Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a 16-year-old girl who sings. Lorde is a pop star. The difference between the two? A whole bunch of well-crafted publicity.
What’s different with Lorde, then, is that her publicity is marketed as anti-publicity: here’s a girl who hates manipulation, who exercises meticulous control over her image, and has no qualms about speaking her mind.
And I have no doubt that Yelich-O’Connor does all of those things. But the celebrity apparatus takes those very things — that commitment to non-manipulation — and turns it into overarching theme of Lorde’s image. And that image is so persuasive, especially to a certain cadre of consumers, because it effaces itself: non-image as image.
Many Hollywood stars have accomplished similar feats. Most recently, Jennifer Lawrence’s seemingly unmediated “cool girl” antics have been held up as an example of what natural stardom can look like. (When I asked my Twitter feed for examples of unmediated stardom, I received 20 suggestions of Lawrence). Anne Hathaway was polished and over-prepared; J-Law was natural and off-the-cuff and, as such, much easier to like. (I write more about them here).
Lorde has really only been on the (American) scene for a few months: her hit song “Royals” slowly took over the late summer, but it wasn’t until the release of her first full length album, Pure Heroine, on September 30th that she really drew the attention of the American press. (If you’re unfamiliar with her style, see “Royals,” “Team,” and my personal favorite, “Tennis Court.”)
From the beginning, Lorde was differentiated from her peers. The lyrics of “Royals” did much of the heavy lifting: here’s a girl who, instead of buying into the dreams of consumption proffered by most hip-hop, finds herself alienated. Lorde was 16 (she turned 17 last week), but she was no Disney product: she’s from New Zealand (!) and actively resisted the sort of bubble-gum packaging that typifies her contemporaries. She writes her own songs; she calls the shots. In early interviews, reproduced across the internet, she criticized the holy three of teen pop: Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Taylor Swift. But these weren’t offhand comments — they were rooted in overarching criticisms of the industry:
On Bieber: ”I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.”
On Gomez (and her song “Come and Get It”): “I’m a feminist, and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.”
On Swift: “[she's] too flawless and unattainable.”
Every celebrity has image has two major components: their product and the discourse about them and their product, also known as publicity. Even reality stars have the “product” of their program and the way they “appear” (read: perform) on it. Usually the product is more important in dictating the tenor of the celebrity image, but sometimes the publicity overwhelms the product. Hollywood stars rely on publicity to keep them in the public eye between projects; reality stars generate stories and photo-ops, usually through relationships and pregnancies, to keep them relevant between new reality opportunities.
Until recently, Lorde had blockbuster product but little by means of publicity. A collection of quips, sure, but those had started to overdetermined her meaning. Until, that is, last week, when the Australian music site Faster, Louder (think Pitchfork) published a longform, all-access profile, entitled “Lorde: Pop’s New Ruler,” the result of months of reporting. This reporter had gotten in at the ground floor — before “Royals” became anything big — and stuck around to the very recent past. He spent a lot of time with “Ella,” as he refers to her, and talked with all of her managers, had dinner with her family, and traced the trajectory of her rise to fame.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this profile is going to be as widely read as, say, a Vanity Fair cover story. I do, however, think it will function as a sort of ur text of her celebrity — the first large scale piece from which other profiles, however brief or lengthy, will draw. Like all skillful celebrity profiles, it establishes a few new themes in her image and reifies existing ones. It’s fun to read — like getting to know your best friend — and never descends into fluff. It is, in other words, an excellent example of the genre and, as such, an amazing piece of image management.
So let’s take this apart.
Over the course of the profile, several overarching themes emerge: Lorde is a natural, Lorde is extraordinary, and Lorde is authentic.
You know how you prove that someone has natural talent? You tell a story about them as a child. But Lorde wasn’t just singing to the video camera. She was a genius:
LATE one night, years ago, her mother Sonja was woken by a light going on in the room Ella shared with her sister Jerry. She shook her husband awake. “Oh my God, Vic! Someone’s just gone into the kids’ room!”
“He opens up the door and there’s this 18-month-old, at two or three in the morning, with a pile of books. Just sitting there, reading them……”
[Description of counselors encouraging Lorde's parents to take her to aptitude testing when she was six or seven]
….The resulting report is couched in restrained academic language, but remains arresting reading.
“[Her] artwork demonstrates not only a high skill level but a mature perception of the world and a highly original perspective… Clearly a busy and highly creative mind at work… demonstrates leadership skills… sets high standards for herself and does not tolerate mistakes… Extremely advanced reading and writing, verbal, reasoning, listening and processing skills.”
By some measures, she had the mental age of a 21-year-old.
The profile goes on to emphasize the 1000 (yes, 1000) books Lorde had read as a child, which accounted, according to a friend, for her mastery of words and “natural” songwriting ability.
The profile also emphasizes her perfectionism, but it’s not a perfectionism born of parenting style or industry pressures. Lorde just has the perfectionism innate to many gifted kids, complete with an intolerance for shoddy work or incompetent collaborators. She has what it takes to succeed as a pop star, but it’s not from effort — it’s just always been there.
Before you get 500 words into the profile, you learn that “Ella is no ordinary 16-year-old, and ‘Royals’ no ordinary hit single.” To back up the claim, the author, Duncan Grieve, goes into the past. Lorde’s parents had unique New Zealand upbringings (her mother is Croation; her father is Irish) with little room for creativity, and when they met, they were determined that their children would have the artistic freedoms and voices they were denied. It wasn’t a coddling, per se, just a celebration of imagination and creativity. Lorde’s mother is a celebrated poet; her father is an engineer — which, we can extrapolate, is how Lorde came to be so artistic and precise.
We’re also to understand that Lorde is no ordinary teen. She acts like an adult, and converses naturally with adults:
“She was exceptional in every way,” says [family friend] Allen. “Not an extrovert by any means, but she couldn’t be thrown.” From drama she learned to interact with adults, and to retain poise on stage, attributes which would prove handy in years to come.
And then there’s the way she interacts with the interviewer himself. During one of many days in the studio, he dared to make a small production suggestion:
When I forgot myself and issued an opinion on a production effect at the studio, she turned and said “So you’re Rick Rubin now?” quick as a cat. It’s pretty disconcerting being reprimanded by a teenager when you’re in your 30s.
She’s not afraid of adults! She has quips, really great quips! Can you imagine yourself at age 16 with that sort of poise? I was still way, way too concerned with my acne.
Part of Lorde’s extraordinariness comes from her authenticity — unlike other pop stars, she’s rooted in her “true” identity. When we talk about celebrities and authenticity, we’re talking about a sense of unmediated realness. What we see is who they are, the “real thing.” The problem with this understanding is pretty clear: that sense of authenticity is, itself, mediated. Meeting the star in person is often thought of as the only means to access the “real” real — first hand celebrity accounts are used as a means to buttress a certain understanding of a star — but even those are mediated through the lens of the celebrity’s self-awareness. Put differently, the celebrity knows she has an image to uphold; he/she’s not going to suddenly “be real” because you’re standing in the elevator with her. The desire for the real is why we love scandal: it sheds light onto the part of the celebrity that was truly never meant to go public. The more hidden, the more real.
Lorde’s authenticity — or, more precisely, her image’s authenticity — stems from her vocal and unapologetic rejection of the music industry and its publicity apparatus. The profile is riddled with soundbitey comments:
“I don’t care about hair and makeup.”
[A manager] pulls Ella aside to inform her that EDM star David Guetta wants her on his next album. “No,” she says sharply. “Fuck no. He’s so gross.”
When Maclachlan first watched that Belmont Idol performance, he thought he’d find her a song and have her sing it – “that classic A&R equation”. Failing that, she could knock out a set of ’60s-styled covers. He met Ella and Sonja at a cafe and later gave them a CD to serve as a reference. It ended up in a dumpster. “I was just so not interested,” says Ella. This 12-year-old wasn’t content to sing covers. She wanted to write songs.
Jason Flom is head of Universal Music subsidiary Lava Records. In the ’90s he had a hot streak like no other: Tori Amos, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20. He was sent a link to the recording early on. “Immediately obsessed”, he became determined to sign Lorde to Lava. “I can’t wait to make you a star,” he wrote in an email not long after the songs went live. “I was like, ‘Bleurgh’,” says Ella.
The irony of an anti-materialistic single doing that is not lost on them, although money is not Ella’s motivation. “If I didn’t tell her the state of her bank account, she’d never know,” says Vic, the trustee of her company.
If she’s that frank, it must be her real self. (If Kanye West is that bombastic, it must be his real self…..If Jennifer Lawrence is that clumsy, it must be her real self.) Etc., et. al. Even if we do acknowledge that these authentic celebrities are mediated, we read them, in the words of my brilliant friend Phil Maciak, as “authors of their own mediation.” Which at least in part explains her popularity with teens: she lacks the artifice, the bullshit, the adult-control that teenagers come to despise. And in this way, control, or the appearance of it, becomes conflated with authenticity.
And Lorde seems to control everything:
Ella is deeply interested – some might say obsessed – with all the line-by-line stuff.
Ella, self-confessed perfectionist, can’t stand to let someone else make decisions for her. It’s not without tetchy moments. Maclachlan mentions a “cover reboot” for the deluxe edition of the album. “That’s very ‘record company’,” says Ella acidly. “I don’t know if we have grounds to completely rehash everything.”
On Merchandise: “Yes! I’m excited about that. Sweatshirts and short-sleeved T-shirts. Black and grey marl. That’s it.”
Cain says that in 20 years in the industry he’s never come across an artist so engaged with the minutiae of their presentation. He points up at a giant poster of Lana Del Rey. “With her, we could do whatever we liked,” he says.
Ella is frequently compared to Del Rey, though it infuriates her. Both are white women making pop music soaked in the rhythm and attitude of hip-hop. But Del Rey has a much more conventional narrative — she had an image makeover prior to her breakout Born To Die album, and co-writes her songs with some of the biggest producers and writers in the industry. Ella’s songs, meanwhile, are very much her vision, and hers alone.
The piece doesn’t address criticism that she has a co-writer/producing partner — but it also doesn’t shy from it. So long as the songs are “her vision and hers alone,” she’s the authentic author. You see this exacting control, whether on her part, as the profile suggests, or on the part of her manager, manifest the visual publicity for Pure Heroine. She performs in t-shirts and long skirts; publicity photos are different variations of one stare-straight-ahead pose.
As you can see below, her video for “Tennis Court” is just her staring at the camera in black lipstick, an anti-video to the high production values of her peers’ short-films-posturing-as-music-videos.
While Lorde embodies each of these categories (natural, extraordinary, authentic) in specialized ways, the categories themselves are nothing new — they’ve been the hallmarks of star publicity since the beginning of Hollywood and serve to substantiate our fandom. We thought she was special, in other words, but this proves it. They’re also the building blocks of charisma: that ineffable something that separates attempted stars from bonafide ones. But charisma also serves a political function: to very broadly summarize the social theorist Emile Durkheim, it’s what makes us okay with other people having much more money and privilege than we do. Charisma validates their dominance — it makes it seem like they deserve to have what they have, and we shouldn’t rise up and steal it from them. Lack of charisma can be fatal, then, because it breeds antipathy. Most reality stars don’t have charisma. Justin Bieber is rapidly losing his charisma. George Clooney has a neverending supply of it. And Lorde, at least in this moment, has a ton of it.
But all of these themes are pretty straightforward celebrity profile fodder, as is the interlude at the raucous family dinner table, which economically underlines the “just like us” ordinariness to go with Lorde’s extraordinary talents.
I’m most interested, then, in the way that the profile accentuates Lorde’s cultural capital — and the way that accentuation has endeared her to a certain swath of adult fans.
It’s clear that Lorde is precocious. She’s smart, she’s uber-literate. But she’s not just reading the classics, and she’s not checked out of popular culture. Take a look:
At the same time, Ella’s own taste was evolving fast; she moved from Grizzly Bear to Animal Collective to James Blake. All the while, though, she remained fascinated by mainstream pop like Justin Timberlake. “It’s magical,” she says. She’d pick apart songs, latching on to production elements and vocal melodies. “Why is it shameful to like this music,” she thought, “or write this music?”
Thanks to all that reading she came to the current golden age of television late, but fell hard. She adores The Sopranos, and one of the best lines in the statement of intent ‘Bravado’ — “I was raised up/To be admired, to be noticed” — is paraphrased from Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Most of her cultural references she tosses out are similarly adult — author Michael Chabon, essayist Laura Mulvey.
Early on she implores I read a profile of the porn star James Deen written by Wells Tower, a favourite short story writer of hers. It’s magnificent, but also deeply, savagely sexual. I don’t know how to talk to a kid about something like that, so I leave it. With Ella, you’ll always blink first.
She’s a hipster! A learned, culturally literate, upper middle-class hipster. Many of her teen fans may not know who Laura Mulvey is, but whooo boy does a certain swath of her adult fans. By underlining her cultural capital and broad intelligence, it becomes all the easier for adult fans to embrace their fandom of a teenage artist. This is no guilty pleasure; this isn’t secretly listening to the new One Direction song on your headphones at the gym. Lorde is cool, and you’re cool for liking her.
And then there’s Lorde’s feminism:
One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.
“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?”
For me, this is the kicker: I knew I liked her songs, I liked her even more when she said that she culled lyrics from Mad Men, and then she goes demonstrates unapologetic feminism: sold. She endears herself not only to the entire Tavi Gevinson/Rookie/teen feminism audience, but to an entire swath of feminist adults frustrated with various celebrity’s reticence to embrace the label of feminism (talking to you, Beyonce).
Lorde’s music is deeply infectious and cultivates its own natural audience, but it’s the publicity that makes her more than the sum of her musical parts — that makes her a celebrity, and someone who will endure and matter in the cultural landscape. The purpose of this post is neither to decry nor celebrate, although I certainly haven’t attempted to mask that I’m a fan. Rather, it’s to highlight the potent ideological and industrial work of a single profile, and how even the anti-image is, always, an image in and of itself. Don’t mistake me: I’m not saying that Lorde is fake. I’m saying that she, like any other public artist, is a mediated product.
Whenever you’re interpellated by a product, you feel like it’s more authentic. Put differently, when the product seems to speak directly to you and your concerns, you’re more prepared to believe what it’s selling. That’s why I “buy” the images of Barack Obama, Jennifer Lawrence, Brangelina, Matt Damon, Kanye, Lorde — that’s why I’m so ready to believe. Maybe Lorde’s speaking to you, maybe she’s not. But if she is, it’s smart to think about how and why it’s so easy to buy what she’s selling.
Back during my Freshman year “Great Books” class, my professor started his lecture on the Bible this way: close reading and interrogation isn’t blasphemy. It’s respect: if the text, and your faith in it, can’t stand up to that, then what is it worth? In the end, that’s how I feel about celebrities — and why I don’t think analysis is tantamount to the destruction of pleasure. If there’s something substantial there, if there’s more than a shiny surface, the thing that speaks to you will remain. And thus far with Lorde, I can still hear her singing.