Earlier this week, New Zealand singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor – AKA Lorde – won two Grammys, including best song for the sleeper hit Royals and – almost – topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 (her song ‘Royals’ came in at number two, ‘Tennis Court’ at number 12 and ‘Team’ at 15).
Amid the breathless celebration of the 17-year-old’s music lies an implicit positioning of Lorde as a positive alternative to the “raunchy” sexuality of other young female pop stars, such as Miley Cyrus.
The press around Lorde regularly highlights her “self-proclaimed feminist” status, whereas the overwhelming media image of Miley remains the twerking “ratchet” girl who drew the ire of many feminist pundits after the 2013 Video Music Awards. (You can view that video here.)
Why Lorde’s feminism is taken more seriously, I believe, is due mostly to something which no-one wants to talk about: class. Not in terms of the size of one’s bank account, but class as disposition linked more to education than cashflow. We need only think of “cashed-up bogans” to realise wealth does not automatically dovetail with the “good taste” associated with the middle-class.
Emerging from the discussion around Lorde is the assumption that she, via her music, is tasteful, “classy” and worthy. Implicit – if not sometimes explicit – in this discourse is the implication that pop singers such as Miley are less classy, more brash and tasteless.
Lorde, like Miley, is a pop singer. But Lorde sits in the “indie pop” segment of the music industry. She writes her own songs, appears to have an “unfiltered” social media presence and her fashion sense has been repeatedly framed as original and unique. That’s a far cry from the discussion around Miley, whose music is – apart from being formally different to Lorde’s – written by others and whose style and, in fact, entire image is critiqued as derivative at best and racist cultural appropriation of African-American culture at worst.
Key to high standing in indie-pop music is an aura of authenticity. Indie musicians are, of course, just as “produced” as starlets such as Miley. Lorde, for her part, was signed to Universal when she was 12 and no doubt the incredible clout of her association with a “major” led to her significant media presence, particularly in the US.
In Lorde’s press we hear of her love of modern American fiction (on Vonnegut: “he’s way sassy, but I love that”) and collecting first-edition books; her lyrics are described as “acerbic” and “literate”.
We know her mother has an MA (Lorde proofread it!) and that she comes from a middle-class suburb of Auckland. She is acceptably, inoffensively tasteful and middle-class.