Lorde's 'get-real' has mass appeal

REAL APPEAL: Lorde's music has a theme of expressing what is real to teenagers, rather than a superficial and glorified version of life.
REAL APPEAL: Lorde's music has a theme of expressing what is real to teenagers, rather than a superficial and glorified version of life.

With Royals having sold seven million copies and Lorde's debut album Pure Heroine reaching almost a million - eclipsing sales of all other music in New Zealand this year - we are witnessing popular culture history in the making and the rise of the "Empress of Anti-Pop".

Lorde, aka Ella Yelich-O'Connor, is poised to revolutionise the established and artificially manufactured rules of youth pop culture, replacing them with something authentic and organic that could transform what kids are listening to.

You have only to look at Lorde to see her "difference" . . . the shock of hair, enveloping clothing, clod-hopper shoes, mystique and trance-like expression are not, in themselves, unique, but her "tell it like it is" attitude is.

Her cynical perspective on youth pop culture that resonates through her lyrics matches the anti-consumerist mood of millions of teenagers, their desperate yearning for authenticity and truth thoroughly misunderstood by rich music executives relentlessly pumping out sugary Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Demi Lovato hits that are enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow.

It's not rocket science to identify why her success is linked with anti-consumption - the study of why people reject mainstream consumerism. Just look at Royals' lyrics: "But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash. We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair."

The cynical framing of luxury brands rings true with research that has shown that once people attain a certain level of consumption, additional consumption no longer contributes anything to happiness; instead it is the rejection of consumption and pursuit of simplification that allows people to feel authenticated and fulfilled.

Pop culture implicitly, and more often than not explicitly, tells kids to drink more, be sexier, have perfect skin and a perfect body, be more glamorous, pimp your ride, twerk your butt, strut your stuff, writhe around, look fierce, have more swagger, wear more bling or hang naked from a wrecking ball. But what makes Lorde stand out is how she says "Hang on, get real, this isn't what it's really about for us". And that is where her "anti-pop" status has such appeal.

Lorde's rise to stardom fits with this as well. It's been alternative, going from an underground sensation through 60,000 free releases of her hit album online to her very clever marketing team. She explained earlier this year that the free release of her album was because her audience were teens who didn't have credit cards or extra money. This idealistic approach flies in the face of capitalism (some record executives may even label it naive), but it was a brilliant move since awareness and exposure is the hardest nut to crack for all emerging singers.

Then came her first sold-out concert in Auckland a few months ago as part of the I Heart Radio movement. Lorde's first official appearance was a potential cash cow, but tickets were priced at a shocking $0. As expected, the goodwill generated by this free concert made Lorde our favourite daughter.

Step three? In conjunction with the launch of her first official album, Lorde's marketing team posted her lyrics strategically around Auckland in locations such as the ceilings of buses and as screensavers in electronic stores. Give away the lyrics to your songs? Doesn't this spit in the face of IP ownership! But lyrics are freely available online these days, so why not beat everyone to the punch and use your own lyrics as the ad message. This increases interest, appreciation and engagement with all your potential audiences.

Turning down an offer to open for Katy Perry and retaining the rights to her songs shows Lorde's relationship with her music company is altruistic, a nice contrast to the horror stories of artist exploitation we sometimes hear. Rather than taking a short-term return-on-investment focus, which often dictates the rise and fall of the many short-lived pop and reality television stars, Universal NZ's approach to let Lorde's talent develop organically is a breath of fresh air, and once again runs against the factory line set-up of pop culture.

While Lorde does not go so far as to resort to consumer activism, there is certainly a theme of expressing what is real to teenagers around the world versus the unrealistic glorified expectations of what it means to be a teen, as portrayed by most other pop stars. It's beautifully represented in her lyrics. "We count our dollars on the train to the party. And everyone who knows us knows that we're fine with this. We didn't come from money."

It's safe to say that, with reports of Lorde earning a million dollars before her recent 17th birthday and last week signing a multimillion-dollar deal with a publishing house, counting dollars on the train is not going to be a problem any more.

Dr Mike Lee is a senior marketing lecturer with the University of Auckland Business School in New Zealand.

Sunday Star Times