Teenager with 'tude

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 2, 2014

While most pop music princesses warble on about love and heartbreak, Lorde sings about materialism, teenage ennui and "postcode envy".

But her sharply observed lyrics are just one of the ways that the 17-year-old New Zealander has set herself apart from the cookie- cutter crooners who crowd the charts. The precocious teenager has also been openly critical of artists such as Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift, taking issue with the overly sexual and picture-perfect image they project.

Before she made a name for herself as a bit of a firebrand, however, it was her hit song Royals that did most of the talking.

First released in November 2012 as part of The Love Club EP, which was initially offered free for download, it talks about kids not being able to relate to the bling and moneyed lifestyle flaunted in many music videos.

This quietly subversive message and the catchy vocals it was delivered in immediately struck a chord with listeners and, after it went on sale in March last year, smashed the charts in New Zealand and the United States.

The unknown teen from Auckland became an international pop sensation, and the youngest person in 25 years to top the US Billboard Hot 100 as well as the Alternative and Rock charts.

To cap this meteoric debut, she received four Grammy nominations last month, including for Best Song and Best Album.

Speaking to Life! just a few days later in Los Angeles, Lorde, whose real name is Ella Yelich-O'Connor, was still trying to take it all in.

"Six months ago, I was a normal person, you know, with none of this stuff happening," she says in a clipped Kiwi accent.

"And now paparazzi wait outside places for me and people chase my car and stuff."

It is not just the extraordinary commercial success of Royals that has put her on the map but rather, the unique point of view declared by this and other ditties on Pure Heroine, the electronica- infused album she released in September last year that sees her exploring subjects such as being an outsider and young people's fear of getting older.

Asked why her music has resonated so well with music lovers, she says: "I guess I write very honestly about my life and my friends.

"And I think there's kind of a lack of that in pop, maybe, for people my age? So I think teenagers kind of appreciate it," says Lorde, who in July told MTV News that role models such as singer Justin Bieber are "maybe not a very real depiction of what it's like to be a young person".

Nevertheless, her music captures "a pretty wide demographic".

"I see all ages at my shows, a really even mix of boys and girls, really old people and really young kids. It's had a crazy appeal."

But while her songs and off-the-cuff critiques have put her on many year-end lists of the most influential performers and cultural figures of 2013, the teenager plays down her rebel credentials.

"I definitely don't call myself anti- establishment. A lot of people tried to bill the song (Royals) as being, like, this anti-capitalist anthem or whatever.

"But in truth, I was just 15 and I was writing about not having the kind of stuff that pop stars or rappers had. I was just writing about my life."

It has occurred to her that she could now have all the trappings of that lifestyle. "It is kind of ironic that now, if I wanted, I could probably buy quite a nice watch," says Lorde, who picked her stage name reportedly because of her fascination with royals and aristocracy.

But the bookish teen, the second oldest child of a poet and a civil engineer, is not buying into that lifestyle.

"I just find that quite weird. I still don't even know what to do when people give me free stuff. I'm like, 'Why are you giving me this? I don't need this. I know a person who definitely needs this'," she says.

Lorde believes her continuing appeal might lie in the fact that her fans think she is still a regular girl, even with the success.

"I'm dealing with things in the way I think any normal person would, so people feel like I'm one of them, or something - I'm not sure."

In terms of her talent and career, however, Lorde has proven herself to be anything but ordinary.

A songwriter since the age of 13 and signed to Universal Music at the same age after a scout saw a recording of her singing at her school talent show, she pens all her own lyrics and is also involved in every detail of her career, from image management to business details.

Her music collaborator is producer and co-writer Joel Little, a 30-year-old Kiwi pop-punk musician.

There is no Simon Cowell-esque puppet master pulling the strings behind the curtain, something that the teen is fiercely proud of.

She is hands-on about her career "because anything that comes out with my name on it is a reflection on me, and I wouldn't want that to be something that I wasn't necessarily happy with".

"So it's just kind of safer in the long run for me to sign off on everything," she says sagely. "I've got really good management who have helped me and are willing to let me do what it is I want to do."

Lorde is also hyper aware of her image, which critics have remarked on for its almost defiantly stripped-down quality. In her music videos and shows, she often stands stock still and stares straight into the camera while singing.

She acknowledges that the way she presents herself has been a factor in her success.

"I think now we're in an age where you can't ignore that stuff. You'll be judged, I would say, equally on your music and your videos and your videos and your clothes and your visual taste. I don't think you can have one and not the other.

"But luckily, it's always been something that I was really interested in. I watch a lot of films and look at a lot of photography, and try to kind of extend the stuff I look at to my music videos."

She has also distanced herself from the hyper- sexualised or runway-perfect way in which other female performers present themselves.

Last September, she was widely reported to have dissed Gomez's song Come And Get It in a radio interview ("I'm a feminist, and the theme of her song is, 'When you're ready, come and get it from me.' I'm sick of women being portrayed this way").

Subsequently, she took a swipe at Swift in New Zealand's Metro magazine ("Taylor Swift is so flawless and so unattainable, and I don't think it's breeding anything good in young girls").

This naturally incurred the wrath of Gomez and Swift fans (Bieber's were still smarting too), and Lorde later apologised to Swift, expressing her admiration for the I Knew You Were Trouble singer, whom she was later photographed having dinner with.

It is that razor-tongued frankness that many adore her for, though, and her take on the industry is often as reasonable as it is quotable - including her calling out of the current trend of artists trying to outdo one another in shock value, which "will probably culminate in two people f*****g onstage at the Grammys", she told Q magazine, most likely having the twerking Miley Cyrus in mind.

Still, Lorde appears to be treading a bit more carefully these days - unsurprising, perhaps, given the backlash over some of her comments, and the fact that she is being increasingly embraced by the industry, with other performers lining up to collaborate with her and cover her songs.

When Life! asks if she will be more circumspect about what she says now, she replies: "Yeah, I don't know. Maybe."

Either way, there seems to be plenty of fire left in her. For one thing, she does not hold back when talking about the negativity directed at her by some fellow New Zealanders.

She rolls her eyes at the fact that a few have slammed her for singing in an American accent.

"Oh, give me a break, that's ridiculous. For the most part, New Zealanders have actually been supportive of what I'm doing," she says.

"But there's definitely a tall poppy situation in New Zealand,'' she adds, referring to the idea that those who stand out in a crowd - the tall poppies - often have their heads chopped off.

"If I were an indie musician, no one would care and no one would criticise me, but it's only because I'm doing well that people want to knock me down.

"And it's usually, like 40-year-old men who don't really have anything better to do.

"But that's cool," she says matter-of-factly. "Usually I'll read a nasty comment like that, and I'll be in a hotel room in LA and I'll look out the window and see a beautiful view and feel nothing."

Nevertheless, she believes she has "had a remarkably good time of it" getting to where she is now.

"I thought it would be much more difficult to be who I wanted to be, but people have been very supportive of my vision and what I've wanted to do. So yeah, I feel lucky."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 2, 2014

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