Being perhaps less than maximally hip to what those crazy kids are listening to these days, I didn’t catch this one when it was top of the pops a few years back, and encountered it only recently in the wonderful J.Lo vehicle Hustlers, playing behind the climactic sequence when everything unravels and the cops roll up to toss everybody into the paddy wagons. I don’t know what I expected to discover about the artist, but I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect, upon launching Shazam on the iPad, which was to find it performed by a sixteen year old waif of a girl from New Zealand. That’s not a typo: the girl was only sixteen when she made this, and I don’t know what you were doing when you were in grade 10, but I sure as hell wasn’t penning massive hit songs and staring frankly into the camera for a video that became popular to the tune of well over 800 million views, last time I checked on YouTube. Some people are just more inspired than others, I guess. The story goes that the lyrics poured out of her in under thirty minutes, while thinking about the conspicuously consumptive lifestyle of contemporary pop stars, as exemplified in particular by the crass luxury bling items so many of them tend to flaunt. She found her title when she happened upon, of all things, a 1976 photo of Kansas City superstar George Brett signing baseballs. Figuring kids her age didn’t have credit cards, she made the tune downloadable for free, initially, and before long it busted out of New Zealand and Australia to become a global sensation, after which I hope it ended up making her a fortune.
Like so many performers, Lorde came to dislike her crowd-pleasing “signature” hit, which she once referred to derisively as sounding like an advertising jingle (maybe owing to what might be misinterpreted to be mere product placements). Generally unimpressed with herself, she also didn’t see why she even needed to be in the video, which was meant to portray how boring and empty teenaged existence can be, a sort of limbo within which disaffected kids mark time waiting to be old enough for life to start happening: “I’m not all ‘OOOH, look at me’ “, she said.
When the song started topping charts all over the place, there followed a spate of wholly unwarranted controversy around the idea that she meant the song to be racist, as it was perceived to be making fun of some of the more ludicrous excesses of Rap culture – which maybe it is, in part, but so what? It’s also clearly about the antics of Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. It’s about pop idols carrying on like they have street cred, during those moments when they aren’t too busy talking investment strategy with their wealth managers at Goldman Sachs. More generally, it’s about the yawning chasm between the rich and the poor, the ones with the diamond-studded Rolexes and the ones who only drive Cadillacs in their dreams. It seems a strange thing for liberals to get all upset about, but then, everything these days gets somebody all worked up into a righteous lather.
All I hear, seven years on, is a strangely haunting, curiously compelling little minimalist pop gem that emerged, somehow, from a kid who cooked it up in something like half an hour, and was never that thrilled with it herself. In my book, that makes it a minor miracle.