Lorde's "brand" is her precocity, and I must say that I am a sucker for it. I'm basically in total agreement with Anne Helen Peterson when she observes that Lorde's public image is both highly constructed and highly appealing.
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. ... Many of her teen fans may not know who Laura Mulvey is, but whooo boy does a certain swath of her adult fans.GUILTY.
I'm rarely able to listen to music I actually want to listen to unless I'm driving. I'm easily distracted by music and work better without it.* So, like the elderly person that I am, I listen to actual CDs straight through in my car. Driving to Philly this week I was listening to Lorde's album Pure Heroine again and thought again about something that struck me the first time I heard it: the album's relentlessly moderate tempos. Quick things happen in these songs, but always within a heavily emphasized temporal grid that, to my ear, cannot possibly be more than 120 bpm and is usually closer to 90. I looked at my watch for ten bars of "Royals" and came up with 86 bpm, although that's admittedly not the fastest song on the album. (On the other hand, it is the album's biggest single.) I am comfortable saying that moderate tempo is a Lorde tic. Not slow, but not too fast.
And I started thinking about what this might have to tell us about her precocity (acknowledging that this precocity, as we know it, is constructed). What are some other Lorde tics? Arpeggios. Parallel thirds. Simple, repetitive melodies, not just simple and repetitive in accordance the conventions of pop music, but in a way that is almost studiously elementary. If we are honest, we will notice that the refrain of "Royals" sounds approximately like what a group of six-year-olds gets up to at their Suzuki violin recital. (Even the F sharp.)
It's not just simplicity of the melody, an inverted D major triad, but also the rhythm: unsyncopated, square, neat subdivisions of time into eighth and sixteenth notes, like an exercise, announcing practice, announcing studenthood. I think Lorde's moderato is part of this elementarity, as are the self-conscious lyrical allusions to Mom and Dad, school, riding the bus, and "my first plane." As the complexity of some moments attests (I think especially of "Buzzcut Season"), Lorde does not have to be simple. But there's a formal insistence on simplicity that speaks not only to the image of authenticity that Annie points out, but also to precocity: you cannot be prococious just by being good; you have to be too young to be that good, too.
*I started playing the album when I started writing this post, then realized I needed to turn it off if I was going to write words. Argh.