In 2017, the release of Lorde’s sophomore album “Melodrama” after a three-year hiatus revived the relevance of the pop prodigy in the national spotlight—and on a personal level. “Pure Heroine” came out in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, and quickly became the soundtrack I listened to while I drove to school, showered, and did homework. I was dually fascinated by pop songs that didn’t sound like everything else on the radio and the girl who sang them. Only a few years older than me—the age of upperclassmen I admired—Lorde didn’t look like magazine cover girls and sang about familiar subjects: love, friendship, youth, hard feelings. Here are the Lorde tracks at the top of my playlist:
The fifth track on “Melodrama” features pared-down vocals and piano backing, following the brightly-lit floors of “Green Light” and “Sober,” a heavily-electronic look at partying. In “Liability,” Lorde shines a light on the dark side of fame: “I know that it’s exciting / Running through the night, but / Every perfect summer’s / Eating me alive,” she sings. For an artist, having your art appreciated in the mainstream is gratifying, but it’s not without consequences. Behind the glitter, the red carpets, and designer gowns, there were gossip sites that ridiculed her style of dancing and Twitter trolls who used racially charged epithets to criticize her now ex-boyfriend. It’s one thing for seasoned public figures to deal with the toxic discourse of Hollywood gossip rags and fashion critics, but Lorde was only 16 when “Royals” debuted and her popularity skyrocketed internationally. That’s the age most of us learn to drive and daydream about prom, still learning about who we are and who we want to be. Fame is alienating, Lorde writes, and sometimes the only person who can understand, “the only love I haven’t screwed up,” is ourselves. But we’re also the hardest person to please, the “forest fire” of our own expectations. The chase of our ambition is like a slow dance, an act of courtship. It excites like new romance—but when the lights come on, “all that a stranger would see / Is one girl swaying alone / Stroking her cheek.”
4. “The Louvre”
The muted bass chords at the beginning of “The Louvre” sound like the beginning soundtrack notes for a film about teenage summer romance. “I overthink your punctuation use,” she stutters in the first verse. I imagine a girl fervently typing and retyping a text to her crush, then sending the screenshots to her friends for analysis: “Not my fault, just a thing that my mind do.” The love affair at the center of “The Louvre” is nothing great. She knows he’s not her type, but there’s something compelling about their “thing,” in all its ambiguity, the violence of her beating heart. “But we’re the greatest, / They’ll hang us in the Louvre,” Lorde sings. “Down the back, but who cares? / Still the Louvre.” Sure, it’s not the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo—not the kind of art that’ll get plastered on advertisements and pamphlets, or analyzed in textbooks. But who cares? It was memorable. It was magical when it happened.
3. “The Love Club”
While “Royals” deals more directly with the glorification of the elite, this track from Lorde’s first EP analyzes a new kind of aristocracy: adolescent cliques. The titular “Love Club” symbolizes acceptance and popularity, the kind sought by every anonymous, self-conscious kid eating alone in the cafeteria who imagines how “everything will glow” once they achieve status. But there’s something dark about these clubs, about “hanging out with the wicked kids,” Lorde points out: you’ll “forget your old address” and start to “feel severed from the people who watched you grow up.” And while we might think we left feelings of inadequacy and social exclusion back in the hallways of our high schools, the vestiges of these instincts linger even on Harvard’s campus—down to the unwittingly relevant terminology (“get punched for the love club”). Walk through the streets of the Square on Friday night, and you’ll hear muffled bass, see the neon lights flashing through dorm windows. There are parties we can’t get into and people who will never know our names. It’s not that all of us want membership in exclusive clubs, but it’s easy to be surrounded by friends and still feel completely alone. We know that the Love Club, with all its glow and allure, is partially an illusion—but isn’t there part of us that wants in?
“In my head, I play a supercut of us,” Lorde sings. The increasing popularity of YouTube and the accessibility of video-editing software saw the advent of the supercut: a collage of the most pertinent and compelling footage. There are supercuts of weather anchors fumbling onscreen, of cats doing funny things, of scenes in “Gossip Girl” where Chuck looks longingly at Blair. “Supercut,” in this way, is fundamentally millennial in its sensibilities. The relationship is not a scrapbook, not a collage, but a supercut: a phenomenon as fleeting and shallow as an Internet video. There are bad memories, of course, but editing the narrative means selectively including the right clips, remembering the relationship for its happy moments. It means second chances. “In my head, I do everything right,” she sings. “When you call, I’ll forgive and not fight.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could edit out all of our mistakes?
1. “400 Lux”
The city in Indiana where I’m from is bordered, on all sides, by farmland. It’s flyover territory—the kind of patchwork brown and green usually seen only from 35,000-foot altitude, partially obscured by clouds. It’s the kind of city where highways stretch on and suburbia dominates: the routineness of backyards and, as Lorde sings in the chorus of “400 Lux,” neighborhoods “where the houses don’t change.” When the second track of “Pure Heroine” opens with the monotone of its long, synthesized note, I am suddenly sixteen again, driving through terrain that blurs into an unfocused color palette of grey and beige. The chords change, but that base note stays the same for all four minutes. It’s the sound of killing time: “We come around here all the time, / Got a lot to not do.” Hearing “400 Lux” is like seeing your youth in slow motion, a series of disconnected images: wrists draped over a steering wheel, orange juice bought by our friends, roads where the houses don’t change. And a car out front, waiting to take us away.
—Staff writer Caroline Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.