When Lorde performs live, the raw power and emotion in her voice is like a jolt of energy that suddenly encompasses everything critics say about the recent nominee for the MTV VMA’s 2017 Artist of the Year and her music: self-possessed, aware, simultaneously hedonistic and self-deprecating, wise beyond her years. After beginning her most recent New York performance at Governor’s Ball shrouded in a long black dress and white veil, she made an in-the-moment decision to debut her single “Perfect Places”. Lorde mentioned to the crowd that the sunny weather must have been something she cooked up with a spell, exemplifying a persona that’s a strange mix between the surreal and the familiar. As she painted stories in the air with glitter-covered hands and danced seemingly without choreography, it’s clear that she wasn’t there to simply entertain. This was Lorde’s witching hour, and everyone in the crowd was about to be under her spell.
Just a week after her Governor’s Ball performance, she captivated the rest of the world with the June 16 release of her sophomore album Melodrama, which immediately topped charts and was lauded by critics as “the best pop album of 2017 so far” after no releases or red carpet appearances for three years.
The success isn’t unprecedented for Lorde. After her EP, The Love Club, was originally released on SoundCloud in 2012 for free, Lorde remained relatively anonymous for months with no photos of or information about her available, but her signature unconcerned croon and outsider perspective had critics enchanted. In 2013, her album Pure Heroine was released and went multi-platinum. The songs told stories of spending days in her small town, dissecting and drawing lines to each relationship and time of exclusion like an anthropological study, echoing a universal experience of the boredoms and excitement of being a teenager. Three years later, it’s this concoction of mystery, strength, and intimacy that still plays a part in her appeal.
Rather than writing Melodrama as the teen who wasn’t invited to the party, Lorde found herself an industry insider after her first record’s success. She had to find new ways to find the solace and grounded perspective that inspired her to create her first album – and make her new work even better.
Lorde found what she needed inspirationally in her 2015 breakup with her then-boyfriend, photographer James Lowe, saying in a recent profile to the New York Times, “After your heart is broken, music enters you on a new level.” In response, she created an eloquent breakup album centering around one long night at a house party. During her summer in New York of riding the F train back and forth and sitting at The Flame – a small Upper West Side diner – late at night, she put her ideas into lyrics. She introduced chords and beats in the studio with Jack Antonoff, a musician and producer who met her through their mutual friend Taylor Swift.
— Lorde (@lorde) March 31, 2016
Every so often, Lorde would return to New Zealand to write and be with old friends who “couldn’t care less about [her] music career” to regain a sense of grounded normalcy and escape from the New York bubble. At one point, she helicoptered to a remote side of the popular New Zealand vacation island, Waiheke, and spent a few days working on the album in solitude.
Throughout the production of both of her albums, Lorde described her intense sound-to-color synesthesia, a neurological condition which allows her to associate certain colors with each musical sound, as a major driving factor in her creative process. She discussed part of the process of writing Pure Heroine in a Q&A on her Tumblr: “If a song’s colors are too oppressive or ugly, sometimes I won’t want to work on it — when we first started “Tennis Court” we just had that pad playing the chords, and it was the worst textured tan color, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that prechorus and I started the lyric, and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!” According to the New York Times, to sort the lyrics and emotions she wanted to convey in Melodrama, Lorde arranged different-hued scraps of paper across her kitchen table and added or subtracted colors until a song felt complete. Ultimately, each song was infused with a spectrum of emotions and told part of a larger story.
Melodrama resulted in a concoction of skillfully arranged chords, well-executed musical risks, and Lorde’s dark and raw vocals that perfectly match each song’s tone. A dose of Jack Antonoff’s signature wall-of-sound style completes the album’s magical elixir, brimming with the intensity of the highs and lows felt after first heartbreak.
jack and i made this in rooms alone, telling secrets and uncovering truths, and i just know that 15yo me would have been so fucking proud
— Lorde (@lorde) June 26, 2017
Lorde is no longer bored, detached and exploring around parties in a dusty hometown with friends from school as she was in Pure Heroine. On the contrary, the album focuses in on her strength and solitude in riding the enormous wave of emotion and healing. And the world is listening: nine hours after its midnight release on June 16, Melodrama was number one in 45 countries and counting. After subsequently announcing her world tour, some shows sold out in minutes. One of Lorde’s favorite bands, Arcade Fire, even performed a cover of “Green Light” on BBC Radio 1 on July 14.
got a big dumb grin on watching my favourite band sing my song — life is wild sometimes https://t.co/FxpOYGLLcc
— Lorde (@lorde) July 14, 2017
Though Lorde occasionally shares her mature perspective of the world around her, speaking on feminism and the political climate in interviews, her music is largely introspective. Healing through rituals fuels Melodrama–whether Lorde is throwing parties with old friends, “using parties as escapism”, in New Zealand, or riding the subway through New York hours at a time. On “Liability”, Lorde told USA TODAY that after she and her now ex-boyfriend broke up, “I realized I had to learn to be OK with being by myself and enjoying my own company… [the song] felt like a nice little protective talisman”, perhaps because she was able to voice her feelings of isolation and frustration. In “Hard Feelings/Loveless”, she sings “I care for myself as I used to care about you”, turning inward and gathering the strength to move on. After the song begins with a soulful ballad, the last part of the track contrasts the emotional saturation with a critical awareness of how quickly a breakup can turn someone sour, with a dry, tongue-in-cheek and almost Swift-esque “bet you wanna rip my heart out…well guess what, I like that”.
In a world that moves quickly, the album encourages listeners to sit back and self-reflect, telling them it’s both justified and important to address emotions that may be buried or all-encompassing.
Rather than promoting an image as a larger-than-life celebrity, Lorde has made a focused effort to keep the attention on her talent and music. Still the same woman as she was when she released The Love Club for free online without revealing her identity for months, she refuses to allow the media to sexualize her. In an age of heavily saturated social media feeds where many musicians post about politics, celebrity drama or promoting their product lines, Lorde’s posts focus mostly on her music with an occasional outfit or food snap. (Recently, fans discovered a secret account she’d created to review onion rings, which she subsequently shut down because, as she told Jimmy Fallon in an interview, it “kind of reads like the kind of thing a pop star would do to look relatable, which I wasn’t doing!”)
When she first became famous, Lorde faced ruthless criticism for her looks, body and boyfriend. A few months ago, she was subject to another wave of remarks on her unpolished dancing style after her March 2017 performance on SNL. While comments of this nature are always unprecedented and unwelcome – especially because they underscore the double standard placed on the sexualization of female celebrities – it’s clear that Lorde doesn’t cater to anyone’s idea of what she should be.
Defying the expectation that her dancing should be sexy and choreographed says that she’s the one who gets to decide what the audience sees, and that her performances exist only through her personal agency.
Describing pop music to the Times as art of the highest kind, Lorde said she has “such reverence for the form. You need to be awe-struck [to succeed].” After beginning her career with astronomical success in Pure Heroine, Melodrama shows that she remains committed to improving her craft even more.
Whether she’s performing or tweeting, it’s clear that she aims to put music first. Perhaps it’s her intense grounding in reality that helps her maintain the balance of youth and precociousness, strong emotions, and there being so much more to discover in the world–and the world is Lorde’s. The woman from a small town in New Zealand has handled her rise to stardom without forgetting her beginnings and with impressive poise.