If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels.
The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.
Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.
And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.
But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.
This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s “Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.
In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.
It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.
When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.
I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.