From Lolita to Britney, from Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides to Sofia Coppola’s, no one is more obsessed over and fetishized—not to mention misunderstood—than the teenage girl. The teenage girl has a limited list of moves: She is good or she is bad. She is well-behaved or rebellious. She dances on tables, breaks hearts, and gets her belly button pierced. The challenge of creating accurate or nuanced portrayals of women aged 12 to 20 has all too often been taken up by people on the outside—namely men, milking the teen girl experience for sex appeal or punchlines.
In Melodrama, her new, near-perfect sophomore album, Lorde does what she does best: crashes the party. Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who is 20 years old but has sounded 45 since she was 16, is the perfect old soul to offer a new perspective on teenage girldom. When Lorde emerged in 2013, it was with the surprise hit “Royals,” a catchy confection that deflated pop culture fantasies. She poked holes in aspirational pop, crooning on behalf of a kind of homespun magic that’s more powerful—or at least more attainable—than Cristal and Maybachs. Through “Royals,” Lorde differentiated herself from her contemporaries as the outsider, the everyday teen (in contrast to the photoshopped, richer-than-God pop star). But if Lorde’s debut rendered her relatable, Melodrama proves that she is one in a million.
In “Royals,” life isn’t like the rap songs or the movies, and that’s OK—as Lorde drawls, “That kind of lux just ain’t for us / We crave a different kind of buzz.” Melodrama is the sonic search for that new high, and all of the epic come-downs that come along with it. Whether it’s drugs, love, or the perfect house party, Melodrama is an ode to all of the ways we try and make ourselves feel better. More importantly, it’s a record for all of the teenage girls who don’t party, love, or want the way that they’re supposed to. On the surface, Melodrama is about the dissolution of a romantic relationship and the build-up and let down of a wild party. But, in classic Lorde fashion, this isn’t really an album about when the literal or figurative party is over—it’s about how the party was always sort of shit to begin with. On “Perfect Places,” Melodrama’s last track, Lorde summarizes: “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”
Longer essays can, have, and will be written about Lorde as the ultimate outsider. Her meta status—unconventional singer becomes a pop star by knocking pop clichés—is on full display here. Lorde is singing about a party where people stand around, get hammered, and try to look cool—and Melodrama will undoubtedly be the soundtrack for thousands of these try-hard parties this summer. Simultaneously, Lorde has produced nearly a dozen unconventional pop songs that are still destined to be played over and over again on the radio in the coming months. Sure, Lorde’s songs are catchy (she has producer Jack Antonoff, reigning king of the synth-heavy pop anthem, to thank for that), but they’re hardly cookie-cutter hits. They’re not songs you dance to, so much as songs you sway along to in a hazy dorm room while frantically looking around and trying to suss out if—and how—everyone else is dancing.
Lorde is the sound of the party, but she’s also the girl standing outside chain-smoking and counting down the hours until it’s over. Perhaps the purest embodiment of this ethos is “Supercut,” a breakup song in which Lorde recounts the highlights of her relationships, and simultaneously celebrates and bemoans the compulsion that makes her condense her own experiences into a highlight reel: “In my head, I play a supercut of us / All the magic we gave off / All the love we had and lost / And in my head / The visions never stop.” It’s a strange realization, and not one that easily translates into a pop song: the mixture of anxiety and expectation that can make you feel like you’re just watching your life, as opposed to living it. The genius of this record, which often falls into love song or breakup album conventions, is that it can never be characterized as cliché, since Lorde herself is so hyper-aware. She knows that there is a difference between actual love and just going through the motions, but she also recognizes that the entire performance of a relationship—the preening, the lies, the emotions, the heartbreak, and the make-believe—is full of meaning. “Maybe the tears and the highs we breathe,” she croons on “Liability (Reprise),” “Maybe all this is the party.” No other pop singer right now sings love songs like this: full of self-criticism and cynicism, but also reality, and reverence.
If the teenage girl is always watched, then Lorde—spectator extraordinaire—is even more of an anomaly than she thinks she is. After all, convention holds that teenagers are impressionable, spontaneous, and out of control. Lorde, and Melodrama specifically, is the exact opposite. The album has already been praised for its deliberate vision and cohesion; the result of what was evidently a good deal of artistic control, bordering on obsessive compulsion. On “Supercut,” Lorde repeats over and over again that, “In my head (in my head, I do everything right).”
As an artist, Lorde has the rare opportunity to rewrite her own story, taking a heartache that she doesn’t understand and beating it into narrative submission. The songs mostly fall under two themes: breakup and house party. In the heartache category, we get tracks like “Green Light” and “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” which are both preoccupied with the impermanence of forever. “Hard Feelings/Loveless” is a glass half empty anthem for a generation of fuckgirls and fuckboys: “Bet you wanna rip my heart out / Bet you wanna skip my calls now / Well guess what? I like that / ’Cause I’m gonna mess your life up / Gonna wanna tape my mouth shut / Look out, lovers.” This sense of posturing keeps surfacing; on “Sober,” she sings, “We pretend that we just don’t care / But we care,” which is basically Lorde in a nutshell. Lorde’s ability to pinpoint the contradictions of teenagedom are what make her, at the very least, a voice of a generation. No other artist so consistently evokes the simultaneous hubris and anxiety of being 19, perfect, and horrible. On “The Louvre,” which has been rightfully identified as a stand-out single, she boasts that “We’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in The Louvre,” and it somehow makes perfect sense, even though she’s singing about a relationship that’s already ruined.
Melodrama is short on catharsis and big on crescendo; we spend more time planning the party and poring over the pieces of the lost relationship than we do dancing, or in love. In true teenage fashion, Lorde has written an album about the lead-up and the come down. She lines up her unopened bottles of champagne, tries on different outfits, listens to other people’s pop songs and waits for things to really start. And then, all of a sudden, she realizes that the party is over—and that these fucked-up memories, these heartaches, and this album are all she’s got to show for it. “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”