What Is Cool? Lorde and the Trouble With Talented Teenagers
A 16-year-old from New Zealand might've just released the best pop album of the year. For some people, and for some reason, that's a problem.
It’s sort of confounding that we as a society don’t feel more messed up about commodifying teenagers than we do. I mean, it’s not surprising, so to speak: Our society commodifies everything, more or less by default, and that’s just a byproduct of capitalism, or, arguably, human nature unimpeded. Miley Cyrus photosynthesizing paparazzi flashbulbs to become a record executive’s wet-dream-made-flesh shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever even looked at a computer before. (It also shouldn’t interest anyone, either. Miley Cyrus is so uninteresting.)
But what responsibility do we have to those teenagers who become objects of public adoration? Do we have any responsibility? Does capitalism absolve us of this responsibility? Is it the responsibility of those human beings who actually exist as humans to said teenager? Is the whole question of a consumer’s responsibility to an artist basically moral masturbation anyway? I can’t answer any of these questions. Nobody can. Maybe God. God hasn’t weighed in on Lorde yet, though.
LORDE IS A TEENAGER from New Zealand, real name Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor, 16 years old, who just released her first record, Pure Heroine, which makes most contemporary American pop look like Kraft Singles. Super-colliding strangely tribal synths with spare, reverberating percussion, Pure Heroine provides a structured scaffolding for the real draw here, which is Lorde’s impeccable ability to extend and manipulate her phrasing. She’s one of the rare singers who not only understands the depths and virtues of her singing voice, but also how to use that singing voice to lead the listener along through the song. And without becoming cloying or precious, her lyrics caricature the contrast between small-town life and hip-hop excess while still conveying probably the major theme of the album: All teenage life is, in some ways, excess, even if that grandiosity is only mental.
What can possibly make a pop song, or any piece of art—inherently containing hours and hours of labor and the input of often dozens of people—authentic?
Did I mention she’s only 16? I did. At 16, she became the youngest singer to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 26 years, which happened when “Royals” dethroned Miley’s “Wrecking Ball.” Billboard ran a cover crowning her the “Queen of Alternative.”
Herein lies the mania of the music industry. Lorde’s ascent has been astonishingly swift: a month or two, really, of “Royals” percolating and then the LP dropping on its heels. Wisely, Lorde and her associates kept the record tight, agile, and consistent; it’s a 10-song strategic escalation of her sound on singles “Royals” and “Team” and “Tennis Court.” And as we stand with the end of the year approaching more or less rapidly than it always does, I’ve got Pure Heroine on a very short list—along with Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s Ripely Pine, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, and Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris—of 2013’s best albums.
That is crazy. It’s crazy in a few ways: It’s crazy that a 16-year-old from New Zealand who has been a ward of the public eye for less than six months could deliver such a fantastic, charismatic, resonant album; It’s also crazy that a 16-year-old from New Zealand is now a ward of the public eye. Complicating her cool as well as enhancing it, Lorde’s age is inseparable from her success, as much as we’d like it to be. Like many women in the entertainment industry, the date of her birth is both a catalyst and wrinkle of her fame.
FIRST, LORDE’S AGE DOES the heavy lifting for any critic looking to undermine the work. There’s nothing easier than taking a teenage artist and kneecapping his or her production as too teenage; Adolescence is one of the most insulated and impenetrable eras of a person’s life. Lorde’s music is not like that—it’s accessible and broadly targeted in its consideration of class differences—and yet you still see, time and again, reviewers returning to her age as a sort of excuse to dismiss the album. The way they do it is fascinating: There’s an assumption that the work must be a product of corporate groupthink, because how could such a young person possibly have any agency? And so, we see in multiple cases her music compared to that of Lana Del Rey, a favorite target for critics of “inauthenticity,” despite the absolute dissimilarity of their music on both thematic and tonal levels. (Del Rey’s Born to Die was a melodramatic, slow-sweeping take on massacred Americana, and Pure Heroine is a party record with classist undertones. I don’t know.)
Slate took a pretty effective shot at this tendency, urging people to stop assuming young women are inauthentic just because they’re young women. And I’ll go one step further: There is no such thing as inauthenticity in pop music because the medium itself is “inauthentic.” What are you searching for, exactly? What can possibly make a pop song, or any piece of art—inherently containing hours and hours of labor and the input of often dozens of people—authentic?
Lorde’s 16-year-old-ness also plays into a more sinister aspect of culture. She’s a minor, but she’s also not playing as a minor; she’s not reminding anyone of her sexual transgressiveness. (Because remember: As a society dominated by a collective adult-male gaze, any young woman channeling her sexuality is inherently transgressive.) And this confuses much of the cultural apparatus that normally looks to sexuality when creating its consensus opinion around a female artist. By doing nothing in particular to frame herself sensually, Lorde has, in a way, thwarted the pop machinery.
She’s also a staunch, outspoken feminist. And there we have the root of the “issue” with Lorde. Much like Tavi Gevinson, she seems too good to be true, too smart for her years, too savvy and self-possessed and mature to possibly be a teenage girl. Unlike, say, Ronan Farrow, who has been universally adored and respected since his teenage years for constantly overachieving and subverting the idea of what a young adult is capable of, Lorde and Gevinson are viewed with suspicion and distrust. I’ll leave you to pinpoint the difference between them. Lorde’s cool both transcends and subverts her age, but it’s also an example of the world’s dualistic relationship with youth: We love it when our young succeed, but we still can’t quite believe it, either.