[17 October 2013]
Sixteen-year-old New Zealander Lorde has quickly become one of the most talked-about new artists of the year. And for good reason, too. Her now-ubiquitous, no. 1 single, “Royals”, creates a distinct and fresh sound with its mixture of hip-hop beats, Queen-esque harmonies, and suburban milieu lyrics. Its accompanying album, Pure Heroine, explores adolescence in the digital era through a cool, dark, and moody soundscape.
Lorde was born in 1996, so she grew up with social media and her lyrics reflect a generation that has yet to have a representative voice established in pop culture. Throughout the album she’s quite critical of mainstream culture, a sentiment echoed outside the album in interviews, where she has criticized the music of Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber for being out-of-touch with the real youth of today. She also confronts the adults who level criticism at her and her peers, as on “A World Alone” where she sings, “Maybe the Internet raised us / Or maybe people are jerks”. But mainly, Lorde sings about her own life and culture. And teeth.
When I heard Pure Heroine, my first thought was, “She sings a lot about teeth, doesn’t she?” And it’s true; the “teeth” motif is used many times throughout the album. Upon closer inspection, it seems clear that she uses teeth, and references to types of teeth, to signify class, authenticity, and social circle. Which I think is pretty interesting.
Gold teeth are mentioned in the chorus of her smash hit “Royals”. The allusion is to grillz, commonly worn by famous rappers, or, more recently, white female pop stars. In “Royals”, the gold teeth are the first item in a list of things that “every song” is about. Except this one, of course, which is the point. Lorde is distancing herself from these items and the culture they signify. She sings the list (which in addition to grillz, mentions: Cristal, tigers on a gold leash, jet planes, and blood stains, among others) with a tone that implies she sees these subject matters and lifestyles as inauthentic and representative of a class that she and her friends don’t have access to. This idea is revisited in “Team”, a song even more critical of mainstream pop. She sings in the first verse, “Call the ladies out / They’re in their finery / A hundred jewels on throats / A hundred jewels between teeth”. The implication of class difference is more apparent here. The use of “ladies” and “finery”—connoting a certain sophistication, as well as the imagery of lavish necklaces and jewel-encrusted grillz—is used to create contrast between the high class/celebrity culture and Lorde’s simple upbringing in “cities you’d never seen on a screen”. Again, this emphasis on the material aspects of high culture seeks to show it as inauthentic.
White teeth are used similarly to separate Lorde from others, but in a more local scene. In “White Teeth Teens”, she describes preppy, popular teens, using their white teeth as their defining characteristic. These are people who fit the media’s description of perfection. In the bridge, Lorde explains that she is not a White Teeth Teen. In fact, she reveals it as if she’s telling us an important secret we didn’t already pick up through subtext. “I’ll let you in on something big: I am not a White Teeth Teen”. Important, though, are her reasons. Her exclusion is her own choice, or at least that’s what she wants us to believe by singing, “I tried to join but never did”, as opposed to “never could”. She continues, however, by suggesting an inherent difference between her and the White Teeth Teens. “There’s something else / It’s in the blood”, saying that even if it wasn’t her choice (which she wants us to think it was), it also wasn’t theirs. This all comes into question when we look at the spoken word section of “400 Lux”, where Lorde “dreams of clean teeth”. She may want us to believe that being a WTT isn’t important to her, but her social standing may be more of a concern for her than she wants to let on.
What is clear, though, is that the narrative focus of Pure Heroine is on setting Lorde apart from cultures and social circles she sees as inauthentic. By using teeth as a key signifier of class and authenticity, Lorde separates herself from those with “Gold teeth” or “White teeth”. Her “unclean” teeth, as we can identify them from her “dreams of clean teeth”, are left to be seen as natural or authentic. And this perception of authenticity is crucial to her character on the album. Her conception of “materialism=inauthentic=bad” may be a bit shallow (if not misguided), but to her, it matters. And while there are dozens of other, potentially more interesting things to talk about in this album other than teeth, to me, it matters.