It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
Past 100 degrees Celsius, an increase in temperature is negligible to the process of boiling water.
You could drink the water content out of the air the first time I heard Lorde on the radio. In my sleepy beach town, we pinged between the presets for the only two stations with signals strong enough to reach us; no one cared to program for my forgotten expanse of suburban South Florida. Spun between Imagine Dragons' speaker-shaking "Radioactive" and Justin Timberlake's stadium-sized "Mirrors," the sparse production and singsong pre-chorus of "Royals" felt like that first blast of arctic A.C. after escaping August's oppressive heat. It sharpened your mind when you hadn't even realized it had grown lethargic with the weather.
High-octane pop with maximalist production had ruled the airwaves for more than five years. But pop, like water, has its cycles. If you let the water boil for too long, saturate it with too much energy, eventually it evaporates. You're left with nothing but air.
With the cry of a kettle ringing in our ears, a new voice filtered out of the steam.
Given the fully unself-conscious swagger that carries Lorde across the stages of stadiums today, one might almost have repressed the memory of the twitchy, bushy-haired, 16-year-old singer who seemed to convulse more than dance at the 2014 American Music Awards and looked like she'd have preferred being set on fire to the unexpected attention involved in winning a Grammy.
The distance between expectation and reality is an optical illusion at the crux of inhabiting the teenaged world. As I watched Lorde's graceless, passionate movements, I realized it doesn't really matter if you're fooled by that gap. Secure in her art, Lorde wasn't beholden to the opinion of the outside world or the pressure to be embarrassed by her own dancing.
It was glorious.
Before her debut, Pure Heroine, Ella Yelich-O'Connor was just a teen from suburban New Zealand, searching for a reconciliation between the glamor of pop culture excess and the mundane grace of the waiting-for-your-life-to-begin period for an ordinary high schooler. Lorde was trying to kill time and instead she snatched the mic, became an unintentional spokesperson for the day's youth and ushered in a sonic shift towards minimalism and dark pop.
"I'm little but I'm coming for the crown," Lorde warned on Pure Heroine. A self-fulfilled prophecy, "Royals" hit commercial U.S. radio in the summer of 2013. By October, the sleeper hit knocked Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," a much buzzed-about pop culture behemoth, right out of the No. 1 spot of Billboard's Hot 100. Lorde would sit on the throne for nine straight weeks to become the female artist with the top-selling single of 2013.
"Royals" was a fresh look at the ambition for material wealth that traditionally flooded bars of braggadocious hip-hop. In the song, Lorde uses a teenager's pointed skepticism to critique extravagance while giving a send-up of the genre that worships the lifestyle. It found Lorde stepping into complicated questions of race and appropriation – questions a 16-year-old New Zealander might not have considered when lambasting the pervasiveness of American pop cultural ideals. Some criticized the song for deploying negativity towards the materialistic hallmarks of rap while employing hip-hop beats; Lorde later apologized for her limited perspective.
But undeniably, "Royals" dripped with a resonant specificity (the oft-quoted "everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece"), an aficionado's kiss-off performed with precision and style. Her affected cool on the verses cracked on the chorus: one part longing, one part resignation, as if to say, I can't change who I am, but wouldn't it be nice?
When she sings "Baby, be the class clown / I'll be the beauty queen in tears," her voice translates the words in my head: That's all they want from us, to be stereotypes of ourselves. Play along.
This theater is at the heart of teenage life, taking a magnifying glass to the script of social interaction and trying on all the costumes to see what fits, how the power dynamics shift in response. On "Tennis Court," Lorde calls the process of donning and shedding these archetypes "a new art form showing people how little we care." It's a thesis for the conflicting themes of her work: the vacillation between the insecurity that accompanies desire and the practiced aloofness that conceals an eagerness to experience adult life and all its flaws.
Out of all that, has an artist ever single-handedly captured the turmoil of teenagedom – the seizure-inducing flood of outsized emotion distilled down to a bare beat – better than Lorde?
What's continuously remarkable about Lorde's work is her insistence on speaking to the experience of her age as it is lived. America loves its young stars but historically denies them the opportunity to sing authentic songs. And when we take for granted the tradition of underage singers performing dramatic tunes about adult love — songs like "My Man – He's A Lovin' Man," "Want You Back," or even "...Baby One More Time," songs whose subject matter may fall outside the realm of experience of the young people singing them – it's harder for us to seek out art that captures the voices and perspectives of the young people actually singing the songs.
Using preternaturally mature talent to tell mature stories and priming these kids to be effortless performers denies their peers from the same age demographic an opportunity to see themselves reflected on stage. Lorde's work is distinctive in that it is written by her and for her: a document of the nuanced fabric of one adolescent's reality that has resonated universally.
That reality – being a teenager – is annoying. Experiences that once elicited perfunctory responses now get the lid rattling to Pandora's box of messy, shapeless emotions not yet understood, bleeding into each other, the colors swirling around. To make matters worse, every set of kids collectively decides around this point that it's embarrassing to be transparent about having reactions to experiencing an expanding world. When your world explodes into technicolor, maybe compartmentalizing in black and white is the only coping method. To that end, Pure Heroine paints hazy yellow serenity, will-o'-the-wisp melancholy, and crimson ambition all in steely monochrome, with minimalist synth basses, snaps, and the occasional stuttering trap beat.
Lorde returned in 2017 with Melodrama, written at the end of her teenage years and the beginning of adulthood, and in a true reflection of growing up, the colors were no longer muted. On songs like "Liability," she stripped back the veneer of self-deprecation and detachment to immerse herself in the sincerity of rock-bottom insecurity. A teenager might rear back from it, but as a newly-minted adult, Lorde is ready to sit with it, stand back up and move on, acknowledging that those feelings exist but not letting their weight anchor her in their depths.
She's at her best when her voice is right up front in the mix, like it was recorded from a miniscule microphone at the center of where her lips part, addressing truths it feels safer to keep secret. There's extreme intimacy in the nuance of her instrument: It's all crags and crushed velvet and gravel and wolf howls that she finally lets rip on "Writer in the Dark."
Lorde calls "Writer" a "portal song." She says there's one on every record; they give "sort of a little glimpse of what could happen, what an artist could go on to do." Here, that glimpse appears in uncharted vocal territory, her voice stretching upward like an inflating balloon on the chorus, forgoing her penchant for balancing harmonies at the root and untying us from the expectation of what a melodic line from her should sound like. Famous for her command over a gravely lower register, she confessed to NPR's Michel Martin that "I think people won't have heard my voice in this way, or heard me write in this way."
Lorde is the executive producer of her own sound, and on Melodrama, she uses the studio fluency of producer Jack Antonoff – her pop kindred (in spirit, if not in practice) – to articulate her own style, taking weird production ideas and running with them – running marathons, even. Lorde has described the dynamic of their musical partnership by saying that "it's so rare to be in the room with a male collaborator and feel like you can be all of yourself." Antonoff's been heavily praised for his work on the record, but it's Lorde's need to challenge herself — challenge the ripple effect of Pure Heroine's sonic template, challenge our preconceptions of what she's capable of as an artist — that's largely responsible for the movements forward in her sound and for Melodrama's vivid, paint-splatter production.
The twitchy, sparring "I, midnight, lose my mind" and "Midnight, when I get to" as the bedrock to "Sober." The sing-song "Now you know it's really gonna blow" and the breathy approximation of an explosion she blows in our ears ("phooo") during pin-drop silence in "Homemade Dynamite." Paul-freaking-Simon's voice bubbling up through the transition to the giddy and childish revenge anthem "Loveless." On "Supercut," when the song abruptly subcuts the studio audio for a home-style take of Lorde singing the pre-chorus, where she steps back from the mic and roars. The quick "ch-ch" gun load of "Perfect Places" before the chorus explodes.
It's that teenage rebel streak at play. But it proves that for Lorde, now past the age of adolescence, working outside the norm is part of her creative practice and not just a facet of her age. When Lorde broke in 2013, her sound was singular on the radio and her voice like nothing else in music. Since then, a flood of teens have taken over the airwaves carrying souvenirs of Lorde's spirit: Alessia Cara's moody R&B hit "Here" mimicked Lorde's above-it-all attitude; Khalid's debut American Teen similarly chronicles the trials of high school; Billie Eilish spits out confident dark pop that might not have been taken seriously before a different 16-year-old spurned candy-coated, puppy love pop.
It was no easy feat for Lorde to deliver on her sophomore album after shifting the paradigm of popular music so strongly on her first try. Not only did she deliver, she reminded us that adolescence doesn't set the high-water mark for all-consuming emotion. It may be period in our lives when it's easiest to cede control from our heads to our hearts, but there will be many moments after our teenage years end when our brains betray us, when our physiology follows orders from the wrong organ. Lorde's ability to tell these stories at her young age speaks less to her as an unprecedented figure and more to the fact that we have been ignoring young voices for far too long.
Wisdom and youth are not inherently opposite: Calling Lorde an old soul, as many writers have, denies her the potential to stand as an avatar for not only her generation, but for all young people with opinions and experiences that speak precisely to their age. Deciding that teenagers with a hard-earned understanding of the present reality must be "old souls" underestimates their intelligence and innate potential for complex thought. It ignores the consequences of rearing a generation on technology that allows them an unparalleled ability to be social, but also to be informed about and exposed to the tragedies and joys of the world, perhaps maturing them past a point seen in previous generations of teens.
So no, Lorde is not an old soul. She's a young woman of the 21st century.