There’s no such thing as a year or a decade where the music was worse than in others; it’s simple statistics: Every decade will produce scores of talented and creative music artists making great work. They’re just not getting enough attention. It’s different, however, when we talk about music in the mainstream.
If people consider the ’60s a golden era for music, it’s because the average pop hit of the era could rival the “Best Of” lists of our times. Motown alone was raising the bar through sheer quality … and labor exploitation. Same thing with the ’80s, flooded with hits that were either awesome or awesomely camp. The Pop Average of the ’60s and ’80s could hold its own against its landmark acts. Meanwhile, people are too harsh on the Pop Average of the 70s, being a decade whose biggest acts included the imperial runs of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder.
But if we were to compare decades in mainstream music, I think we can all agree that the worst ones have to be the 2000s and early 2010s—a loooong decade where the music in the mainstream ranged from utter shite to insulting mediocrity. There were excellent acts and mainstream music that came out of that decade. But even its highest highs (Audioslave, 2000s Beyoncé, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, The Killers, imperial run Eminem, Missy Elliot) weren’t enough to compensate for the avalanche of shit that was 2000-2012.
And then came 2013. And/or the end of 2012. First, Kendrick saved the Culture, as in U.S. Culture at large, with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, while earlier that year, Frank Ocean also changed the R&B game with Channel Orange. Then, 2013 saw a flood of unparalleled greatness, just in the mainstream, that could only be compared to the Grunge/Alternative Revolution of the 90s. But in the mainstream. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, Artic Monkey’s AM if that’s your vibe, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, David Bowie’s return with The Next Day, among countless others, culminating with Beyoncé properly becoming Mythical Beyoncé with her self-titled album.
It was a great year, and not just because that’s the year I finished college and in which I’m mentally stuck. But if the Pop class of 2013 elevated the game across the board, Lorde’s Pure Heroine was such an anomaly that it opened a whole new field of musical creativity in mainstream music. Think of the most popular female-led music acts that dominated the 2010s: Taylor Swift would’ve become huge in any decade. Ditto for Florence and the Machine. Same thing with Adele. But someone like Lorde could have never gained the degree of popularity and appreciation she enjoys in an era like the 2000s. Only the specific confluence of 2013 could allow someone like her and Pure Heroine to become something more than a fluke Alternative hit. At most, she could’ve achieved this level of success during the mid-90s.
Can you imagine what someone like Lorde would’ve had to endure during the 2000s? On the off chance a significant label were to take a chance on her, she would’ve become a favorite target for the tabloid press of that decade, founded on being as cruel and vicious as possible against women and girls. Consider, for example, her style and looks. Lorde’s distinctive, alienish, unforgettable beauty and out-there fashion sense would be deemed unacceptable, an insult for the likes of the Giuliana Rancics, Perez Hiltons, and bro-culture. She wouldn’t have had it any easier during the 90s, enduring constant references to being “Daria’s go-to soundtrack.” Becoming the designated music for goth girls and weirdos, pitted against the new crop of teenage pop stars.
But in 2013, something happened. It wasn’t a sudden sea change, but feminism and LGTBI+ rights had made enough gains to permeate the culture into opening up. In that scenario, Lorde arrived as a fully formed individual and artist, one that refused to be apologetic about her stage persona and individuality, one that was openly feminist, back when many of her counterparts were tiptoeing around calling themselves as such, one that didn’t have any problems dipping her toes back and forth between popular and challenging sounds, and one that could write lyrics that none of her age peers could match. She was at the same time ineffably cool and the weird kid at school, roles that she explicitly tackled in her songs while poking fun at them.
And she was only 17 at the time.
Many people had a hard time believing it. Correction: many people in the U.S. had a hard time believing that because they looked down on teenage girls in general and because, well, very little was asked of teenage girls back then. For those of us who had spent 2011-2013 walking side by side with secondary students at various marches and protests, you knew what they were capable of.
With all her weirdness, with every way in which Lorde could be considered a P.R. nightmare for music industry suits, Pure Heroine became enough of a huge hit to gain her a large enough, devoted fanbase. She was never someone who could achieve the same popularity as Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, or even Halsey. At most, Lorde got a couple of her songs in the casual listener’s playlist. However, she laid claim to a permanent niche in music culture while going against the prevalent trends of the 2000s and 90s. What she did change was the perception of the “alternative” (lower and upper-case) in music, in being so unapologetic about her idiosyncrasy, forcing the culture of the times to accept her as she was without having to play to the assigned narratives of industry and tabloid press the perpetual “good girl” assigned to Taylor, the “classy one” assigned to Adele, the “sultry one” assigned to Ariana, the “messy one” assigned to Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez or the “rebel one” assigned to Rihanna. Lorde’s impact was in how she forced pop culture to start acknowledging that girls and young women could be multi-dimensional: At one time she could be criticizing the problematic lyrics of the garbage songs Selena Gomez was putting out, and later she could bury the hatchet and hang out with her and Taylor Swift.
The press and the culture at the time had a hard time processing that, but ultimately, it mostly realized that Lorde gave too few fucks about what they had to say, so the overall reception towards her was much kinder, even when South Park parodied her. There was, of course, that idiotic article claiming “Royals” was racist because of her gentle ribbing on the consumerist aesthetic that appropriates Hip-Hop Culture. But even in that, Lorde’s influence was groundbreaking: That article opened a whole new era of clickbait, stupid-ass takes on the Internet.
None of this would’ve been possible if Pure Heroine wasn’t as good an album as it was, one in which “Royals,” to this day her most popular track, wasn’t even the fifth best song. Even in hindsight, the production is perfect, and the lyrics are still as witty and touching. It doesn’t waste a single minute of its short running length. The sound is cohesive, seamlessly switching between challenging and pleasing melodies. And then she would follow it up with another of the greatest albums of the decade with Melodrama, followed by another album that is just as good but people haven’t realized yet.
The influence Lorde has had since 2013 has been two-fold: With her persona and with the way she approaches her music. For the longest time, up to and including the 90s, it has always been thought that Pop and authenticity are not compatible. And the Music Industry fueled the confirmation bias, giving us phony “real” artists (coughAvrilLAvignecough). Lorde innovated by tearing down that separation, a wall that constrained the range of sounds that “respectable-authentic” artists could play with while it limited the lyrical potential of Pop artists. Ever since a whole generation of artists was born, incorporating the addictive sounds of pop while infusing them with their idiosyncrasies, the lyrics have kept improving. This is how we’ve been blessed with Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, most prominently. Lorde’s impact has also been retroactive, opening the way (and increasing the audience) for Millennial artists like Rina Sawayama, post-“Call Me Maybe” Carly Rae Jepsen, F.K.A. Twigs, S.Z.A., and so on, while subtly influencing Taylor Swift’s Pop pivot, which has only made her a more well-rounded artist and a better writer.
Just like Kate Bush before her, Lorde wasn’t the sole force driving this change in mainstream music. The creativity of these artists is solely their own. She didn’t make the flood, but she did blow the dam down, a dam that had been limiting women in music from doing their own thing since at least the late 90s.
For fans of Lorde, “Royals” is very much what “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” is for teenage Pink Floyd fans. Alberto Cox can attest to that, being the former and having been the latter.