The waning hours of 2013 offered up one of my favorite musical moments of the year. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, my nine-year-old daughter had Lorde’s Pure Heroine in heavy rotation on the basement stereo. We had been listening to “Royals” for few weeks via my iPod and the kitchen boombox, but I wanted K.’s experience of listening to music to approximate my own and, in turn, encouraged her to add this item to Santa’s list, rather than shop for the tracks on iTunes. (Apparently the elves could have supplied a long-playing microgroove version of Heroine, but the virtues of vinyl would likely have been lost on my daughter.) The decision was fortuitous, for the sound and the politics of Heroine constitute one of the most impressive echoes of the The Clash’s debut LP in many decades.
“Royals,” along with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” has apparently also been in heavy rotation on Pope Francis’s iPod, and inspired him to foment class warfare ahead of the 12 days of Christmas. In “Royals,” as I figure you know, the song’s protagonist and her comrades are well-versed in the images of Western decadence, but “don’t come from money” and “crave a different kind of buzz.” The composition of the sound is minimal (voice+keyboard+drum machine), and the clarity and conviction of Lorde’s impressive voice demand narrative unpacking. My daughter obliged, and we discussed Lorde’s dismissal of “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your tongue-piece”—the CD booklet indicates “timepiece,” but I have my doubts. In turn, we followed that up with a close reading of Marx’s analysis of relative surplus value in Capital, v. 1, and made connections between capital’s chase across the globe for expanding markets and the popularity of the free breakfast program at her elementary school. (Okay: it wasn’t a close reading, but I channeled the key concepts and the argument.)
The album’s other songs preserve the foregrounded vocal and minimal-keys-and-beats formula to good effect, and it’s a refreshing reminder of the power of the human voice when it’s not performing melismatic acrobats. Key themes include adolescent angst and desire (“Tennis Court”; “White Teeth Teens”), or dip a toe into the manneristic reflecting pool (“Still Sane”), but the album’s centrifugal force is social class. In “Team,” the third single from Pure Heroine (“Bravado” is the second), our narrator contrasts ladies at a gala, “in their finery … a hundred jewels on throats,” to her crew: “now bring my boys in / their skin in craters like the moon.”
In a smart piece for NPR, Ann Powers suggests approvingly that Lorde serves up “the ultimate expression of class privilege: a bourgeois protest against the common people’s aspirational fantasies.” I’m confident I know what Ms. Powers means, but I think she overstates Lorde’s level of privilege (she’s the daughter of a poet), and I hesitate to represent the fantasies of others, with so many folks of varying levels of class privilege opting out of the so-called job market. Lorde’s presence, too, is more than mere protest: she’s charming in her honesty (even if she eventually backtracks), and her music is politically effective and aesthetically effective.
For Interview magazine, Lorde channeled a Strummer-esque spirit, circa 1977: “Nicki Minaj and Drake, as well as pop singers like Lana Del Rey: [t]hey all sing about such opulence, stuff that just didn’t relate to me—or anyone that I knew. I began thinking, ‘How are we listening to this? It’s completely irrelevant.’” (She gets in trouble for this indiscretion, of course, but not because it’s racist.) This quip doesn’t quite have the ring of The Clash’s “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones / In 1977,” but it will do. Her protagonists and comrades are rendered with humor and honor, and recall Robert Christgau’s characterization of The Clash:
“If anybody wanted to talk to me about The Clash’s being poseurs … I just think that’s so asinine that it’s beneath contempt. These are rock’n’roll performers, not political science professors. They really figured out a way to make effective political art, which as we know is very difficult. It’s very difficult. And what do I mean by effective? I don’t mean it changed the world. I mean it was aesthetically effective.”
Stealing All Transmissions, p. 29
Lorde embraces the DIY ethic reflected in the best music of 1977 and after. As she notes in CD booklet’s closing essay, in offering thanks to producer Joel Little, “without whom Pure Heroine would be a bunch of hazy Garage Band files and word documents on my laptop.” The lyrics are Lorde’s, and she shares in the production duties. Lorde’s family background is probably closer to Joe Strummer’s than the characters of “Team,” but as Nick Kent noted, that scarcely mattered in Strummer’s case:
“Much has been written since his untimely death about the fact that Strummer’s upper-middle-class origins were so blatantly at odds with the working-class prole firebrand role he assumed in young adulthood. That may be so but his reinvention was so all-encompassing and his drive to project that reinvented persona out to the world so unrelenting that he literally became what he’d dreamt of becoming since adolescence—Che Guevara with an electric guitar.”
Nick Kent, Apathy for the Devil, p. 331
If Lorde aspires to channel Emma Goldman, it’s under wraps for the moment—and she’ll have enough pressure for the follow-up album, so let’s not burden her with undue expectations. In the meantime, I’ll continue to savor those moments when I find my daughter sitting in the sweet spot of stereo, reading the lyric booklet, and making Lorde’s stories her stories—just like we did, back in the day.