How Lorde defied misogyny – and expectations

The New Zealand artist's second album, ‘Melodrama’, released a year ago this week, is the Gen Z equivalent of Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’

Lorde knows: Melodrama effortlessly captures the specific nuances of love in the Instagram generation.

Lorde knows: Melodrama effortlessly captures the specific nuances of love in the Instagram generation.

 

It is precisely one year since the release of Lorde’s second album, Melodrama. Ordinarily, a retrospective would be premature, but Melodrama already merits one. Apart from achieving universal critical acclaim, having been named one of the albums of 2017 by virtually every major music publication, the immersive electropop masterpiece defied expectation and is set to be Gen Z’s break-up album of note.

Melodrama was born the younger sister of an obnoxious over-achiever. Pure Heroine, Lorde’s debut, catapulted 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor to international superstardom. The musical refinement and lyrical depth of the album landed Lorde with the loaded handle of child prodigy – a mantle which, if you’re a woman, is landmined with misogyny. Step on the wrong note, and you’re done for.

The cover of Melodrama

As i-D wrote about Lorde and the myth of the female wunderkind in 2017, the music industry assigns value to women according to their age, so being a female teen talent feels booby-trapped. Was there any way Lorde could have taken a step forward without putting a foot wrong?

Even Björk, a seasoned artist whose career is founded on defying expectations, feels gendered critical standards stacking against her. In 2016, she expressed fury in an open letter about sexism in music criticism, saying she only felt accepted by the media when she “shared a heartbreak” and that artistically, women are only allowed to “bleed about the men” in their lives.

Björk’s account jars when you consider the treatment of Taylor Swift by the media – a viral Buzzfeed diatribe was only one of dozens of hit pieces determined to characterise Swift as a professional victim for daring to write about her break-ups. The contrasting experiences of these two women don’t contradict one another. Rather, they reveal one simple unifying principle: whatever women do, they are torn apart. There’s no safe path through the minefield.

Male gaze

In feminist critique of cinema, Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze describes how the camera forces the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. Recently, Guardian writer Lili Loofbourow coined a new iteration of the term: the male glance, describing the way men are quick to dismiss the importance of women’s narratives. Perhaps in music criticism, we should bring another term into currency. The male ear hears women’s work and twists it to be lesser.

Ed Sheeran, too, writes about his break-ups through happy-clappy four-chord acoustic guitar, but somehow escapes the universal sneer routinely levelled at Swift.

When Helen Davies wrote in 2001 that the rock music press constructs credibility in a way that is impossible for women to attain, the male ear must have been burning. Her analysis is still relevant, stretching across the chasm of genre and time to today’s pop.

With Melodrama, Lorde was taking a risk – and, self-aware as ever, she nods to it in the very title

Lorde herself is all too aware of the male ear wiggling in her direction. She boycotted the Grammys stage after the recording academy snubbed her by asking her to perform a cover as part of a group tribute to Tom Petty – because all her fellow male Album of the Year nominees were invited to perform songs from their albums.

With Melodrama, Lorde was taking a risk – and, self-aware as ever, she nods to it in the very title. You don’t have to look far to find reviews of women by men, describing their heartbreak songs as “melodramatic” – the male gaze eye-rolls at women’s emotions.

Lorde’s out-of-left-field dive from Pure Heroine’s indie treatment of youth culture to the navel-gazing agony of a personal loss, presented the perfect opportunity for the male critical pen to start scribbling vitriol. But in the minefield of music industry misogyny, Lorde is a hovercraft. She defied patriarchal prescriptions on the risks she should take, and in doing so, sailed right over them.

Dark highways

Her album is an immersive masterpiece. It plunges the listener into its electropop limbo of dark highways, deafening nightclubs and strangers’ bedrooms. It is the Gen Z equivalent of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or other iconic break-up albums. The crude lyrical parallels are all there: see Dylan’s “Laying in bed, wondering if she’d changed at all, if her hair was still red” vs Lorde’s “When you see me, will you say I’ve changed?” But more than these overt similarities, both albums are timeless portraits of love in their time. Even timelessness needs regular rewrites, to be couched in the idiosyncrasies of its era.

Lorde harpoons the way that our second life, the online one, can be a mask to hide the pain

Melodrama effortlessly captures the specific nuances of love in the Instagram generation. It gently lampoons our habit of performatively posting Insta stories, feverishly checking to see if that*person has viewed it, because the only reason you posted it in the first place was to make them jealous, an updated version of the Chinese whispers between respective friend groups that have always attended break-ups.

Lorde encapsulates our online lurking and image constructing with feather-touch lyricism: “I wake up in a different bedroom/ I whisper things, the city sings them back to you.” Lorde understands how memories of love for Gen-Z are preserved in an unending stream of online visual and textual data – endless posts and Facebook memories that somehow never capture the pain we felt: “When I reach for you, there’s just a supercut of us.”

Instant message

She reveals the romanticism in the way all our love letters are now sent via instant message, how almost all of our precious communication is non-verbal, characters on a screen: “I overthink your punctuation use.” She hints at postmodernism, the way social media imbues us all with the status of authors in a world where the author is dead: “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark”; also at how we can mimic the cult of celebrity in our own mini worlds, our paparazzi pictures posted from our front cameras, partly believing our own hype but also knowing deep down that we’re only one of millions of accounts: “They’ll hang us in the Louvre/ down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre.”

Most heartbreakingly, Lorde harpoons the way that our second life, the online one, can be a mask to hide the pain, a band-aid over the still-gaping wound of the very real love you have lost: “Now I’ll fake it every single day ’til I don’t need fantasy, ’til I feel you leave/ But I still remember everything, how we’d drift buying groceries.”

Lorde’s chosen subject matter on Melodrama defied the male ear. She was hailed as a prodigy for capturing what it means to be of Gen-Z on Pure Heroine. Little did we realise she could repeat the same feat again, by refracting the Gen-Z self through the prism of personal pain.

Lorde’s lyricism occupies a stratosphere beyond the standard of pop, and her star continues to rise – as she herself prophesied, we’re all gonna watch her disappear into the sun.

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