop, with girl-group cooing, another of those head-grabbing bridges, and talk of “explosions on TV” and other recognizable symbols of pop bombast.
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I used to think of music taste as a kind of hierarchy. On the first level, you listened to what was available, which was likely to be pop. The second level was the first sphere of being critical–you stopped listening to pop, because that’s what everyone else listened to. And the third level, where things got interesting, is when you realized that being reactionary about pop didn’t distinguish you or say that much about you. After that, you at least attempt to listen to both “pop” and “not pop” on their own merits.
That hierarchy is outdated because the lines aren’t clear anymore–there need not be any crossing back and forth between how you feel about pop. (Mumford and Sons, who are definitively first level, are not necessarily “pop.”) Lorde is 16. That’s the right age to understand how little your message’s package matters to its content. For the next generation, choosing a musical allegiance won’t be as cut and dry as pop vs. alternative. As is the case in choosing between Miley Cyrus and Lorde–two young women who make catchy, upbeat songs–the difference will come down to substance, rather than what liking one or the other says about you.
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