Lorde, what happened? Pop culture ultimately does not matter a great deal on its own slender merits. Little of that which is produced today is remembered tomorrow, whether one is dealing with the thousands of books that are published daily, most of which are never read, or the many songs that are released to general oblivion, or any other aspect of contemporary popular culture. There is something sad, nonetheless, and noteworthy about the way that populism so frequently gives way to out of touch elitism, and Lorde is a cautionary tale about how a young and seemingly mature artist can enter the scene as a breath of fresh air and within a decade be corrupted by the idea that her artistry has made her some sort of elite who has cultural authority to talk about issues far beyond her competence. How did this happen?
Like many Hollywood movies, this is a story in three acts. The first act of this story of Lorde as a pop culture figure, comes from the material that ended up on her first album, the well-regarded smash hit success of Pure Heroine. In songs like “Royals” and “Team,” she struck a populist pose by dismissing the shallow materialism of the age and helped herald an age of austere and minimalistic approaches to pop music that would take over the charts in the grim middle of the 2010’s, where many artists adopted her musical palette but without her understanding of the popular mood and the feeling that the party jams of the early 2010’s were not representative of the insecurity and ugliness of life for the ordinary person. While I despise the ugliness of years like 2016 and 2018 in music, such ugliness was at least representative of the ugliness of life that has continued to the present day, if not intensifying in the last couple of years. Whether one loves Lorde or not, she was a girl from a town that one will never see in a mainstream Hollywood movie and made music that suited her background and a fairly large population of people who felt the same way.
Without it being obvious at the time, things started going wrong with Lorde’s second album, Melodrama. Like many people, I loved this album, and still do. Songs like “Green Light,” “Liability,” “Perfect Places,” and especially “Writer In The Dark” resonate strongly with me as an artistic person who is prone to feel deeply (if not express openly) and to muse upon and feed upon personal romantic melodrama as the source of artistic inspiration about the artist as an artist with an artistic temperament. This album was not as immediately relatable to the general public, since intensely artistic and creative people are not as widespread as that, but among such people who did share the artistic temperament and creative approach of Lorde to use personal experiences as a fuel for artistic creation, this album resonated a lot. There are some artists who stay in this lane for a long time, using their life as the fuel for what they create. Sometimes it can end up being quite striking as a career choice, and Lorde appeared to have gone in that direction in a compelling way here.
Unfortunately, the third act of this drama did not end with Lorde’s personal life being the fuel for a long and uniformly successful series of albums, because now we must come to the project that is Solar Power. With a messy rollout, underperforming singles, and a lot of criticism, Solar Power is not widely recognized as a good album and its disappearance from the charts has signified a wide degree of popular rejection of this project and the persona that comes with it. My own comments about Lorde’s persona have been less than kind, but it is possible that she is both simultaneously reflecting the atmosphere of leftist elitist privilege that she now inhabits while also gently mocking some of its more foolish tendencies from inside. If so, it is still a stark decline from being an incisive young critic of larger social trends and the ignorance of those same elites she is now a part of for the lives and hopes and aspirations of many millions of ordinary people around the world.
My own feelings of populism in general are somewhat complicated, but it should be recognized that it is by no means easy for elites to stay in touch with the common person enough to be able to draw upon a base of fervent popular support while themselves remaining elites. Lorde has clearly lost her touch, becoming so absorbed with the self-absorbed nature of the contemporary leftist elite that she has no firm ground to stand upon to gently mock the out-of-touch nature of others when she is so out of touch at present herself. To some extent, the turning in that Melodrama marked should have been more obvious in retrospect, but while the effort lacked mass appeal, it at least had a large enough appeal among an artistic community that its self-abosrbed nature was less obvious to those of us who shared the same sort of creative focus that Lorde did upon her own personal life and its melodrama. To some extent, we see a far more popular use of melodrama as a source for artistic inspiration in the work of Olivia Rodrigo at present. It is hard to stay true to oneself and stay true to one’s roots in an age like our own, and even if Lorde and her music matter little in the grand scheme of things, her decline from populist icon to solar-powered commune dwelling has-been is instructive of the difficulties people have in staying grounded when they find massive popular and critical success in the contemporary world. Let that be an example for us all.