By Jon Muchin
For something so many people can so easily identify, pop music is hard to adequately define. It doesn’t conform to any real type of genre; the Beatles (at least in their early days) and Daft Punk could be reasonably described as pop artists and yet – perhaps I’m blowing some minds here – their respective music exists in entirely different sonic strata. Folk, R&B, rock, country, rap, even jazz all can coexist within this manufactured label. The name pop comes from an external definition (technically, pop music is music that is popular, in the same way that fan is short for fanatic), but pop, in its most common construction, belongs to that class of definition through distinction in much the same way as the Supreme Court defined pornography: we know it when we hear it. There is undeniably something “pop” about pop music.
And for most of my life, I haven’t really cared for pop music. Sure, I like early Beatles (and late Beatles and pretty much anything even tangentially related to Beatles) and I like Daft Punk and a lot of pop artists in between, but by and large I don’t like pop music. If you were to ask me what I listen to, I would never answer with pop. I just can’t really explain why.
But pop is genre-amorphous! I like many of the styles it incorporates, and yet I don’t identify as liking “pop.” Some of my distaste is probably the commoditization built into the music, but I’m aware that’s an inconsistent position. Commoditization has never stopped me from blasting the fuck out of some Hendrix, even though his estate would put his likeness on Electric Ladyland Vibrating Condoms if the abundant jump in safe sex didn’t mean risking the next generation of Jimi fans.
So, in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve decided to use 2014 to throw myself into pop music present and past to try and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it will turn out that I’m just not a “pop guy,” but I have a feeling I’ll find that I haven’t been giving it a fair shake. This idea is loosely based on (fine, ripped off from) Nathan Rabin’s year-long series of articles acquainting himself with country music, though I don’t know how often I’ll follow up or where this will take me.
First up: Pure Heroine, the debut album from teenage megastar Lorde.
The things I knew about Lorde before yesterday: she’s 17, she writes her own songs, and “Royals” is catchy as all hell. This would be an early test – could I identify what’s pop about her sound and “Royals” in general?
That track stands out for a few reasons. The beat is monstrous from the get go, a booming bass and clipped snare sound and a simple hooky vocal over the top. On Pure Heroine Lorde spends a lot of time in a mid-alto, a place in her range where her voice sounds relatively bland. It’s in the lowest depths of her register that Lorde really stands out, and that’s where “Royals” lies. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she struts in her Adele-light voice, kicking off with a burst a song that is both indictment and celebration of the aesthetic pleasures of being alive and a teenager. The song has you from there.
Structurally, “Royals” is pretty similar to almost every track on the album. There’s almost no instrumentation beyond a drum machine heavy on the booming bass and a dub-step-reminiscent synth that pervades nearly every song. The first I remember anything to break up that combination was the on the tenth track, “A World Alone,” which starts off with a mellowed-out Strokesian guitar riff. Otherwise, Lorde and her producers have constricted the Pure Heroine’s instrumental palette in a way that unfortunately begets monotony (the album has some hypnotic qualities, but I found my attention flagging more than falling into reverie).There’s only so much you can do with so few sounds, especially since all the songs lie in roughly the same place in Lorde’s voice (if not in the same key). In lieu of instrumental variety, Lorde offers up stacked harmonic vocals, which propel the chorus of “Royals,” but elsewhere come off sounding like nursery rhyme. Befitting that theme, she is enamored of repeating lyrics, another tactic that occasionally pays off. “White Teeth Teens” turns a repetition of its final few phrases into a beautiful swelling fugue, but also contains cringe-worthy lines like “We got the glow in our mouths. White teeth teens are out.”
The album’s main themes, the alienation-cum-celebration of modern life and consumerism, are well-worn pop tropes; Frank Ocean’s breakthrough Channel Orange returned again and again to these ideas, among other, just last year. There’s a certain sweetness, too, in the childish poetry of Lorde’s songs (and the song titles like “Ribs” and “Swingin Party”). She seems, for one, to have little idea of how to construct imagery. In “400 Lux,” she sings “you drape your wrists over the steering wheel,” though maybe she simply wasn’t old enough to drive when she wrote the track. In the interest of fairness, “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks” is a great lyric.
Pure Heroine is ultimately a fusion of folky singer-songwriter music – some of these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jenny Lewis or a Feist record if you swapped in a guitar – with pseudo-dub-step instrumentation. I’m not saying that give her a guitar and she’d run off with Sufjan Stevens to write an album about a rural New Zealand province, but she’s not too far from that world either. Most of it works, and what’s more, she’s 17 and has plenty of time to grow. A solid first effort.
Lorde – Pure Heroine
Motown / Universal, 2013
Listen Now: “A World Alone”, “Ribs”, “Swingin Party”, “400 Lux”
Jon Muchin is a Boston-based musician, blogger, music enthusiast, and self-professed sports junky. He intermittently posts random word associations about athletic goings on at thewhole42minutes.blogspot.com and tweets @allormuchin.