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Four years ago, Ella Yelich-O’Connor arrived on the airwaves unannounced but fully formed, sixteen years old with an inescapable hit, “Royals,” that would sit atop the U.S. charts for nine weeks straight. It seemed implausible that a song so potent, so powerful, could have sprung from the mind of a teenage girl. Because “Royals” wasn’t a song for teen girls; it was a song for everyone. Who couldn’t identify with a line like, “Life is great without a care/We aren’t caught up in your love affair”?
With Melodrama, her excellent second album, Lorde is still aiming for the universal. Put the album on repeat and your body will internalize it like a circadian rhythm. The singer has called Melodrama “the arc of an evening,” its narrative playing out over a single night as a party begins, wanes, and ends, leaving you entirely alone. The exuberant first half, the smashing of the brake pedal in the middle, the agony of realization in the end — all embed themselves within you until this 41-minute arc, full of passion and fear and disappointment, plays in your ears without headphones.
In the recent years since Lorde’s rise to teenage stardom, it seems, there has been a lot of focus on being the good kind of teen girl, the one whose fandom is unstoppable, who bathes herself in glitter, who creates memes and Tumblr trends, and functions as a rudder for culture. “Fetishization of ‘teen girl’ cultural value has led to an unnerving and ever-increasing sense that a teen girl is somebody an adult woman might want to be,” Josephine Livingstone wrote recently in a divisive piece for the New Republic about Carly Rae Jepsen. But there’s another kind of teen girl that no one wants to be: the sad one, the one Lorde has made the protagonist of Melodrama.
To be twenty years old, as Lorde is now, is a scary thing, and the singer reveals the underbelly of youthful recklessness in all its muddiness and terror. Being a teen girl can be a miserable thing, but your lack of direction, of purpose, of safety can feel almost sacred. There is the weight of your family, your society, your gender, your future. All that pressure builds and builds, and it has to go somewhere, and maybe it creates the energy and ebullience in teen girls that we envy.
That’s where the undeniable brilliance of Melodrama lies: in its ability to embrace these extremes and treat them as equally significant. The youthful utopian purity of the album’s first half — the bouncing, club-beat-backed fervor of “Green Light”; the twitchy rhythm of “Homemade Dynamite — smashed up against the angst and dread of the back half. Everything is good, and everything is bad, and neither of those states can’t be outrun by thinking or aging or ignoring.
When we obsess over teen girls, what we obsess over is the first half of the night — the joy, the freedom, the unashamed passion — because the second half never really goes away. The party ends, and what’s left, no matter how well a night begins, is the loneliness, the fear, the terror. Lorde not only feels that duality, she’s laid it out structurally on the album. Take, for example, the sister songs “Sober” and “Sober II (Melodrama),” the first a meditation on the excitement of a night out, the second a reflection on the loneliness of the party’s end. There’s a fine line between anticipation and anxiety, and between anxiety and dread, so while Lorde sings, “We pretend that we just don’t care/But we care” on “Sober,” by “Sober II” it’s become “the terror/And the horror/When we wonder why we bother.”
In moments like this, one is reminded that Lorde is the daughter of a poet. Inside every line is a story, inside every allusion is a secret. On the haunting, plinking piano ballad “Writer in the Dark,” she sings, “I’ll love you till my breathing stops/I’ll love you till you call the cops on me.” It’s the kind of over-the-top obsessiveness that teen girls are usually ridiculed for. You want melodrama? Well, here it is, unfiltered and turned up.
At the end of the album, as at the end of the night, all those feelings will still be there, Lorde reminds us. Have another drink, the album seems to say, and hope it lifts you above the headlines and the violent heat of summer and all your fear and excitement and terror. It won’t work, and maybe it doesn’t need to. Maybe everything we feel is OK to feel in all its power and awe, no matter how old we are.