In one of his many revelatory articulations, comedian Louis CK explains, “you don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts, but you’d have to be stupid not to.”
When it comes to pop music, one does not have to be mature to to appreciate a good hook, but he would have to be immature not to.
Make no mistake when interpreting that assertion; much of today’s pop music is vapid, insignificant and relevant only insofar as it is catchy. A black-and-white game of chasing the catchiest melody imaginable would not be to music’s benefit.
But the assertion is not without an important consequence for artists and connoisseurs: music is meant to be appreciated by audiences, and those with something to say should not let their blind disgust for the palatable obscure such messages. The best, most everlasting music–that of The Beatles variety–relied on catchy, accessible melodies as a gateway for making a bigger statement.
It is for that reason why breakout music sensation Lorde is not hypocritical or insignificant but instead brilliant and important for grafting her aversion for the superficial onto some of the most radio-friendly, inviting hooks in recent memory. It is for that reason that “Pure Heroine” is both one of the best and most important albums, let alone debut albums, to release this year.
Benefiting from a clear appreciation for music and an infinitely keen sense of self, the sixteen-year-old singer-songwriter combines the contrasting dualities of passionate apathy and aggressive subtlety to create a masterpiece that feels like an alternative album but plays like a pop one.
Lead single “Royals” epitomizes that notion. The reigning champ of the rock and alternative charts, the ubiquitous song is also North America’s top-selling pop song and number three on the overall Billboard Hot 100. It is everywhere and not simply because it is a great song but because it is a song that works on so many levels.
Those disgusted with the excessive, overproduced beats love its low-key, simplistic rhythm line. Those fatigued by weightless celebrations of millennial superficiality can relate to its lyrical rebellion against such “art.” Those impressed by clever wordplay can appreciate lines like “we count our dollars on the train to the party.” And those enamored with sing-along songs can rock with its infinitely catchy pre-chorus and chorus hooks.
Those hooks speak to the essence of why Lorde’s penchant for pop melody is so integral to her existence as an artist. Anyone can complain about the beautiful people who plague cultural conversation with their arrogance and wealth. And many have.
But only a select few can do so on the glossy, unassuming terms of the privileged. Only a truly special artist can use the positive aspects of a genre to resonantly articulate a complaint about its negative aspects.
Lorde is that special artist, and because her hit song not only offers a formal complaint about pop content but proves a song can be just as catchy, interesting and accessible with a more meaningful set of lyrics, it is a special song. By proving she could get the masses to sing along and thus does have what it takes to be part of the pop music glitterati, Lorde’s message comes across as a product of sincerity rather than jealousy or bitterness.
In a weird criticism that apparently either forgot about Bruce Springsteen’s superficially-misleading “Born in the USA” or is the one article willing to write The Boss off as a cheater, one writer recently ripped Lorde for playing both sides of the coin. She repudiated the fact that “Royals” taps into the public’s desire to chant about “gold teeth, Grey Goose and trippin’ in the bathroom” only to later claim the high road.
But even if we somehow pretend someone who has heard even part of the song could possibly think Lorde is hiding her true beliefs and even if we can, somehow, accept that a seasoned music critic could not understand why the catchy hook is so important to the song’s message, we can defend Lorde simply by pointing to other “Pure Heroine” gems. Singles “Tennis Court” and “Team” have choruses that are immensely catchy and more transparently indicative of Lorde’s message.
“We live in cities you’ll never see on screen, Not very pretty but we sure know how to run free” are not sentiments commonly offered in a catchy pop song. They are honest statements from an artist who, like Louis CK and his fart jokes, knows that only an immature artist would be averse to catchy hooks. They are meaningful declarations from a singer-songwriter who understands that people have to enjoy listening to a song before they can appreciate its messages.
That the remaining “Pure Heroine” songs are not as radio-friendly is not a problem because they remain every bit as guided by Lorde and producer Joel Little’s ear for the embraceable and engaging. “400 Lux,” which offers a riveting exploration of the mundane, features a beat that would make the most accomplished hip-hop producer swoon. The layered vocals of songs like “Ribs” and “A World Alone” create arresting aural experiences that open listeners’ ears and minds to Lorde’s wiser-than-her-years sentiment. The haunting choral effects on “White Teeth Teens” send listeners on an enthralling trip in Lorde’s shoes; one that makes it instantly clear how Lorde’s cynicism serves as an unexpected supplement to, rather than substitute for, her youthful sense of emotion.
And no matter the track’s specific intent or specific means of conveying that intent, Lorde’s unique flavor is always potent enough to assure a winner. The beauty of her vocal tone is an irrefutable factor, but her eccentric enunciation, haunting self-harmonies, effective use of accent and seamless rolls into the upper register combine to create an immersive, joyous, instantly-identifiable quality on each track. Capable of both confirming her wisdom and demonstrating her youth, Lorde’s work cohesively with her savvy lyricism to create lasting, meaningful pop music.
Different people will absorb different things from Lorde’s music, but it is a safe conclusion that nearly all who listen will absorb something–and enjoy it.
Even safer is the conclusion that with “Pure Heroine,” Lorde proves that “Royals” and “Tennis Court” were only the beginnings of a long-lasting, moving statement on popular music delivered as popular music.
Available in New Zealand and Australia since last week, the album officially released in North America on September 30.
1) Royals – 10/10
2) 400 Lux – 10/10
3) Team – 9/10
4) Tennis Court – 9/10
5) A World Alone – 9/10
6) Ribs – 8.5/10
7) White Teeth Teens – 8.5/10
8) Still Sane – 8.5/10
9) Glory and Gore – 8/10
10) Buzzcut Season – 8/10
Overall Album Grade: