It hasn’t been a wholesome year for pop music’s younger divas. Miley Cyrus shocked and appalled pretty much everyone, between her twerking display at the MTV Music Video Awards and her recent Wrecking Ball music video, and Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez went rogue in Harmony Korine’s highly sexual and violent Springbreakers—for which Hudgens released a promotional pop song called $$$ex. It seems young female artists face a Victorian-era ultimatum where their identities are concerned: Play the good girl or the bad, the tame or the twerker—and ne’er the twain shall meet.
The exception to this rule, or perhaps the only person willing to break it, is 16-year-old New Zealand singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor, otherwise known as Lorde. Discovered at an Auckland school talent show when she was 12 and signed by Universal Records at 13, Lorde broke onto the scene this year with the anti-pop pop ballad Royals, a song that mocks the superficial sex-and-parties culture her contemporaries fervently endorse. Royals is hard to miss: It’s made Top 40 charts around the world, eclipsing, however briefly, Miley Cyrus’s massive party anthem We Can’t Stop on the U.S. iTunes chart in September. (For this, Lorde received death threats from Cyrus fans on Twitter.) Lorde is the first female artist in 17 years to top Billboard’s alternative chart. But it’s her lyrics that set her apart.
Royals is a pop song about the vapidity of other pop songs. The chorus, sung over nothing but a bass line and a beat, is a rallying cry for the middle-class teenager: “Every song’s like gold teeth / Grey Goose / tripping in the bathroom / bloodstains / ball gowns / trashing the hotel room / We don’t care / We aren’t caught up in your love affair.” Its music video is equally cheeky. It’s a deliberately mundane montage of suburban landscapes, drab living rooms and lanky teens going about their day. Remarkably, it sells nothing (unless you count the disparaging Grey Goose reference in the chorus): not sex, not cars, not clothes, not Molly (short for MDMA—the drug of choice in pop lyrics today). “A lot of people think teenagers live in this world, like [the British teen drama] Skins every weekend or whatever,” Lorde wrote on her YouTube channel after the video’s release. “But truth is, half the time, we aren’t doing anything cooler than playing with lighters, or waiting at some s–tty stop.”
That candour and simplicity have rendered the 16-year-old a kind of anti-Miley, offering a catchy and danceable alternative to the status quo. Lorde, who will play her first Canadian show in Toronto on Oct. 6, has taken Cyrus’s art form—the bass-heavy, anthemic pop song—and injected it with something smart. Her lyrics are unusually light on teen drama. “I try to stay away from talking about boys all the time,” she told New York magazine recently. “You can go to Taylor Swift to hear that.” Her most recent single, Team, pokes fun at the annoying and eternal call in pop music to “put your hands up in the air.” “This is the stupidest thing . . . being told to put your hands in the air?” she told Fader magazine. “That’s the last thing I wanna do right now. I just wanted to be a bit more realistic.” That realism clearly resonates with thousands of teens who are tired of the same ode to consumer party culture. “For teenagers, life isn’t what you see in music videos,” says Juan Mora-Amaral, a 17-year-old high school senior from Omaha, Neb., who runs a Facebook fan page dedicated to Lorde. “Most of us work really hard.”
Lorde’s rejection of party culture could come across like the disapproval of a prudish parent. And the odd commentator, including one poster on the Internet forum the Pop Music Megathread, suggests that her derision of Maybachs and gold teeth is no different from the anti- hip-hop grumbling you’d hear from a “vaguely racist middle-class dad.” And yet it doesn’t feel that way. Maybe Lorde is just beautiful and cool enough to speak any truth. Or maybe she knows, like Gangnam Style singer PSY—whose chart-topping hit was a critique of materialism in his Seoul neighbourhood—that you can complain about the stupidity of putting one’s hands in the air, as long as you sing it in a way that makes us want to do just that.