MM – Lorde & the rise of minimalist pop

When “Royals” hit the airwaves in 2013 and took the world by storm, I think everyone was a bit surprised. The song was everywhere, from standard pop to hip-hop radio, to even some alternative and rock stations. The song is decidedly electropop, and yet for some reason, it had this incredible crossover impact.

On this second installment of Miscellaneous Monday here on Sonic, I’m going to be asking myself why Lorde and more specifically her song “Royals” blew up the way they did and discussing how they changed the music industry forever.

If your mind’s a little foggy, or you were somehow living under a rock in 2013, or perhaps you aren’t old enough to remember, here’s the song I’m talking about:

Those of you who maybe weren’t sure if you recalled it, then clicked on the video probably went “oh yeah, that song” a few moments in. It’s super recognizable.

The number of views on that video well exceeds 800 million, which is huge, but doesn’t seem to compare when I think about how often I used to hear “Royals” on the radio. Lots of people got sick of it, understandably, because as I cannot stress enough, this song was literally everywhere. I personally definitely didn’t, though.

I first heard “Royals” on the radio, like many people, and what caught my ear right away was the vocals. Lorde’s sultry contralto voice (lowest type of female singing voice) had a haunting quality to it, and combined with electropop production like I’d never heard before, it created a sound that I fell for instantly and hard. She managed to sound so incredibly feminine, while still hitting these crazy low notes for a woman.

As a wanna-be-edgy kid, hearing that sound mixed with honest, mature lyrics criticizing materialism and ridiculing fame and wealth had me practically foaming at the mouth, and sent me running to find the rest of Lorde’s material right away. I’ve been a huge fan ever since; she’s probably my favourite pop musician.

Now for the first portion of our post: why did this song blow up?

I think it’s extremely important to pay attention not only to the track itself, but to the cultural context of the time. For one thing, which I can definitely speak to personally because I was on it, the social media platform tumblr. was hugely popular at the time. If you’re not super familiar with it, around 2013, it was essentially the Instagram for emo and artsy kids. I can’t take credit for this observation though – this is actually a remark made by YouTuber Finn McKenty on this video.

Often those people listened to alternative, indie, and more rock-ish music, and had a bit of resentment for mainstream music and culture, especially pop and other overly commercial stuff. I can definitely say that I was one of those people. For many (and for me), it was more of an issue with the image of pop rather than its actual sound, because lots of the alternative and indie stuff I often listened to had a lot of sonic similarities to mainstream pop. However, I found that the music I listened to had stronger lyrics and less of that happy-go-lucky vibe pop tended to shove in my face. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with that, but at the time, it wasn’t what I wanted to listen to.

People called mainstream pop sex-obsessed and shallow, and to an extent I have to agree. There was lots of good music out there at the time, but there was also lots of shit, and unfortunately, I think a lot of good pop was (and is) overlooked because of it.

When “Pure Heroine” showed up with a definite pop sensibility, yet without pop’s typical sex-focused image of the time, it wowed many of the alternative and indie kids who had been craving a pop sound but without the elements of the mainstream pop industry that they didn’t like. It gave those people critical of mainstream pop hope that it hadn’t totally gone to shit (I was definitely one of those people).

This might be why some were quick to label it “alternative” instead, because it was almost too good to be true that something so deep, introspective, and anti-fame had in fact, gone mainstream. Ultimately though, I do see Lorde as a pop artist (electropop if you want to be precise), and I think it’s great that her stuff went mainstream, because that way more people were exposed to her refined version of the genre.

From a sonic point of view, everyone else in the mainstream was doing huge, radio-ready choruses meant to hopefully take their song to that coveted #1 spot on the charts (think “Roar” by Katy Perry and “Heart Attack” by Demi Lovato). Those are huge songs with great production and many strong musical aspects to them, and they were successful, but it seemed like everyone was falling into this repetitive mold.

To be clear, this isn’t to criticize Demi Lovato or Katy Perry specifically; they’re successful and I like lots of music from both of them, including this track above. However, I think it’s fair to say that they definitely fell into that formulaic idea of big choruses and radio-ready songs, with little regard for the more artistic side of music compared to its commercial side. Just like basically every other big pop star out there.

Then, all of a sudden this teen from New Zealand showed up with a minimalist electropop song that literally took over the world.

The belief in music is sometimes that more sonic elements equal a better song. Lots of people think this way in many genres (for instance, lots of lesser-known pop punk bands work hard on complex riffs and deep lyrics, and then get beat out by a band with average riffs and lyrics, but catchy, singable choruses).

No one was really thinking that maybe less was actually more, at least not in 2013 big budget pop, which is why “Royals” made such an impact. It was stripped of any elements it didn’t really need, and was the first to offer up this fresh idea on such a global scale.

I won’t go too deeply into Lorde’s entire discography because this isn’t what this post is about. I do, however, want to mention that the rest of her debut album “Pure Heroine” was of the same extremely high quality, hip-hop-influenced minimalist electropop as “Royals” and did really well in the eyes of fans and critics. “Team” and “Tennis Court” became minor hits, and “Ribs” is now one of Lorde’s most well-loved songs.

To show you exactly what I mean when I talk about “minimalist pop” I want to break down one of the songs from the album. “Glory And Gore” takes simple musical elements and blows them up to create simultaneous feelings of fullness and bareness. You don’t feel like anything is missing from the song, even though when you really look it, it has very few elements. The verse has basic percussion, vocals, and one synth line. That’s it. In the chorus, the vocals are layered and the synth has some added effects to make it louder, but it’s not like she added many more elements.

This is Lorde’s strength on “Pure Heroine”: maximizing the impact that each musical element can do so that she doesn’t have to use many different ones. She only needs to use few of them, well. In the bridge, we get an even more stripped back version of this; voice, a kickdrum, a snare, a hi-hat, and occasional additional vocals – that’s it. And yet in my opinion, that’s the best part of the song.

I want to stress the fact that this was a pretty novel idea at the time. It was a sound that people weren’t used to; because there were fewer different elements coming in, it forced listeners to really appreciate every single element that was there. Drawing from “Glory And Gore” again, the particular timbre of that snare in the bridge stands out so much, and I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t as much if the song had been filled with more layers of percussion and synths and vocals over it.

Some credit has to go to Joel Little as well for that, who’s a great producer.

On a brief sidenote, I’m not an expert, and I don’t know the entire history of minimalist electropop. Frankly, I don’t really care if someone tells me “well, actually, this artist was doing this sort of thing long before Lorde” because while that might technically-speaking be true, the reality is that no one got to the level of fame she did doing this stuff. That means that she got something right that others who maybe already used this style definitely hadn’t, thus effectively making her the sound’s true master in my eyes. It was partially some good timing with the tumblr. crowd sort of waiting for something like this to happen and gobbling it up instantly when it did, as I talked about earlier, but it takes much more than something like that for a sound like Lorde’s to blow up.

It takes high-quality, fresh material, which she had a debut album full of, and hard work, which she exemplified when releasing “Pure Heroine” at only sixteen years old.

And to this day, I still think she’s unmatched in this genre.

While her (incredible) follow-up “Melodrama” incorporated additional elements like big piano and bass moments, as well as more maximalist production elements, she didn’t leave the minimalist pop sound behind altogether.

However, as we move into the second part of this post, I want to focus a bit more on Lorde’s early work, because I think it had more of an impact on the pop landscape.

I’m definitely not the first person to talk about how Lorde changed pop. Many people have called her the voice of a generation, the leader of the new wave of electropop, and a figurehead for mainstream female listeners to look up to. I’ll try to summarize those perspectives while adding my own insight.

From a purely sonic perspective, I think her sound opened doors for more unique stuff to leak into the mainstream, until of course several Lorde clones started popping up here and there, copying the production that had gotten “Royals” to be so successful but failing to nail her clever lyricism or vocal calibre. Others tried to imitate her singing style, which has now led to some minimalist electropop material getting the label of “whisper-pop” due to the more subdued quality of the vocals. Personally I find that label a bit misleading, since it has come to imply that the artists in this genre can’t sing all that well so they whisper instead, which I mostly disagree with.

Either way, I don’t think anyone has managed to replicate her sound as well, although that doesn’t mean no great new artists have emerged since.

Examples of artists who I think have followed heavily in Lorde’s footsteps are Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish, Marina and The Diamonds, Marian Hill, Kiiara, and Tove Lo. I want to be clear that I don’t think that these artists aren’t talented or unique, because most of them are. I do think, however, that they owe part of their success to Lorde for opening that door and being gutsy enough to advance a polarizing new sound into the mainstream. The typical saying “she walked so they could run” applies here, though really Lorde came out of the gate running just as fast as anybody. The exception in the list I gave is probably Lana Del Rey, who was doing some minimalist stuff before Lorde, but I do think she leans definitively more in the indie and alternative direction, and less so towards electropop (ex.: “Summertime Sadness”).

Regardless, Lorde showed the world minimalist electropop and we accepted it because “Royals” was fucking awesome, and now when we hear something like Billie Eilish’s “dont smile at me” EP, I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that that probably wouldn’t have gotten as big as it did if “Royals” hadn’t come four years prior.

From a general cultural and lyrical perspective, Lorde’s lack of focus on sexual appeal in her songs and performances has also allowed for female pop singers to express themselves more freely. Others have explained this better than me, but I personally believe that the quality and topic diversity of lyrics in pop has been allowed to expand past heartbreak and sex, particularly for female lyricists, thanks in part to Lorde.

Her non-choreographed dancing on stage (which polarized people at first) is another example of her being a role model to other female stars, saying “you don’t have to be perfect on stage all the time down to every single movement you make”; that wasn’t really a thing before. She normalized that, at least in mainstream pop music.

I’m painting with broad strokes here, because of course not every single pop song before Lorde was about heartbreak or sex, and not every single female pop star didn’t express themselves outside of a choreographed dance on stage before Lorde came around with her dancing style. However, I think it’s clear that because she came around and did these things so openly and freely with so many eyes on her thanks to “Royals” blowing up, she significantly broadened the opportunities for others to do the same.

And I think she deserves a mountain of credit for that.

Thanks to her, I believe that pop in general but especially electropop and minimalist stuff has improved. As such an influential artist, she has helped spawn some of the greatest pop stars we’ve seen in a while. The primary example, I think, is Billie Eilish, whose music is arguably more alternative and experimental than “Pure Heroine” (especially the stuff on “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”), but who could never have seen huge fame, in my opinion, without Lorde as her predecessor.

In conclusion, as we fans like to say: all hail the Lorde.

— H

What do you think of Lorde? Feel free to leave a comment to share your thoughts!

Published by mcharlow

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