Essays

How Will Lorde's Return Fare in A Pop Era That Moves Too Fast?

There is a lingering question of whether or not we will let Lorde live up to her own hype.

by Sarah MacDonald
31 March 2017, 10:45pm

Image via Instagram

Of the music stories anticipated in 2017, Lorde's comeback is certainly near the top. We were absolutely going to be blessed with a new record after announcements of headlining summer music festivals, and photos with producer Jack Antonoff appeared, as well as teaser trailers, and the scavenger hunt she engineered for fans in her hometown of Auckland in New Zealand. Since her debut Pure Heroine in 2013, Lorde has given us a few collaborations (Disclosure, Son Lux, Stromae), as well as curating the Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack. Those tracks, however good they are, fell by the wayside, perhaps because they weren't purely and primarily Lorde tracks. Or maybe they were early premonitions of what might come to pass during her return. Her first track from her forthcoming sophomore Melodrama was "Greenlight" with both the track and the video arriving in early March to kick off the new Lorde album frenzy. "Greenlight" is Lorde's first foray into writing about a breakup; it's a petty, yet anthemic track with an infectious chorus "I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it." With the video featuring Yelich-O'Connor dancing around the deceptively empty streets of Manhattan and on top of a car, all of the elements for a boom around her return were there. And yet, it, too, whizzed by us; we're now onto other new releases like More Life or Kendrick Lamar or Ed Sheeran. It has been four years since Lorde's debut, and pop music is playing a completely different game. There is a lingering question of whether or not we will let Lorde live up to her own hype.

Luck, maybe, played into making "Royals" the enormous pop event that it was. This isn't to diminish Lorde's actual musicality; "Royals" is objectively an incredible pop song and Lorde is a talented musician. "Royals" clicked with its audience and everything around it seemed to be able to turn it into a hit. Debuting in 2013, the single navigated through a year full of pop moments like Yeezus and Miley Cyrus' Bangerz. Her album Pure Heroine appeared a few days shy of release of Drake's stunner third record Nothing Was The Same and Beyoncé's momentous Self-Titled. In spite of these releases, Lorde offered up something genuinely different that set her apart from the releases of that year. In the two years after her debut, and before going away to work on a follow-up, pop music filled with simulations of her sound, as Jon Caramanica wrote in The New York Times, like Halsey or Alessia Cara. But now with "Greenlight", as good as it is, it peaked at spot 19, while second single "Liability" is set to enter at 78 for the week of April 1. What does appear in the top five right now are Ed Sheeran, Migos, The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift and Zayn. These artists have consistently remained in our view in the last few years or in the case of Migos the fresh addition to it, and that is reflected on the charts—adapting to the ever-changing times. Lorde's worst offense in the current popsphere then is that she didn't didn't make herself available in those years off—she went too off the grid. Though she never disappeared completely, her return wasn't that visible to the public.

It's important to note that Lorde arrived to us when she was 16 but she is now a 20 year-old woman with different experiences, perspectives, and feelings. And while the music she makes now may be similar to her earlier work (she is still the same person), she has, for lack of a better word, grown-up. With Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift's producer for 1989, at the helm of Melodrama, we are sure to see some traditional, albeit "quirky", pop moves tackling more difficult subjects on growing up from kid to young adult. Her second single "Liability" is proof of that. On the mournful ballad, Lorde sings "the truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/ 'til all of the tricks don't work anymore."

The timing of Lorde's comeback is a particular sticking point. In 2016, Drake made news by smashing all of the streaming records with his hotly anticipated, though critically tepid, Views. With More Life, Drake has managed to, again, smash the very records he set with Views. Later in 2016, The Weeknd made his swerve into pop as well with the gnarled, shining Starboy and Toronto's R&B crooner set his own record. Additionally this year already (and we're only at the end of March) Ed Sheeran, Nice Guy scourge of the underworld, had a best selling record of 2017 one week after Divide's release. Not to mention the unexpected prior successes of The Migos' "Bad and Boujee" and Taylor Swift and Zayn's collab for the vanilla-y Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, or Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles." This is what Lorde has to navigate now: a combo of what the Internet deems super relevant and memeable or entire albums charting within days of release.

Lorde doesn't seem to be the only one having a hard time adapting to the chart and audience reception. Last year, Lady Gaga returned with Joanne, which received little fanfare. Sure, Gaga played the Super Bowl in January, one that was more tepid in political symbology than Beyoncé's the year prior, and she played some newer tracks but it was her older bangers that the audience craved. Gaga is high profile and, like Lorde, was interesting enough to gain lots of traction when she first appeared in 2008. Even Katy Perry, whose break off, too, is of the norm, returned with newest single, "Chained To The Rhythm", to middling results since "Dark Horse" back in 2013, and that was a bonus track. This all speaks to how pop stars must navigate the savage water that is popular music for the ever changing minds of its audience (adolescents, young adults, and millennials) and that it is often harsher for women is not a coincidence.

Timing may always be an issue in pop music. Lorde went away for four years (for wholly legitimate and vital reasons like wellness) and while her release is still hotly anticipated—charting data aside—one of the things that separates her from the rest of the group is that most of these pop artists keep to the traditional standard of circulating new material at least every two years. Drake released More Life almost a year after Views; Ed Sheeran is…. Ed Sheeran and people, for some reason, love him for it. It's a harder sell for female pop stars who aren't named Beyoncé, who has even honed her talents to become more of an album artist. It's a different climate and Lorde is playing a more traditional game with her release: It's polite, really, to give us a precise date instead of a surprise and premiere singles at regular intervals.

This is a criticism that falls squarely on how pop music consumption and creation has changed and how our artists have to navigate within its subjective parameters. Lorde deserves to be singled out as a spectacular artist. She does give us and the genre something different, authentic. The pop game is more ruthless now than ever with the impetus put on streaming numbers, which can be bloated with more songs, and the new found importance of making your song meme-able. Audiences care about something made into an event, an experience; something shareable with the possibility of an entire record mattering within seconds of release. Melodrama will likely be very good, because Lorde is very good, but will it get the reception it deserves when it appears in June? God willing.

Sarah's most played song on iTunes is still "400 Lux." Follow her on Twitter.