Pop music’s latest phenom, 17-year-old New Zealand native Lorde, seems to have come out of nowhere and swept over North America like a tsunami. Riding a wave of critical praise, her debut album Pure Heroine raced quickly to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Since then, Lorde (whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor) has bagged four Grammy nominations and been dubbed “pop’s newest princess” by the Associated Pressand “Woman of the Year” by MTV’s college channel. (Pope Francis was “Man of the Year.”) Rolling Stone described her as last year’s musical benchmark: “New artists in 2013 don’t come any ‘2013-ier’ than Lorde.”
It’s a dizzying and somewhat ironic journey for a girl whose breakthrough song “Royals” pokes fun at the elite icons of pop and rap music, and particularly their materialistic braggadocio: “Every song is like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room.” Yet even while recognizing the absurdity of gross extravagance, she admits to being lured by it: “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams … let me live that fantasy.” Now that fantasy has turned into reality, her wistful chorus is somewhat turned on its head: “And we’ll never be Royals … that kind of luxe just ain’t for us.”
Though criticizing rap music’s excesses, Lorde borrows heavily from the genre. Throughout Pure Heroine, she delivers wry observations in punchy, clipped rhythms over minimalist electronic grooves. Yet she sings with beautiful melody and rich jazz phrasing. She comes by this honestly—her dad exposed her early and often to soul greats Etta James and Otis Redding, according to an interview with Spotify. Mom seems to have contributed her literary proclivity. An award-winning New Zealand poet, Sonja Yelich encouraged Lorde’s reading and steeped her in Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver from pre-teen years, which might explain Lorde’s darker-tinged, gothic-esque sensibility.
Vonnegut’s influence seems palpable in the dreamy album closer, “A World Alone.” Sparse guitar alongside Lorde’s lush and languid vocals artfully expresses a sense of alienation in a world full of “double-edged people and schemes/They make a mess then go home and get clean.” Like Vonnegut, Lorde’s lyrics speak nihilism with a sense of humor. She pokes fun at her own bad habits and hilariously conjectures on the reason for the terrible superficiality and selfishness of people: “Maybe the internet raised us/Or maybe people are jerks.”
In addition to her witty thoughtfulness, Lorde is noteworthy for not accentuating her sexuality. “In a music world where the majority of female pop stars seem to be competing for who can wear the least, Lorde stands out with her understated, almost modest, attire,” the Associated Press noted. But make no mistake: She is no purveyor of traditional morality. A self-described feminist, Lorde bristled at being contrasted with Miley Cyrus: “I would absolutely take my clothes off if I wanted to, and that would be my choice and I would be empowered by it.”
Lorde’s outspokenness and seismic success has provoked a rush of media attention bordering on the ridiculous. Britain’s Telegraph described how fawning journalists have hailed her as “the voice of her generation, and mentioned her in the same breath as everyone from Joan of Arc to the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.” To her credit, Lorde responded to the Malala comparison by saying, “I am unworthy to be in the same sentence as her. I have done nothing.”