Lorde and the power and contradictions of pop media

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(image: Ross Brown for Billboard)

I’m not a big listener of pop music. I much prefer lesser known, more challenging, jagged, thought-provoking genres, usually with the qualifiers “independent,” “art” or “underground.” Still, I try to remain open to new artists no matter the genre… except for country but c’mon, blues does everything country does much better and without the tacit conservative agenda. It was in this spirit that I first listening to Lorde’s “Team” about five weeks ago (I skipped “Royals” because it was too popular, just like I still enjoy Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” but haven’t even listened to “Rolling in the Deep”).

Despite my reservations of anything and everything popular enough to be on Billboard or TMZ, I actually quite like the music. The songs themselves are good, but there’s more to it than that. As I listened to Pure Heroine a couple more times it dawned on me that Lorde, as presented on this album, is actually a testament to the far-reaching influence that popular music has on much of society.

In a year when popular music was dominated by nostalgia like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” or carefully structured mainstream trend-followers like “Blurred Lines” and “Wrecking Ball,” it’s both strange and entirely fitting that a song like “Royals” would be become popular. With its slow, fuzzed-out base and finger snaps and its lyrics of rejecting modern trends of flashing wealth, the song doesn’t immediately fit the mould of current pop, yet it is exactly the type of thing that does.

The irony of songs like “Royals,” “Tennis Court,” “Team” and “White Teeth Teens” is that while they offer a rejection of the trappings of most modern pop music (“But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room”), they trade in the same imagery (“We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” “You can call me Queen Bee”). Each of these songs, and others on Pure Heroine, acknowledge that the glamour and wealth of big-screen life are not a part of Lorde’s existence, but in her fantasy world they were. In the same way that pop music has always served as wish fulfillment, from dancing with the prettiest girl to having all the groupies and drugs to BMW’s with built-in Cristal fountains, Lorde demonstrates a longing for these things. If they were so unimportant, then why mention them? Why make the effort to reject something that is meaningless to you? Even Lorde’s stage name is contradictory.

Of course, Lorde is most likely quite genuine in every word she sings. The inherent contradiction of a teenage singer becoming popular for songs and statements against other pop music demonstrates just how pervasive the genre’s imagery and conventions have become. The messages within the genre are so embedded that parodying those messages has become its own genre. Lorde’s lyrics openly acknowledge those written by other artists. In this sense, songs like “Royals” and “Team” become a form of meta-pop. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before, but it’s rarely as massively successful. This is how Lorde possibly becomes an important figure in recent pop music.

In many ways, Lorde, a 17-year-old from New Zealand, typifies the modern American teenager. The ages between 12 and 19, and for many of us even those much higher, are rife with hypocrisy. We find teen movies vapid but want our lives to be just like them. We rebel against social norms using the same means that generations before us rebelled against social norms. We care that people think we don’t care what people think.

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(photo: Ross Brown)

That Lorde comes from all the way out in New Zealand presents even more interesting implications. Her acute understanding of the themes of American pop music shows not only the reach of popular media but also how it influences the image of modern American art and life. This is how we are presenting to the rest of the world: music, television, movies, etc. This, in itself, demonstrates the power that popular entertainment has.

Lorde is not some unorthodox antithesis to the flashy, Hollywood lifestyle as presented in a lot of modern music. She’s every person who grew up seeing or hearing about the lifestyle and thus far hasn’t achieved it. She’s the actress who stars in plays between auditions for CW dramas. She’s the aspiring screenwriter who rails against shallow blockbusters while sitting at Starbucks drafting a zombie script. She’s every cultural critic who spends 1000 words talking about the unimportance of Jennifer Lawrence’s haircut. She is pop music’s third rule of motion: the equal and opposite reaction. She is a product and response to popular media.

Granted, she’s just 17-years-old and has been signed to a Universal records development contract since she was 12. Many of her contradictions could be age or even marketing. Still, there’s some comfort in seeing something like “Team” become popular in the same year as “We Can’t Stop.” Music is an unbelievably powerful and far-reaching form of communication. There’s a lot of music that tries to provoke action or thought, but little of that becomes as popular as the empty-headed “shake it like you’re in a strip club” nonsense. If even one small percentage of Lorde’s audience takes the time to dissect her lyrics, the points and the ironies behind it, that would be a good thing.

Whether intentional or not, Lorde’s music acknowledges that we all, as members of society, are influenced by popular media. We may want to reject it, but in rejection we acknowledge that the standards placed upon us are impactful, otherwise we wouldn’t need to reject them. Lorde may just be another one-year-wonder of pop, but perhaps if more of the genre were as self-reflective, people like me wouldn’t be so vitriolic toward the idea of “popular” music.

Or maybe her songs just have catchy tunes. Either way, they got me thinking, a rare feat for any popular artist. Getting people to think is always a good thing.

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About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll has spent years traveling the world, writing books, performing poetry, teaching, playing D&D, and occasionally discussing movies for Pop Mythology. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press. He can put his foot behind his head.