Lorde and the Ambiguous ‘You’: the Idyllic Relationship of Pure Heroine
It is hard to culturally examine pop music in 2013 without including the impact of the singer/songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, more commonly known by her stage name Lorde. In a few short weeks Lorde went from generally unknown except to a select few New Zealanders to an international pop star in what seems like an overnight success. Lorde’s claim to fame is her pop hit “Royals”, where she rejects the ideas of wealth and affluence that pervade modern pop music and supports a lifestyle of substance. After releasing her extended play The Love Club and gaining a popular standing in her home country New Zealand, “Royals” went viral and Lorde became a common name in pop culture. Her album would go on to certified quadruple platinum (indicating four million copies sold) in New Zealand and the two Grammys won by “Royals” in 2014 indicate Lorde’s staying power as a force to be reckoned with in the Top 40 realm. While the constant comparisons of Lorde to Miley Cyrus and Rihanna show that people value Lorde’s “deep” music more than the party pop of the current mainstream, when each song is examined closely it reveals a narrative about how relationships are formed and maintained.
Along with her single “No Better”, Lorde released an extended version of Pure Heroine that includes all of the songs off her EP The Love Club and “Swingin Party”, the B-side to “Tennis Court”; for this discussion I will limit my focus on the original ten tracks of Pure Heroine along with “No Better” and “The Love Club” because there is a concise narrative about finding one’s place in the world as a modern-day teen through formed relationships. Throughout this album, Lorde uses the maturation in her teen years as a parallel for the newfound fame that she is experiencing. Because of these parallels, I will be examining what the lyrics explicitly regarding fame as a metaphor for coming of age as a teenager instead of reading them literally.
“The Love Club”
“The Love Club” must be discussed before Pure Heroine because it was Lorde’s biggest hit before “Royals” went viral. This song uses the metaphor of a club that a teenager can join to discuss maturation and finding love in the world. While the song seems like a fairly optimistic view of growing up, it is not perfect as Lorde mentions that “The only problem that I got with the club/Is how you’re severed from the people who watched you grow up/When you’re a member go on your great adventure again/And we’ll be waiting at the end” (Little & O’Connor). It would seem that Lorde is saying that while growing up alienates one from the people who care about them, the teen will reunite with them eventually; therefore, one should join this love club as soon as they can because “everything will glow” for them. While this could be read as Lorde pushing the idea that relationships are the endgame for all teenagers, it can also represent finding a group of people that make one’s own world seem to glow because of their positive influences on them. Knowing the message of “The Love Club”, one can then keep this in mind when examining Pure Heroine to see if Lorde ever accomplishes her goal of finding meaning as a teenage girl in a post ’00s world.
The album Pure Heroine starts with a simplistic question that sets up the tone for the ten tracks: “Don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” (Little & O’Connor). Lorde ages herself in this lyric by showing the feigned indifference that comes with being a teenager; she does not care about what the rich and important people have to say. From the start of the album, the listener knows exactly who these songs are for and about: the jaded teenagers of the 2010s, where people care about getting their 15 minutes of fame before they fade into obscurity, never to be heard from again. “Tennis Court” focuses on Lorde trying to live up her teenage years even though she knows “it’s not forever”. Lorde’s carefree days as a teen are numbered and she plans to make the best of it. She briefly mentions having someone, addressed with the second person pronoun ‘you’, watch her have a breakdown through her window, which could show that her life is somewhat open now that she is a teen. There are no secrets in this album, and Lorde seems to make that clear from the first song that she’s going to cut out the bullshit and tell everyone how life as a teen truly is.
“400 Lux” gives us a setting for the album to take place, which is unique because typically albums do not include a geographical location (Rock Genius). Here we are introduced to “roads where the houses don’t change” (Little & O’Connor) in Lorde’s hometown of Devonport, New Zealand. Lorde also gives us a temporal location, though it is not out rightly stated. 400 lux is amount of light a sunrise or sunset on a clear day gives off (lux is the SI unit of luminance), and the entire song reflects its placement within the liminal space of dawn and/or dusk. The lyrics tell of the singer and whom one can assume is a boyfriend, addressed by ‘you’ picking up the singer in their car and driving them to and from parties. The driver buys her orange juice (hinting that they are more likely driving at dawn, which suggests she was out partying all night) and patiently waits for her outside the houses of the parties she frequents. This relationship seems odd but it works for Lorde and her driver, however it is not the sort of relationship that “The Love Club” addresses. Right now it just seems like Lorde and her friend have a sort of give and take relationship without any give shown from Lorde’s side. Perhaps the friend simply enjoys her company or accompanies her inside the parties instead of the hints that the driver just takes her places and buys her OJ.
As mentioned before, “Royals” is Lorde’s MO. O’Connor criticizes the things that frequent popular music on the radio (“gold teeth, grey goose, tripping in the bathroom/blood stains, ball gowns, trashing our hotel room”) while also declaring that they don’t care about celebrities. The oversaturation of wealth in current pop music doesn’t excite Lorde and her friends as expected; instead, they “crave a different kind of buzz” (Little & O’Connor). The instrumentals make the overall song interesting because it simultaneously criticizes the affluence commonly flaunted in hip-hop while using a beat that would be expected in a hip-hop track. Lorde celebrates hip-hop while also criticizing its focus on material wealth, suggesting that idealistic wealth (being ‘rich’ with memories of friends and good times) is preferred.
“Ribs” is the most static song on the album, technically speaking, as the droning instrumental weaves nicely with the only five different lyrical groups. The irony comes out when the lyrics are examined, as they tell the story of the disenchantment that comes when teenagers feel nostalgic. Each lyrical group is repeated twice except for the penultimate grouping, which has the real message. Here, Lorde sings to a close friend about the good times they have had but ends the song with an addendum “but that will never be enough”; the singer is scared of growing up and having to face what the future holds and she knows that no matter how much she and her friend try to remain in the past, the world will keep changing. This leads to Lorde’s friend developing a hate for getting older and Lorde feeling scared while getting older; by feeling a mutual distaste of growing up these two teenagers try to make their own world which is “how you wish it would be all the time”. This world and its relation to reality is explored in the next song.
“Buzzcut Season” takes the solemn ending of “Ribs” and extends it from Lorde and her friend to all teenagers by mentioning that “the men upon the news/they try to tell us all/that we/will lose” (Little & O’Connor). Not only do teens have to deal with the nostalgic pain of growing up but they must also face a society that looks down on them and constantly hopes that they will not succeed in life. Lorde then says that everything is good where they are (living by the pool). This is due to teenagers’ ability to filter the endless stream of bad news which is taken in from the world and then focus on what affects them in a positive way. The mention of living in a hologram with the person she is singing to brings to mind an image of imperfect stasis, as a hologram is just a simulacrum, or “hyper-real” as Lorde puts it. With Lorde and her friend in this hologram, they can watch the world burn with bad news all they want while they remain exactly the same because “nothing’s wrong when nothing’s true” (Little & O’Connor). This song illustrates that trying to reach a point that one can no longer reside in is a prominent motif of teenage angst in the new millennium. Lorde mentions her belief that “people should see how we’re living” (Little & O’Connor) in order to foreground the rejection of the outside world and to prosper in their new world with their intentions to live a good life.
“Team” is the one song that seems to have a direct relationship with another song on the album; lyrically and critically, it is the successor to “Royals” but it also adds on to the message of the previous in a positive way. “Team” is all about the kids who will never be royals, trying to find meaning in a life where they won’t be rich and famous like the people and songs they hear on the radio or “see on the screen”. Lorde deconstructs this problem rather quickly in saying “but we sure know how to run things/living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” (Little & O’Connor). The teens Lorde hangs out with won’t have to worry because they can find meaning in their lives by staying in control of the ruined palace. “Team” brings hope to all the teens in small towns who never felt like they’d be noticed by society and tells them that they too can live a good life, or even a better life than the celebrities they idolize. They may have had dreams of fame and fortune but they can still prevail while living in a palace of what used to be said dreams.
“Glory and Gore”
“Glory and Gore” combines both the violence that comes with being a teenager and the inner desire to have praise brought upon them. This is one of the darkest songs on the album because the chorus doesn’t seem to leave any hope for the listener. Lorde says that widespread fame comes hand in hand with violence and while someone may try to bring them down, “victory’s contagious”, meaning they will receive their own glory and/or they will need to resort to violent acts to reach the teenagers. The placement of “Glory and Gore” after “Team” can create a somewhat sinister image of teens trying to be violent in order to bring meaning to their lives but Lorde subverts that by offhandedly stating that she doesn’t “think about death” (Little & O’Connor); she lives in the moment
“Still Sane” reflects on how Lorde will deal with success and making her way through life now that she has reached her formative years. By referencing a Yoni Wolf song, she somberly questions that if “only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone/what does that make me” (Little & O’Connor). Here she equates too much success with a bad person, which seems to lean toward the possibility of her thinking an excess of success will lead to the overindulgent wealth that she rejects in “Royals”. In order to combat this, she tries to reclaim old memories of her and her friends by “riding around on [their] bikes”. Lorde tries to stay sane by balancing her time with friends trying to recreate memories of her childhood but once again she mentions trying to remain in the past instead of living in the present or making strides toward the future. However, the fact that the song is entitled “Still Sane” implies that after everything that has happened to her as a teenager, reminiscing with her friends is that saving grace that keeps her sanity in check.
“White Teeth Teens”
“White Teeth Teens” seems to be a throwback to “The Love Club” because it describes a group of teenagers superficially focused on their appearances; Lorde describes these as ‘white teeth teens’ due to their bright smiles. She spends the entire song describing the group and where they hang out but at the very end she reveals her big secret: Lorde isn’t a white teeth teen, even though she associates herself with the group. She mentions that she never joined because there was something about them but at the same time mentions that she wears “the robe like no one could” (Little & O’Connor). Does this mean she is leading the group while secretly not part of it or is it implying that being a part of a group ends up leading to something larger than her? Now that Lorde has some sort of leadership position, she has found responsibility which distances herself from the rest of group; this takes the alienation from “The Love Club”, magnifies it, and continues it along to the final song of the album where it is intensified to separate her from everyone except who she is singing to.
“A World Alone”
The album closes with the song “A World Alone” and is arguably the most critical song on the album due to its differences between it and the rest of the album. Up until this song all of the instrumentals have been synthetic; the most ‘realistic’ instrument is the click drum that supplies the beat in “Royals”, which mirrors the current fascination with synthetic and electronic sounds in popular music. “A World Alone” uses a guitar as backup, hinting at an organic sense of rebirth. The guitar brings Lorde back down from a concept to a tangible, relatable singer/songwriter because the less manufactured the sound leads to concentrate more on her voice. The song offers a very bleak outlook on life, however it is much deeper than what the surface implies. Lorde tells whoever she is in a relationship with that they won’t last forever and that she won’t get attached because “one day [they’ll] all get still” (Little & O’Connor). At first glance, this may seem like she is saying that we will all die at some point so she shouldn’t put emphasis on any relationships because the relationship, too, will end. She decides to focus on the negative and inevitable side of life, which may end up costing her a relationship; but she manages to critique it with “you’re my best friend and we’re dancing in a world alone” (Little & O’Connor). Lorde is completely alone at this moment but she has whomever this best friend happens to be, keeping her company while they dance into oblivion together.
The final lyric provides the second half of the album’s envelope verse; in response to Lorde’s question about the mundane way we communicate, she offers a simple answer to her existential way of life: “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk” is answered simply by “Let em talk”; this suggests that no matter how far we think we have come, everything circles around to where we began. This paralytic view of growth goes against everything that maturation in our teen years stands for; instead of a moment or series of events that in retrospect allows us to decide that we have grown up after experiencing this, we simply do not grow up. However, the fact that she is in a world alone with someone who means everything to her is enough. Lorde even says she feels grown up with this person in their car, which has a very positive connotation when combined with the rest of the song’s idea of teenage stasis. Perhaps there is not a stasis at the end of the album, and the most important part of a teenager’s maturation is not actually growing up but the illusion of it; however, it seems like there is a halt to the progress she has tried to make. The long dance breaks allow for pensive thought as the listener tries to figure out who Lorde is singing this to when mentioning the pronoun “you”. The listener is given a lot of time to consider who the “you” is, and at the end we aren’t given a straight answer. It may even be that the “you” is the listener and she is taking us with her while she matures through her late teen years due to the media putting most of her personal life up on a pedestal.
The sound of “No Better” contrasts the similar sounding songs of Pure Heroine to the point where it does not seem to fit with the rest of the album. “No Better” transcends the comment about everyone dying soon and shows a relationship where Lorde is actually happy. She has found what she was looking for and what she has been singing about since “The Love Club”. She mentions death again, like the end of Pure Heroine; contrasting to “A World Alone”, she says that “we’re getting dead and it’s the right way” (Little & O’Connor). Lorde accepts that we’re dying but it isn’t the nihilistic view that her album ends on. Instead, she accepts that while life is slowly wasting away both parties in this relationship are living a good life.
While there is a narrative provided by listening to all ten songs of Pure Heroine, another narrative emerges when we look at the singles Lorde has chosen to represent the album in the mainstream. The progression of what society hears from Lorde on the radio focuses on the concept of fame and how teenagers try to grapple with it while living in a world of instant fame. “Royals” was the first single and it vent viral fairly quickly due to the somewhat inventive idea of rejecting materialistic pop music. The next single was “Tennis Court”, which was a critical hit in New Zealand but only peaked at 71 on Billboard’s Top 100. After “Tennis Court”, she shot back to the top of the charts with “Team”. As I have mentioned earlier, “Team” pairs well with “Royals” to create a narrative of finding meaning within teenagers’ lives without focusing on material wealth. When “Royals” said that all the extravagance in pop music would never be attainable, “Team” adds on that while we will never be on the silver screen our lives still hold value. By breaking up “Royals” and “Team” with “Tennis Court” the narrative adds a layer of self-interest and takes a step back toward affluence with lines like “it looked all right in the pictures” (Little & O’Connor); however, it mentions that everyone is “competing for a love they won’t receive” so the affluent hints are then turned toward finding love. “No Better” was the single to follow “Team” but it was essentially erased by the record company, which removes any mention of a positive relationship; the contradiction between the lyric from “Team” and the entirety of “No Better” is rendered inert if “No Better” is skipped over. The final single is “Glory and Gore”, which when added to the single narrative gives an overall message of “Us teens will never be famous which is alright because famous people are annoying. I will never find someone to love but if I do something violent, I will become famous”. By inaccurately finding meaning in fame through this, the record company is implicitly hinting that the only way a teenager will live a good life is if they do something violent in order to reach stardom. Listeners of the radio miss out on the messages of “No Better” and receive a false idea of what needs to be done according to Lorde in order to grow up. Even when Lorde her most recent U.S. tour, she only performed half of “No Better” and it seemed more like an interlude than an actual song.
Almost all the reviews of Pure Heroine have centered on the idea that Lorde isn’t like the “Miley Cyrus and Rihanna” kind of pop music. This comparison makes her a savior of pop music, due to the public’s desperate hope of pop music making a large turn around and leading to more music with depth instead of what the market has become saturated with in the past few years. But is Lorde really the pop goddess the 2010s have been waiting for? In their review of Pure Heroine, Forbes magazine poses the idea that lyrically Lorde’s music is nothing new but the reason why she is so popular is due to the fact that a seventeen year old girl jumped from obscurity and straight to the limelight with two Grammys under her belt (Messitte 2013). While this is indeed a very important factor to why Lorde is as famous as she is, her music has the substantiation to back up all of her well-deserved accolades and her narratives should not be ignored. Pure Heroine is about a lot of things, but it, like the singer behind the lyrics, should be taken for what it is and not as a presence that will help bring pop music out of the ‘dark ages’. Lorde is just another singer trying to get her story across; while it may sound different and is thematically alienated from most pop music, it shouldn’t be conceptualized as something to save us all because it de-legitimizes what she is trying to say when it becomes an ideal that all of pop music should be held to. The South Park episode “The Cissy” put it best when Sharon Marsh tells her husband that “Lorde represents something in all of us; a truth that wants to be heard”. We all want to make sense of our teenage and young adult years and it has become increasingly difficult to find one’s place in the world with the changes that have shaped the past decade. Lorde has managed to do this, or at least come close with her experiences growing up in the post 00s. In the liner notes of Pure Heroine, Lorde tells her audience that at the moment this album is “for now, the most powerful thing [she] can give” (O’Connor); she has helped millions of teens on their journey to find who they really are, so in that sense she truly is the pop goddess society has been waiting for while simultaneously just living her life as a teen.
Genius, Rock. “10 Reasons Why Lorde’s Pure Heroine Is a Lyrical Masterpiece.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 30 Sept. 2013. Web.
Messitte, Nick. “Pure Heroine – We Found Lorde In A Hopeless Place.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 4 Dec. 2013. Web.
Yelich O’Connor, Ella. Pure Heroine (Extended Version). Lorde. Rec. 27 Sept. 2013. Joel Little, 2013. MP3.
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