When fans don’t want a change: Should we let Lorde take a break and respect her need for growth?
Aafter four years of waiting, many of us are disappointed. Last week, the pop princess Lorde, who rose to prominence at the age of 16 with her debut album Pure heroine, finally released their highly anticipated third album, Solar energy, and it’s a radical change from his previous work.
Lorde’s Masterpiece, second album, 2017 Melodrama, won gold in the UK and double platinum in his native New Zealand, while making it to numerous year-end lists. Rooted in the severing of her three-year relationship with photographer James Lowe, the album oscillated between melancholy and self-deprecating piano ballads such as “Liability” and equally bittersweet rhythms like “Supercut”. Pockets of the internet instantly identified the album as a collection of “depression jams” – the perfect soundtrack for our own potential sadness, grief and hurt. Solar energy, however, this is something entirely different.
The signs of reckless abandon were there from the pre-release teasers. In June, the star unveiled the album cover: a cheerful photo of her scantily clad buttocks, eclipsing the sun during a frolic on the beach. It was a far cry from the dark blue, starry boudoir painting the singer had ordered for the cover of Melodrama. It also seemed slightly out of step with the heart-wrenching backdrop of a pandemic, especially for those who have spent the past year and a half stranded indoors on Britain’s rainy shores. Later that month, Lorde announced to fans in her newsletter, “There’s someone I want you to meet. His feet are bare at all times. She is sexy, playful, wild and free. She’s a modern girl in a dead bikini, in touch with her past and her future, vibrating at the highest level when summer arrives. It seemed that Lorde was revealing a new character; that the adolescent angst that ran through his previous work had, to our dismay, been displaced by an aura of sweet, almost privileged tranquility. In a funny indictment of the star’s transformation, a viral tweet read: “I feel like 2014 Lorde would have hated 2021 Lorde.”
The album itself didn’t overturn any of those expectations (although some reviews suggest the whole thing could be some sort of elaborate performance art). The acoustic strum of its lead song gives it the vibe of a late 2000s feel-good Jason Mraz song. The visuals for the clip – which are meant to exude beach chill, but turn out to be stiff and stiff. orchestrated – are roughly the same. Sonically, the rest of the album is also clean and drab, with The independent describing all of the work as “more failure than happiness”.
At first glance, it may seem like Lorde’s fans are mad at the star’s happiness. This is not the case. On the contrary, we struggle to reconcile Lorde’s image of sad girl in purple lipstick with a new reality. In the four years of her absence (and given that the singer has practically given up on her social media, she really has was gone), she solidified in the minds of fans as an ambassador of Anguish. If we saw our music consumption only through the prism of Spotify mood playlists, then Lorde was sitting firmly in “sad vibes,” and she hadn’t posted anything new to challenge that idea. Although much time has passed, the legacy of Melodrama has been kept very alive online (personally, I still listen to it regularly), and so the sand, sea, and sundresses feel like a sudden turnaround. And as her previous mood has faded, it seems some lyrical and poetic undertones of Lorde have accompanied her. Wonderful phrases like “Because ours are the times I play in the dark / We were wild and fluorescent, come home to my heart” have been superseded by cringe-worthy tokens like “Can you please me?” ‘reach? / No, you can’t ”.
Lorde is far from the first artist to reinvent herself to the chagrin of fans. A perfect historical example is the infamous Bob Dylan blonde on blonde performance in Manchester in 1966, which saw a fan shout “Judas!” after the previously acoustic folk singer plugged in an electric guitar. Of course, the “wild metallic” sound that Dylan got on blonde on blonde is now widely recognized as the peak of his career (although many reinventions would come later for the singer). A more contemporary comparison is Kanye West’s weird and experimental album. Yeezus, which was criticized by critics after its 2013 release, but is now considered a genre-defining work that was well ahead of its time. The problem with Solar energy, However, is that it just doesn’t sound like a revolutionary new sound or image for Lorde – on the contrary, it feels pretty empty, derivative, and dated.
While we may feel abandoned and left behind, perhaps we should accept that artists will always progress, experiment, and reinvent themselves over and over again. It’s a fundamental part of building a career, staying relevant to making sure you become more than a one-hit wonder. Over four decades, Madonna has been iconized as a pioneer of reinvention – resurrecting herself as a pop punk princess, an innocent practitioner, an ’80s disco diva, a leather-clad dominatrix and shape-shifter Madame X. Britney, meanwhile, swapped school uniforms for snakes and megastars as Beyoncé performed with many characters, sounds, and themes.
At this point, Taylor Swift is renaming herself roughly on a two-year cycle. Discussing the pressures of this process in last year’s Netflix documentary Miss American, she said, “Everyone’s a shiny new toy for about two years. Women artists have reinvented themselves 20 times more than male artists. They have to do it, otherwise you are out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent yourself, constantly finding new sides of yourself that people find brilliant. I can’t help but think of a line in Melodrama“Responsibility”, in which Lorde laments people’s need for novelty (in romantic relationships, but also, perhaps, in fandom): more / And then they miss me.
They’re right. Music shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter production line that only works to cater to specific consumer desires, and the temptation to look at it that way is one of the ugliest sides of fandom. Artists are people, and their music comes with the context of the life experience – in this case, Lorde’s heartbreaking breakup in 2017. Lorde is no longer sad and has actually spoken at length about her healing journey towards better mental health, which involved disconnecting and taking lots of psychedelics. It might not apply to all of us, but it would also be absurd to demand that she go back to the person she was at 20. Lorde even nods at the idea when Solar energy“Stoned At the Nail Salon,” singing, “All the music you loved at 16, you’ll come out of it / And all the time they’ll change.” Change is part of music and of life – and as Lorde notes, the two are closely linked.
Artist rebrands are not always received with open arms, but at their best, they push the boundaries of the genre and also push their listeners. Even at worst, they still represent an experience for the artist and a stepping stone to the next stage in their evolution. While Solar energy might fall into the latter camp, the silver lining is, of course, that Lorde is happy, and you can’t blame her for it.