Lorde is no Nirvana

LordeIn December, Ann Powers of NPR Music contributed an article entitled “Lorde Sounds Like Teen Spirit” in which she argued that the 17-year-old chart-topper is “the Nirvana of now.” Although Powers insightfully identifies numerous similarities between Lorde and Nirvana, to suggest that Lorde bears a cultural significance comparable to Nirvana’s is terribly misguided.

Powers primarily focuses on Lorde’s song “Royals,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100 when Lorde was 16 and earned her recognition for having the longest reign ever by a woman on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. She compares “Royals” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which received similar success and became an anthem for the grunge movement and more generally of youth culture in the early 1990s.

Here’s Lorde performing “Royals,” for anyone for whom the song is still unfamiliar:

Powers argues, firstly, that Lorde owes her success partly to cultural demand: “She came along just when listeners were craving what “Royals” famously advocates: a different kind of buzz.” She is certainly correct in her interpretation of the song, which bemoans the nature of pop music to glorify an unrealistically opulent, extravagant lifestyle from which the great majority of its listeners are removed. While pop media frequently exalts a lifestyle characterized by things like “Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom / bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room,” much of its audience—Lorde included—recognizes that lyrically, its content is unrelatable, or at best is an unintentional caricature of real excess.

To an extent, Powers considers “Royals” a declaration of nonconformity. In that Lorde rejects the values that prevail in the lyrics of pop stars like Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry or Ke$ha, this is correct. Musically, Powers acknowledges that Lorde is very typical of a 21st century artist in that she blends mainstream hip-hop and electronic influences, meaning that much of the music she criticizes sounds remarkably similar to her own. (Before I move on, I ought to acknowledge that Lorde appreciates and listens to many of the artists that “Royals” inherently faults. We might best understand “Royals” as a constructive call for change and not necessarily anti-pop.)

How, then, does Lorde share similarities with Nirvana? It’s difficult to compare “Royals” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrically. Although Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain claimed to associate the song with youthful revolution, its semi-sensical lyrics leave much room for interpretation. Generally, its lyrics seem to announce disillusionment: “Turn the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.” Powers claims that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is, in part, a criticism of the male and female identity: Cobain sings “A mosquito, my libido.” Unfortunately, this small and presumptuous interpretive contribution says nothing of the song’s otherwise murky lyrics.

Nirvana, circa 1991

Nirvana, circa 1991

Rather, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was significant in its role as an anthem for the dissatisfied, equally-disillusioned youths to whom Cobain sang in 1991: those who embraced it also rejected the music they were ‘supposed to like,’ the pop stars and rock stars that major record companies and music publications pushed at them. While Nirvana did achieve commercial success—Nevermind reaching Diamond certification and consistently ranking highly among the greatest albums ever according to magazines like Rolling Stone—they did so by appealing to those who weren’t interested in the mainstream at the time.

Lorde, yes, rejects the attitude associated with today’s pop music in “Royals.” However, her music is far less a departure from the mainstream than Nirvana’s was in their time. Nirvana’s music, to its fans, represented a rejection of a mainstream dominated by overproduced pop stars and simultaneously brought mainstream exposure to grunge and alt rock. They drove a huge cultural shift, becoming icons for the new Generation X that grunge ushered in. While “Royals” calls for new values in pop music, I find it difficult to believe that Lorde’s effect on pop culture will resemble anything remotely comparable to Nirvana’s.

This isn’t to criticize or belittle Lorde’s message; I’ll quickly agree that much of today’s mainstream music is superficial and glorifies excess. But I’ll also argue that “Royals” is popular for the reasons that every song it bemoans is popular: it’s a catchy, well-written, well-produced pop song. Lorde herself is the very product of the mainstream music industry, having signed with Universal Records at age 12—in many ways, her path to success has been similar to most of the more glaring examples of pop stars that “Royals” critiques. She is simply another pop phenomenon, albeit one with a more respectable message. For the very reason Powers calls her “very 21st century,” Lorde is very unlike Nirvana—she isn’t breaking down a system, or bringing in a new era of pop culture, but instead participating in the very same culture she critiques.

Perhaps this is a factor of today’s music culture: before 1991—before grunge—independent music and alternative sub-genres remained underexposed. The introduction of grunge and of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam created a new mainstream in which pop artists and alternative artists could simultaneously achieve commercial success. And, with the continued success of independent record labels—including Nirvana’s original label, Sub-Pop—artists far removed from the core of commercial music have become accessible to nearly anyone. In 1991, youth culture demanded bands like Nirvana that would shake up the system and open the gates to new options. In 2013, due largely to grunge, so many mainstream options exist that we can ignore the superficial pop stars that Lorde critiques without shunning popular music altogether.

Still, might she change pop culture? Certainly—and hopefully. But is she the voice of a dissatisfied generation, kicking into motion a widespread cultural revolution? Probably not.

Sam Klein ’15

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