Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lorde and Her Demographic

"Tennis Court," Lorde's satire of the elite world she joined at the Grammys this year, isn't particularly convincing, but it has the best music video of the year. In one long close-up, Lorde stands in the middle of the frame in Neil Gaiman cosplay. At the beginning of the video and again in the middle she cracks, smiling and barely holding back her nervous laughter, and after that we watch for a few minutes as she raises and lowers her eyebrows, looks away from the camera, turns her head to the left and right, and so on. Béla Balázs wrote that in close-up the human face "speaks instinctively and subconsciously," beyond the control of the most talented actor; this video seems like a proof of his theory. By the end, though, as the fluorescents go up and down behind her, she's staring up at the camera with a kind of demonic concentration, totally committed to every repetition of the one line she gets. Every trace of a human subconscious has been successfully masked.

The intended association seems to be celebrity-as-demonic possession, as the distorted vocals suggest, and the video is certainly supposed to make us uncomfortable staring at a celebrity's face. That's valid, if pedantic, but it reminds me mostly of a job interview, the most common setting to exude determination and mask our nervousness. People who are good at job interviews have a way of stilling every tic, meeting every eye, and making their voice as sonorous as they can manage, even if they're bundles of nerves in everyday life. Usually, though, there's a seam, a moment of the grotesque when you can see them putting on the mask. The border between the two Lordes in the "Tennis Court" video is so thin—restricted to blinks and downcast eyes—that it's almost imperceptible, and by the end the lights have obliterated it. So we understand first of all that Lorde would be very good at job interviews. Good enough that I suspect she was bred for it in some kind of military facility.

Lorde's closest relatives—the ones grown in incubator tubes next to hers, we can conjecture—seem to be Grimes and Lana Del Rey. This would leave her in a high-end niche of the mainstream that was first chiseled out by Kate Bush, but KT's whole charm is in her digressions, her eccentricity, her invincible sense of humor. Lorde is not only relentlessly serious but also relentlessly focused in her topics. Kate Bush sings about doppelgängers, airplanes, kangaroos, military science, dead soldiers, Catherine Earnshaw, Molly Bloom; Lorde sings, to the exclusion of all else, about "the feeling of being my age and living in a suburb, and feeling as if there’s absolutely nothing to do." Her Siouxsian leanings aside, Lorde is callow and sincere. This brings her into the orbit of yet another prodigy: Taylor Swift.

The similarities here are bone-deep. The most important affinity between Lorde and Taylor is that they're both songwriters, and their labels work very hard to make that clear. Katy Perry can be a John Hughes character in one video and an Edgar Rice Burroughs character in the next because we don't expect the persistence of a persona; she's an interpreter, not an author. A Taylor Swift song, on the other hand, is a product of actual labor, an honest record of Taylor's real feelings, which opens it up to "serious" analysis. Let's take two Grammy performances: the aesthetic merits of "Dark Horse" are more or less irrelevant, because it's really the soundtrack to a theater piece: costumes, pyrotechnics, performance. Katy Perry herself is just a privileged part of the mise-en-scene. In "All Too Well," on the other hand, an auteur is at work. Taylor is alone, at a piano, on a dark stage, in a simple white dress; there are no distractions from the song itself. Taylor reminds us that she was there, that she remembers it. Taylor, like Lorde, is a creator. We can imagine her awake at night looking for the right word. 

Taylor and Lorde part company along class lines, though. Taylor's songs come from Taylor's life. She's naive, individualistic; she's a craftsman, not an artist. We're meant to understand that maybe she listens to Steve Earle or Patsy Cline for inspiration, but she doesn't study them. Whereas Lorde talks in interviews about her admiration for Grimes's "sexual politics," using the term with pointed familiarity. Taylor's provincial boredom is Lorde's deep ennui. Taylor's sincerity is like Springsteen's sincerity; Lorde's is like Sylvia Plath's. Taylor's sentiment that she's "feeling 22" is simple and plaintive; from Lorde's black lips it comes out transfigured into "I am only as young as the minute is."

Here the Grimes/Lana Del Rey affinity returns. We're looking for artistic legitimacy along with success. But Grimes and Lana Del Rey have read the wrong people for mainstream success. Grimes, with her Nabokov, is too much of a hipster; Lana Del Rey, with her Kerouac, is too naïve. But Lorde finally gets there. Lorde namedrops Raymond Carver and Sylvia Plath, authors that are safe to bring up at parties, and does so in a guileless way that emphasizes how young she is. She apprehends them, and applies their ideas, like a talented child.

It's this maneuver that makes it clear how perfectly Lorde is calibrated. By dwelling on transience she gives the sense that she's old before her time, bottomlessly self-conscious and sunk deep in her own monad, like her Millennial targets flatter themselves to be. By doing so in such precocious, idealistic terms, however, she makes it clear that being old before her time is just another part of the performance of her talent. I mean "talent" in the sense of "talent show," which, as all upstanding first-world Millennials know, is essentially what childhood is—a contest to differentiate yourself from your peers, to stand out from the crowd, characterized by a nagging sense that there are people doing it better than you are.

That's the world Lorde is from: a world of advanced classes, extracurricular activities, and talent shows, a world where the economic logic of competition slithers into every sphere of life. Lorde isn't as good a songwriter as Taylor Swift, and she isn't as funny as Lena Dunham, but she knows her audience better than either. She understands that her affluent, white demographic is obsessed with childhood because it's obsessed with potential, and she especially understands the way that, for that demographic, personal identity is a function of branding.

By discussing all this in terms of branding, I don't mean to give the sense that Lorde's whole persona has been calculated and imposed on her from without, by her helicopter parents or by the people at the label. On the contrary, I think it's perfectly possible that Lorde does all her own branding. Her audience does its own branding, after all—on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and on endless job applications, and in every conversation, and in the music it listens to. If Lorde is doing the same thing, then it's a gesture of identification. Lorde is the first instance of full-fledged Elite Pop in the music industry. Or Intern Pop, maybe. Whatever it is, Lorde is very, very good at it, and it's the kind of pop a Harvard student could listen to without shame.


  1. Really good post: I love artists that really embody the time they're from and don't just try to ignore what's happening outside and Lorde really is of the times. She's part of a generation bored of it's own boredom. I can't wait to see her career play out.

    1. I'm glad you liked it! Although I think you're more unanimously positive about Lorde than I am.