‘Royals’ singer Lorde is a teen phenom, but how long can she reign?

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03/19/2014 12:28 PM

05/16/2014 12:35 PM

The song “Royals” has been streamed more than 132 million times on Spotify, and if at least one of those streams isn’t yours, chances are you’ve heard the song elsewhere, many times. “Royals” is the hit off “Pure Heroine,” the debut album from Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a 17-year-old from New Zealand who performs as Lorde. Friday night, she will take the stage at the Midland theater, a show that sold out in minutes. “Pure Heroine” has gone platinum in the U.S. since its release in late September, selling more than 1 million copies. Almost 6 million copies of the omnipresent “Royals” have been sold and, 36 weeks after its release, the song remains in the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It was a cross-over hit on radio, from pop to rock and R&B, and it made Lorde the first solo female artist to top the alternative-rock charts since 1995, when Tracy Bonham did it with “Mother Mother.” Lorde’s success is conspicuous for who she is and isn’t. Not a teen pop star appealing to girls going through puppy love or adolescent angst and heartache, she instead writes lyrics about issues with more gravitas: class and wealth, disaffection, privation, alienation and ennui. Even Bruce Springsteen, poet laureate of the working class, has noticed, recently covering “Royals” at a show in New Zealand. In an essay published in the New Yorker in October, music writer Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of “Royals”: “It is simultaneously a pop song, a diary entry, a manifesto, a rejection of privilege, a defiant redefinition of wealth and a wish list. It is worth close attention not just because it is so good but because it crystallizes so much of Lorde’s skills and her outlook. “This isn’t pop as a barrage of fast-lane references but as a direct statement about the difficulties of lower-middle-class life. It’s a triumphant song that embraces the escape that pop offers while pointing out that the escape is only temporary.” In a Q&A in Interview magazine last year, Lorde, the daughter of a poet and a civil engineer, talked about how that outlook emerged: “Around the middle of last year I started listening to a lot of rap, like Nicki Minaj and Drake, as well as pop singers like Lana Del Rey. They all sing about such opulence, stuff that just didn’t relate to me — or anyone that I knew. I began thinking, ‘How are we listening to this? It’s completely irrelevant.’ I basically just wrote what we were all thinking.” Let’s not forget that Lorde also said the song was partly inspired by a National Geographic photo of Kansas City Royals legend George Brett. Critics have appreciated Lorde for her ability to comment on pop culture without pretense or naivete, despite her youth. Especially with lines like, “We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain” from “400 Lux” or “Let ’em talk ’cause we’re dancing in this world alone, world alone, we’re all alone” from “World Alone” or “It’s a new art form, showing people how little we care,” from “Tennis Court.” But the lyrics alone don’t make “Pure Heroine.” There’s the music, and her voice. “Lorde’s voice occasionally takes the form of a wide-eyed, Feist-y coo,” wrote Lindsay Zolodz at Pitchfork.com, “but much more often it’s a low, clenched growl; like everything else about her, it has an air of ‘wise beyond her years.’ ” Though it suffers some redundancy over the course of 15 tracks, the music, which Lorde co-wrote with producer Joel Little, provides a simple but sturdy foundation for the vocals and lyrics. Frere-Jones describes it as “clipped, airy, percussive sounds” and “simple melodic motion, which only occasionally speeds up beyond a sauntering pace. Bassy thumps and synth lines provide structure underneath. Every song leaves room for Lorde to make the words absolutely clear, either on her own or with doubled backing vocals.” “Pure Heroine” has its detractors, mostly critics who find it monotonous. From the New Music Express: “Lorde’s challenge to the status quo currently stands at just one idea. Every track here follows the same pattern over identical lackadaisical rhythms, her vocals never rising beyond a low-slung murmur with most of the lyrics drawing the same conclusion: she’s bored.” She has been delivering the goods during her live shows, which are spartan and true to the recordings. She performs with a drummer and a keyboardist and employs vocal backing tracks. A Guardian UK review of a recent show at the Roseland in New York described the show as “sparse”: “There is no arena-style showiness to be found. Like her album, ‘Pure Heroine,’ the performance employs a limited bag of tricks with pinpoint elegance.” The shows clock in at about one hour, the limitations of a headliner who has only one album in her catalog. And she needs to drop in a couple of covers to hit the 60-minute mark. She is working on new songs, Lorde told Interview magazine, a necessity in these times, when songs get dated fast, people’s attention spans are short and the thirst for new music is constant. The history of pop music is littered with artists who bottle lightning on their first record but can’t sustain the momentum afterward. But Lorde seems to be listening to her own voice and not worrying about compromise or conformity for the sake of success. Katy Perry asked Lorde to open for her on her summer tour, but she said no thanks, a sign of a few things: her confidence in her own career; her unwillingness to jump through the normal hoops; and her commitment to doing things on her own terms. She has also stirred up some controversy by speaking her mind about the industry and some of her peers and colleagues. Of Justin Bieber, she said: “I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.” And she said Taylor Swift was “too flawless and unattainable” as a role model. “I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls,” she said. She will squeeze what she can out of “Heroine” during this tour, which includes several Lollapalooza dates and a stop at Coachella. The next record will be pivotal, and it will likely be watched and analyzed more particularly than its predecessor, which has set the bar extraordinarily high. Some observers think she’s primed for the challenge. In his New Yorker piece, Frere-Jones recognized the buzz Lorde has aroused in a business that is starving for hype and looking for answers: “The exciting thing about Lorde is not merely that ‘Pure Heroine’ is perfect (it is close) or that ‘Royals’ is perfect (it is), but that a teenager from Auckland with an unnatural gift has entered the suit-infested ruins of the music business with the confidence of a veteran and the skills of a prodigy.”

FRIDAY

Lorde performs Friday night at the Midland theater, 1228 Main St. Lo-Fang opens at 8 p.m. The show is sold out.

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