That's the core oxymoron at the heart of the second single from Australian teen Lorde. And in the wake of two newly minted Grammy awards, it's a single you're liable to be hearing (or seeing, if you're on YouTube) much more of.
Lorde has a knack for channeling disparate musical streams—pop, rock, EDM, even some hip-hoppy grooves—into monstrously infectious earworms. She pairs that knack with a poetic penchant for spare word pictures that evoke certain feelings, situations and emotions without ever spelling out exactly what she's really talking about. In a world of over-the-top, too-much-information excess, then, her approach to pop music exemplifies a less-is-more kind of restraint. Result: lyrics with a mysterious, ephemeral feel to them, hypnotically dreamy but realistically gritty all at the same time.
Which brings me back to that anonymous solidarity thing.
The chorus on "Team" captures that sentiment about as concretely as any part of this song. "We live in cities you'll never see onscreen," Lorde confesses. "Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things/Livin' in the ruins of a palace within my dreams/And you know we're on each other's team."
Just as she did with her smash No. 1 hit "Royals," Lorde again revisits contrasting themes of longing and contentment: Longing for something royal, but simultaneously being content with her residence in obscurity because she's surrounded (it would seem) by friends who share her perspective and outlook. In other words, her team. She may be isolated and alone; but at least she's isolated and alone with other members of her tribe, the people she opaquely claims "sure know how to run things" without telling us exactly what those things might be.
Here, Lorde plays up insinuated condemnations of privileged aristocracy even more than "Royals" itself does. "Wait till you're announced," she begins. "Look upon Your Greatness and she'll send the call out/Send the call out/Call all the ladies out, they're in their finery/A hundred jewels on throats/A hundred jewels between teeth/Now bring the boys in, their skin in craters like the moon."
As Lorde continues to flesh out her vision of teens longing for royal belonging, we also get hints of deception ("Dancin' around the lies we tell/Dancin' around big eyes as well"), exhalations of world-weary disdain ("I'm kind of over getting to throw my hands up in the air/So there") and prognostications about the inevitability of romantic disappointment ("Everyone's competing for a love they won't receive").
The video adds in visual doses of Lorde's weary, wary melancholy. Teens (no children, no adults) run free through a decaying and decrepit city—more than a little reminiscent conceptually of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Not surprisingly, given the song's lyrics, Lorde portrays the adolescents' queen, while two teens compete in a jousting competition of sorts on motorcycles for the right to be brought into her presence.
But it's the un-biked—the loser—who gets carried, wounded and smiling, into Lorde's royal presence as the video concludes.
Explaining the story on her Facebook page, Lorde writes, "This video was born from a dream I had a few months ago about teenagers in their own world, a world with hierarchies and initiations, where the boy who was second in command had acne on his face, and so did the girl who was queen. I dreamt about this world being so different to anything anyone had ever seen, a dark world full of tropical plants and ruins and sweat. And of this world, I dreamt about tests that didn't need to be passed in order to be allowed in: sometimes the person who loses is stronger."
There's positive takeaway nestled here, in the song, in the video, in Lorde's quote. But with all three, you've got to work at sussing them out—work that must be done in the context of a song and a video that meander dreamily through melancholy.