Above: Still from “Wrecking Ball” video
We cannot understand Lorde’s success without recognizing that it happened in the context of Miley Cyrus’ disgrace.
By now, everyone who cares enough to pay attention knows that Lorde took home the 2014 Billboard awards for Top New Artist and Top Rock Song.
I’m not going to deny that Lorde is talented – although I have to admit I feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when “Royals” never would have been labeled a rock song.
And of course no one would deny that “Royals” is catchy, that Lorde’s delivery is distinctive, or that it’s refreshing to see an of-the-moment artist (other than Macklemore) critique materialism and our obsession with celebrity.But were these attributes enough to launch Lorde to the top of the charts and thrust her into the pop spotlight? Enough to secure her status as Top New Artist?
I contend that we cannot understand Lorde’s success without recognizing that it happened in the context of Miley Cyrus’ disgrace. America couldn’t have fully-appreciated Lorde without first having been duped by Cyrus. Lorde’s innocence is magnified by Cyrus’s transgressions. Even their respective album titles reflect these differences: Cyrus’ bombastic Bangerz and Lorde’s serene Pure Heroine .
America, you’re so fickle. Remember when you loved Cyrus as Hannah Montana, or the inspirational lyrics of “The Climb”, or the exuberance of “Party in the U.S.A.”?
And then there was “We Can’t Stop”, with its blatant reference to drug use; then the now-infamous, raunchy VMA performance; and then finally “Wrecking Ball”, with all its naked, messy emotion. Oh sure, Cyrus is still a success, if we define success by the piles of money she’s making, but she’s lost America’s trust because she played a joke on us: She led us to believe she was one thing, an innocent country girl, and then made a mockery of the very values we thought she represented.
But perhaps what’s most interesting about all of this is that right around the time we fell out of love with Cyrus, we fell in love with another sweet young thing: Lorde.
Unlike “Wrecking Ball”, Lorde’s “Royals” is a song that has garnered almost unanimous critical acclaim. It went to the top of the alternative charts before it crossed over to the pop charts, and then of course once it became popular, hipsters tossed it out faster than an empty can of ironically-quaffed Pabst. (See also Gotye, Foster the People, and Awolnation.)
An analysis of the videos for “Royals” and “Wrecking Ball” will illustrate even more clearly how polarized the personae of these two pop stars are.
First, what do the two videos have in common? Both focus on beautiful young women wearing white, with lots of close-ups of eyes and lips. But that’s where the similarities end. Otherwise, “Royals” is an exercise in control; “Wrecking Ball” is an exercise in chaos.
In “Royals”, Lorde is mainly shown from the sternum up – effectively de-sexualizing her. She’s a static presence in the video, never moving from the spot in which she sings. Her expression rarely changes, and then only slightly. She is aloof and remote, distanced from both audience and the other characters in the video.
The primary setting of the video is a neat, nondescript suburban house with a white and beige interior, situated among many other similar suburban houses that line two sides of a street. The other characters in the video are teenage boys with whom Lorde has no interaction. They are mostly shown quietly engaging in mundane activities like washing their faces, shaving, sitting, getting out of bed, eating, swimming, and riding a bus. Even their boxing match seems restrained. Everything about the video signifies order and control.
In “Wrecking Ball”, Cyrus is first seen nearly naked in white underwear and t-shirt; and then completely naked (the most obvious metaphor for vulnerability) as she straddles a swinging wrecking ball. Her eyes are full of emotion, either crying or watery, and her expressive eyebrows convey regret and pain.
She’s an unstable, destructive force as she licks a sledgehammer; prowls through the rubble of a destroyed room; and writhes on a huge pseudo-scrotum. She is both powerful (wielding a weapon and the sole character dominating the landscape of the video) and vulnerable (crying, alone, and naked), a dichotomy that some of us have a difficult time accommodating. The video is a messy, confusing mix of ideas and imagery in perpetual motion.
Both of these young women are expressing themselves through art, yet only one of them will continue to be America’s darling. But what makes one’s achievements inherently more laudable than the other’s (aside from the fact that Lorde actually wrote her song and Cyrus didn’t)? Nothing, really – except that only one of these young women has chosen to style herself (through her public persona, lyrics, and video) as a smart girl, a good girl, a girl in control of herself.
And maybe that’s the problem: Maybe we all see a little of Cyrus in ourselves, and maybe we don’t like what we see. We’ve all made bad wardrobe choices, we’ve all stuck fingers (foam or otherwise) where they don’t belong, and we’ve all had messy break-ups. We’re all a little screwed up; some of us just control it better than others. Most of have been taught to repress the Cyrus inside, the Cyrus inside, every single one of us the Cyrus inside…
Lorde appeared on the pop landscape just in time to provide America with an acceptable alternative to Cyrus. Lorde is safe. Lorde is respectable. Parents aren’t going to have to explain to their children why Lorde is naked in a video, or writhing onstage, or sticking her tongue out lasciviously.
The fact is, most consumers of pop culture don’t do well with ambiguity and contradiction. We identify with girls or women, but we’re confused by females in flux. We’re drawn to innocence or sexuality, but we can’t contemplate the idea that they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Make no mistake, Lorde’s values are probably just as ambiguous and contradictory as Cyrus’s. (Everyone’s are; that’s what it means to be human. But for some reason we want to hold our pop icons to a different standard.) America just hasn’t figured it out yet. For example, in “Royals”, Lorde tells us she’s “never seen a diamond in the flesh”, and implies throughout the song that she “craves a different kind of buzz” than the one you get from owning expensive things. Yet she appears to be wearing a pricey necklace in the above video.
Whether she’s speaking through a persona or her lyrics are intended to be wholly autobiographical, that little stylistic choice might be just enough to undermine the anti-materialism message of the song, which is one of the things that made it so powerful and relatable for a middle-class American audience in the first place. To put it another way (paraphrasing Janice Joplin): Oh Lorde, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?
Is America perceptive enough to detect this kind of subtle hypocrisy? And if so, will it even care? We turned on Cyrus because we discovered she wasn’t who we thought she was. Is it only a matter of time before we turn on Lorde, too?