Does Lorde want to be our Queen Bee?
Illustration by James Bowman.
It felt like a reach, when we first set it up. It was June; she’d had a number-one single here, but it wasn’t that big a hit. Three weeks at number one, far less than Stan Walker’s “Black Box” or even Atlas’ dire “Crawl”, and certainly not in the same league as Scribe or Smashproof. And it wasn’t as if she was the first New Zealander signed to a splashy overseas deal: Anika Moa, The Datsuns and Ladyhawke all did that, with varying spoils to show for it. But there did seem something different about that Lorde.
So it proved. “Royals” spent nine weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, by far the world’s most important chart. Even now, over six months into its run, it remains in the top 10, nestled alongside “Team”, the song that proved she’s not a one-hit wonder. It’s not as easy as it sounds — just ask Gotye.
The hits kept coming all summer long. The cover of Rolling Stone! A US tour sold out months in advance! Two freaking Grammy Awards! Scoop’s Gordon Campbell was right to point out that the Grammys lack the gravitas of the Oscars or Emmys, but they still represent a vanishingly rare key to the American musical establishment.
She was the only story in New Zealand on January 29, much to David Cunliffe’s chagrin. Auckland Anniversary Day felt like a public holiday in her honour. But despite dominating national news, the wins were felt most keenly around Bayswater, where she grew up. Her school, Takapuna Grammar, celebrated the wins with a vast banner across its main building.
In nearby Devonport, they altered the sign to read “We’re now proud of our address”, a cute rewording of a “Royals” lyric which actually goes “We’re not proud of our address”. (The swooning chorus of “Team” has a similar message: “We live in cities/ You never see on screen”.)
Hang on. What must New Zealand Tourism have thought? The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit branded New Zealand “the home of Middle-earth!” Lorde’s success was great copy, but her lyrics hint at a somewhat diffident attitude towards her home nation.
It was an unfamiliar sensation. We have grown accustomed to these proud, accessible New Zealanders. Who, when they ascend, talk lovingly of our geography, or culture, or attitude. Eleanor Catton in the Guardian: “savage misted beaches… the worn saddle of Arthur’s Pass”. This praising of our land and character unites creatives and sportspeople alike. The latter generally less eloquently, but still.
And don’t we just love it? When our champions talk about New Zealand’s role in their life, it lets us feel like we all, in some tiny but tangible way, had a role in making them. Lorde doesn’t seem to buy into that sincere, but sometimes hokey, patriotism.
The land wasn’t alone in feeling shunned. Not only was she not proud of her address, she also talked about the “negative power” of that sacred arts totem, the New Zealand on Air logo! It spoke to a general cultural shrug. She has never talked up our comfortable, familiar pantheon of icons. No Dave Dobbyn, no Neil Finn. No Janet Frame or Katherine Mansfield. Shockingly, when she had her biggest coming-out party yet at the Grammys, she wore Céline, Prada, Balenciaga. What about Karen?
“Normally when a New Zealander appears at such an international event, the expectation is that they will support the local fashion industry by wearing something local,” wrote blogger Robyn Gallagher. “As if the New Zealand fashion industry is struggling and needs all the help it can get.”
Worse was to come when Lorde flew home to play a make-good show after missing Laneway due to the Grammys. She answered a few questions, granted a few selfies to the waiting fans, then tried to get on her way. Camera crews stampeded around, jostling her family. Not long after, she tweeted angrily and wearily about the experience, before thinking the better of it and deleting them. They created a minor media storm anyway.
Later that day, she played a triumphant set at Silo Park. The Herald review, perhaps sensing blood in the water after the tweet-storm, called her out for “diva” behaviour. In this case, she had arrived 20 minutes late and swore on stage — crimes committed by nearly every band in history most times they play.
She flew out the next morning, with our strange welcome still hanging in the air. Charlotte Dawson leaped into the vacuum. Still seething after all these years, she suggested Lorde stay away, telling Mike Hosking that “unless you’re very mediocre you need to get out of there”. Hosking and the rest of us stayed home, trying our best to ignore Dawson’s insinuation.
Still, anyone — even Charlotte Dawson — might feel mediocre next to Lorde. She’s a self-made teenage millionaire! So if her actions suggest she’s more from here than of here — at least by comparison to our prior successes — maybe we shouldn’t be too mad. Indeed, maybe that’s precisely what makes her a typical modern New Zealander.
Gallagher’s take on what she wore to the Grammys seems apt: “Rather than making a big statement about New Zealand, she just wore what she liked,” she wrote.
“Kind of like what most of us do when we get dressed.”
First published in Metro, March 2014.