She's 16. She hails from Devonport, New Zealand (a suburb of Auckland). Her name is Ella Yelich-O'Connor. And "Royals," the first international hit from this budding singer/songwriter who's claimed the stage name Lorde, is giving the better-known likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Eminem a serious run for their money on the pop chart right now.
So who is this young woman from the land of The Lord of the Rings, and how on Middle-earth did she end up at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a haunting, insightful takedown of celebrity culture's love affair with materialistic excess?
In a recent Billboard cover story, the teen chanteuse said her suddenly exploding career wasn't something carefully engineered by stage parents breathlessly pushing her into the limelight. The daughter of a civil engineer and a stay-at-home mom, Lorde says of them, "The fact that my parents weren't really involved in music was kind of good, because it meant that I had something that was private and personal."
At the tender age of 12, the girl with a penchant for poetry and Kurt Vonnegut was discovered by her now-manager Scott Machlachlan, who saw a video of her singing as half of a boy-girl duo at a local talent show. It wasn't long before he'd signed her to a development deal with Universal. And Machlachlan says of Lorde's tweenage growth as a singer and songwriter, "Right from the off, lyrically, her words were incredible. The arrangements required work, but when you're dealing with a 13- or 14-year-old, you're not really in a massive hurry. … I just let her get on with it, and she just kept on improving."
Since its release earlier this year, "Royals" has been a breakout hit, topping Billboard's alternative chart and making a play for the top of the mainstream pop chart as well. In fact, "Royals" six-week reign at the top of the alternative chart is the longest ever for a female solo artist, having just surpassed Alanis Morissette's former five-week record held by 1995's "You Oughta Know." "Royals" has also sold nearly a million units, a number that's likely to rise as Lorde's pop culture star continues its ascent from the other side of the globe.
Speaking of ascending, Jason Flom, president of Lava Records (where Lorde is signed), thinks she could be a once-in-a-generation star. "I don't use the word lightly," he told Billboard, "but I'd say she's a legitimate genius. We know we've got somebody who's not only achieving extraordinary commercial success, but somebody who, if handled right, can be around a long time, and be the artist of her generation."
Unlike many young singers seeking fame at any cost, Lorde is (so far) happy to let her music—a hypnotic, drum-loop- and synthesizer-propelled alt-pop style—do the talking. "In a perfect world," the young star said, "I would never do any interviews. And probably there would be one photo out there of me, and that would be it."
And unlike contemporaries who bare their souls in songs full of tell-all details (I'm looking at you, Taylor Swift), Lorde harkens back to an earlier era in her approach, one in which mystery was key. "I feel like mystery is more interesting. People respond to something that intrigues them instead of something that gives them all the information—particularly in pop, which is like the genre for knowing way too much about everyone and everything."
Those values are reflected on "Royals," a smoldering, catchy, low-key landscape where Lorde deconstructs the world of riches that's so often proffered as the good life in contemporary pop, especially hip-hop and rap. She wastes no time comparing other stars' bejeweled lifestyles to her bling-free existence: "I've never seen a diamond in the flesh," she begins, "I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/And I'm not proud of my address/In the torn-up town, no post code envy."
From there she moves into the pre-chorus giving a litany of rap-approved brands and bad behaviors that are alien to her life: "But every song's like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin' in the bathroom/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room/We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams." Then, a few more rap delicacies she says she's unlikely to ever savor: "But everybody's like, Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece/Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash/We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair."
Further accentuating that comparison between the haves and the have-nots, the chorus proclaims, "And we'll never be royals (royals)/It don't run in our blood/That kind of luck just ain't for us/We crave a different kind of buzz." Which is … ? "Let me be your Queen Bee/And baby, I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule/Let me live that fantasy."
In other words, Lorde tells fans she's happy to be a symbol of real-world "royalty" for fans who haven't enjoyed a life of privilege or materialistic opulence—a theme she builds upon further in the second verse: "My friends and I, we've cracked the code/We count our dollars on the train to the party/And everyone who knows us knows that we're fine with this/We didn't come from money." A bit later she adds, "Life is a game without a care/We aren't caught up in your love affair."
Instead of evaluating success and worth in life by one's possessions, then, Lorde steps off the materialistic treadmill altogether as she suggests that she and her just-getting-by friends are equally rich in contentment and friendship.
The song's video is a spare affair as it shifts between footage of Lorde singing and images of a guy in his Spartan apartment. We then see him ride a train, cut his hair, box with a sparring partner, sit near a train station and eventually end up with three other friends. One scene pictures him grinning in the mirror at a bloody nose and mouth, perhaps after having a punch landed in his face while boxing (though the video doesn't actually show that). Overall, the video mirrors the song's ethos: These guys (and this girl) may not have much, but they have one another, and that's enough.