On Halloween in east London, packs of squealing teenagers tumble through the streets, a blur of white face paint, devil horns and plastic vampire teeth. Down a side street, inside one of the fashionable local clubs they cannot get in to, the online music video channel Vevo is holding a packed private party, where competition winners, instructed to dress up in the theme of “neon nightmare”, are being entertained by a clutch of hot young stars.
Toppling Miley Cyrus
Top of the bill is a New Zealand teenager who has recently become the youngest solo act to enter the UK pop charts at number one since 15-year-old Billie Piper in 1998. Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who goes by the name of Lorde, sings acutely observed lyrics about the real joy and boredom of being a teenager over hypnotic electronic beats, a combination that has proved irresistible around the world.
In March, her single Royals topped the charts in her home country. At the beginning of last month, she became the youngest solo performer to get to number one in the main American Hot 100 since Tiffany with I Think We’re Alone Now in 1987 –– in the process, knocking Miley Cyrus from the top spot.
This last fact is a kind of icing on the cake for some, who have greeted O’Connor not just as the latest new pop star to appear freshly baked off the assembly line but as a kind of Trojan horse come to deliver us from the saccharine smiles and full-frontal sexual provocation clogging the charts. Lorde’s sharp narrative observations –– on both the single, and her critically acclaimed follow-up album, Pure Heroine –– have led to her being labelled the voice of her generation, and mentioned in the same breath as everyone from Joan of Arc to the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.
Pop can be taken seriously
“Everyone has an opinion on me,” she says. “I read that comparison with Malala and I am unworthy to be in the same sentence as her. I have done nothing.” O’Connor, it seems, is happy just to be a new kind of pop star.
“I didn’t expect to be in this world but I think it’s kind of cool. For a long time pop has been this laughable, shameful thing. But it’s actually gratifying and fun and can unite populations, which I think is incredibly powerful. So hopefully I am showing that pop can be taken seriously,” says O’Connor, who turned 17 recently.
With her gothically pale skin offset by dark crimson lips, black-rimmed wide-set eyes and waist-length, mahogany curls, she could hardly be more different from the cute, smiling Lolita teenage princesses who have come before her. She looks much older than she is, a perception reinforced by the deep, commanding timbre of her sonorous voice.
O’Connor’s success in Britain comes only weeks after her 28-year-old compatriot Eleanor Catton became the youngest ever winner of the Booker prize. Is something in the water in Auckland at the moment producing these freakishly talented young women, I ask.
She laughs, “It is a little bit weird. Ellie is so talented. I loved her first novel that came out when she was 22, it was so beautiful.” She goes on, “I think maybe it is that we are just so far away. Growing up, I was like, I want to do something and get out of here. I love New Zealand, and going back there now that I have travelled, I appreciate it more. But as a teenager growing up in Auckland, I was like, ‘––– this.’”
Kind of magical and sacred
While in photographs and videos she adopts the withering, unflinching glare of Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight films, in performance O’Connor has a goofy theatricality: one minute she is indulging in Stevie Nicks-style witchy, closed-eyed singing, shaking her hair and flicking her hands out; the next, she’s all broad smiles and wisecracks, jokily heckling her audience.
Yet when she is not being Lorde, O’Connor is clearly a much quieter, more introspective character who could have easily taken a more literary path in life. The second-eldest of four children, O’Connor grew up in the North Shore area of Auckland. Her father is a civil engineer and her mother, Sonja Yelich, a published poet who encouraged her daughter’s bookish tendencies. At age 12, O’Connor was reading Raymond Carver.
From an early age, O’Connor demonstrated that distinctive confidence in her own tastes. At age five, she followed her friend into a drama group and discovered a love of singing and acting. “There is something kind of magic and sacred about performance,” she says. “I had to switch on a different side to myself and become a different me.”
O’Connor broke into the pop business through a combination of old-fashioned talent spotting and modern marketing techniques. Her friend’s father saw her, at age 12, performing cover versions of Duffy’s Warwick Avenue and Pixie Lott’s Mama Do in a school talent contest, and was so taken by her voice that he sent out tapes of her singing that arrived in the hands of a Universal talent scout. “It was a strange thing for me to launch myself into the spotlight,” she says. “I had always been the shy, bookish girl.”
Universal put O’Connor together with 30-year-old former punk pop musician Joel Little to translate her haunting vocals into more fully formed songs. The pair would meet over weekends and school holidays, when O’Connor would marry her love of old-fashioned pop harmonies with a growing taste for more underground electronic artistes such as Animal Collective and Mercury winner James Blake. Little supplied the propulsive, sparse beats.
‘‘Songwriting is so weird because you are writing down intimate things and then you go into a studio with someone you have never met, who in Joel’s case was twice my age and from a different background,” she says. “But something just clicked. He was very good at being perceptive and figuring out what I do, which is quite a raw, impulsive thing.”
Over four years, from 2009, the pair came up with the 10 songs for her debut album, but O’Connor says it never crossed her mind that one might become a worldwide hit. She insisted her first songs be put out on free streaming service SoundCloud without any videos or photographs to promote them. “I didn’t see my music as number-one Billboard chart selling music,” she says. “I tried to market my music the way my favourite indie producers did.”
About and for Teenagers
While other mainstream pop acts such as Katy Perry and Britney Spears turn to the same small pool of producers in London, Stockholm and LA who deal in radio-friendly generic dance styles, more-experimental acts such as Kanye West or Lady Gaga opt for complicated, baroque compositions. By contrast, O’Connor’s sound is simple yet cinematic, spinning tales of real teenage dreams –– penniless but happy nights out full of longing and loneliness –– that reject cliches of mindless fun and decadence.
“From the beginning, I have written about and for my peers and friends. It is a unifying thing, a call to arms,” she says. “You never hear people making generalisations about adults, yet everyone will make them about teenagers. People forget that we are human beings and that we think differently from each other.”
Her thoughtful take on teenage life is a million miles from the histrionic show-off tactics of Miley Cyrus, the young American singer who drew criticism for posing naked in her latest video. O’Connor is a self-professed feminist who has attacked the pernicious effect of Photoshop culture on young girls’ self-esteem, but she insists that she isn’t purposefully setting herself up as an anti-Cyrus figure. “That is definitely an older person’s reaction to my songs,” she says. “I would absolutely take my clothes off if I wanted to and that would be my choice and I would be empowered by it.”
If teenage stardom can seem like a guaranteed ticket into adult excess, O’Connor possesses a maturity that is, for now, inoculating her from the madness growing around her. “What I am doing now, I am learning so much that I couldn’t learn at any university at any age,” she says. “Every time I get on stage I learn something new. I’m evolving all the time. My next record could sound completely different.”
On Selena Gomez
I love pop music on a sonic level. But I’m a feminist and the theme of her song [Come & Get It] is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.
On Taylor Swift
She is so flawless, and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls. ‘I’m never going to be like Taylor Swift, why can’t I be as pretty as Lorde?’ That’s f***ing bullshit.
On Lana Del Rey
I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for girls to be listening to, you know, ‘I’m nothing without you’. This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, ‘don’t leave me’ stuff.
On Justin Bieber
I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.
On Beyonce knowles
Beyonce is a goddess and a superhuman performer and the epitome of poise and grace.
(The Daily Telegraph)
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