A flourishing teen-pop industry thinks it knows what teenagers care about: crushes, breakups, clothes, parties, perhaps an occasional glimmer of rebellion or idealism. It dispenses songs that are calculated to suit that market. But in 2013, a songwriter who is an actual teenager emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.
That teenager, now 17, is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, from the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, who records as Lorde. In her hit “Royals,” she sings about middle-class kids bombarded by music-video fantasies of bling and luxury but responding, “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.” It’s palatial-sounding pop that doesn’t condescend to listeners of any age. The song and her debut album brought Lorde four Grammy nominations – including song of the year – although she was inexplicably denied a fifth, for best new artist.
“Teenagers are more complex than people think,” she said via Skype from New Zealand. She released “Royals” in November 2012 as part of a free EP that could be downloaded from music and social-media sites; it spread worldwide, as Lorde and her producer, Joel Little, worked on her debut album, “Pure Heroine,” which was released in September. The music is a collaboration; the words are all hers, and, she said, “I think that half of the album, he has no idea to this day what I’m talking about.”
Lorde’s lyrics touch on suburban boredom, peer pressure, drinking, getting snubbed and how “maybe the Internet raised us.” It has no simple love songs, a deliberate choice: “Some people love writing about that, and that’s fine. But I personally haven’t found a way to do it yet which is innovative and feels new to me.”
She doesn’t disdain pop; she has praised the Miley Cyrus hit “Wrecking Ball.” “I’m a pop princess at heart,” she said. Yet her own pop raises the stakes. “Pop is about distilling what you want to say and making it easy. And the way I write isn’t about making things easy,” she said. “It’s a weird juxtaposition.”
Lorde maintains tight control over the ways she is packaged and presented. The week before Christmas, she was directing the production for her next tour, in March, and planning her next video clip. “I would like to think that my public persona comes naturally to me and isn’t that dissimilar to my real way of doing things,” she said. “I’ve turned down easily tens of millions of dollars doing what I do and saying no to things that I think are corny.”
Although her Medusa cascade of wavy hair has become a trademark, Lorde doesn’t flirt in songs or videos; she often stares straight at the camera, calmly confrontational. She is mightily aware of stereotypes she is setting aside. “The phrase ‘teen hottie’ literally makes me want to throw up,” she said. The video for her current single, “Team,” is based on “the idea of an outsider experiencing this world that is inhabited by teens, and seeing it like someone on the outside would see it and then getting more and more involved,” she said. “I’m trying to make something people my age will care about, trying to keep my peers feeling like I’m doing something for them or representing them in some way.”
Her message is “about strength and about power,” she said. “I would like them to think that the sky’s the limit, that there’s really not anything you can’t do. After all, I’m from New Zealand. This shouldn’t happen to people like me.”