It’s one thing finding fame with a hit single and successful first album and quite another backing that up and learning to live with stardom.
Although two 2014 Grammy awards sparked a run of celebrity and the sort of adulation that makes it plain Ella Yelich-O’Connor is the real deal, there’s still an element of precariousness about any second album. And the expectation surrounding Melodrama, combined with the fickleness of the music industry, makes that unpredictability all the more enticing.
In 1988, Crowded House released their second album, Temple of Low Men. They’d given it the working title of “Mediocre Follow-up” to dispel some of the pressure of following their debut from two years earlier that had spawned the US-conquering singles Don’t Dream It’s Over and Something So Strong. The band’s frontman, Neil Finn, told Rolling Stone he understood the pressures that caused musicians to crumble when faced with that tricky second album.
“I just feel that now I’ve seen some of the conditions that put people in that position,” he told the magazine during an interview at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Factory studios. “Pressures on your time created by having a successful first record and having less attention paid to the real guts of what you do. Inevitably, a lot of different outside things keep me away from what I love to do.”
For that other international Kiwi success story, OMC’s How Bizarre, the pressure of a single and album that sold more than four million copies and netted $11 million in royalties, combined with the demands on their frontman Pauly Fuemana to spruik what the rest of the world saw largely as a novelty single, meant that, globally, they never progressed further than a pretty bright flash in the pan.
As Simon Grigg, whose label Huh! released How Bizarre, put it, “We should have retained control far more, but we were kids. We were novices.”
Lorde, though, has never appeared as a novice. Despite – or maybe because of – the fact that she was signed as a 12-year-old, she’s maintained a real poise in the limelight. As the plaudits pour in for Melodrama, and Billboard predicts she will debut at No 1 in the US any day now, it’s sometimes easy to forget she’s not even 21 until November.
As a 16-year-old in 2013, talking to the Guardian, she was instantly able to draw a distinction between her view of fame as told through Royals and the rest of the world’s preoccupation with glitz and glamour.
“Writing Royals was sort of like: ‘Why the f--- isn’t anyone talking about this?’ I feel like I’m late to the party saying it, but actually I’m not. There’s nothing here, how is there nothing here? And so all these people started telling me that what I’m saying is, like, profound. Are you serious? No, it’s not. It’s hugely concerning for me.”
The mix of her lyricism and that honesty – the ability to distinguish between something that’s profound and something that’s just hugely concerning – thrust her quickly into the type of A-list relationships on which tabloids feed. But even then, her role among the glitterati has been a strange mix of the stellar and the mundane.
Yes, you could imagine chart contemporaries such as Rihanna, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez in photos with Kanye West and Katy Perry, but fronting Nirvana in place of Kurt Cobain for the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction? Being branded by Bowie as “the future of music”?
When Taylor Swift organised Lorde’s 20th birthday party, even her Instagram post added a degree of intimacy that seemed thoroughly un-Hollywood: “Thank you for the music you make, the advice you give, the thoughts you provoke, and the way you’ve made my life more beautiful since the first day we met up in New York and ate burgers on a park bench and got attacked by squirrels. I. Love. You. So. Much. Ella.”
In New Zealand, all these headlines get lumped under the single topic of “what Lorde did next”, and certainly, for the past four years there’s been a tendency to turn every tweet and pap-shot into click-bait or a page lead. In a realm usually reserved for sports stars and at a time when the likes of Steven Adams, Lydia Ko, Scott Dixon and the usual host of cricket and rugby names are making real waves overseas, Lorde is dominating the Kiwi-makes-a-splash stories.
But internationally, where Lorde’s Kiwi-ness is of less interest than her singular talent and quirk appeal, all this attention is adding up to an artist who’s thoroughly in control of her image and her trajectory. There are always going to be slips – just last week, her comparing her relationship with Taylor Swift to having a friend with “an autoimmune disease” got her into hot water and led to an apology for being “insensitive” – but on the whole, Lorde has entered the music industry at a similar level to notoriously image-aware stars such as Adele and Beyoncé.
It’s no coincidence that the four years between Pure Heroine and Melodrama match the four years between Adele’s 21 and 25 – keeping your fans waiting is a mark of confidence in what you know you can achieve.
And besides, it would have taken time to come to terms with the rush of Pure Heroine’s success. She admitted to NME last week that she was “quite overwhelmed” by the instant success before, in a typically deadpan way, undercutting her skill at remaining in control.
“But that was a long time ago. If anything, I’ve slowly been getting less famous since Royals was really big. Which is totally cool for me … I suck at being famous. And that’s fine.”
Fine? It’s not fine, it’s a beautifully constructed personality. And no mean marketing tool.
The term for a follow-up album most loved by the US media press is “sophomore” – it’s a term that usually refers to a second-year college student and, as Neil Finn learnt in that 1988 Rolling Stone interview, is often combined in the phrase “sophomore jinx”.
Melodrama is a true sophomore album in that it marks Lorde’s progression from Auckland North Shore teenager with a hit album to an artist who has truly come to terms with her life in the limelight.
She may have missed out on her university days, but she’s used celebrity as a learning experience, weighing the wise and the foolish side to stardom and creating art out of what she’s discovered.
In 1988, in the same Rolling Stone feature and with Woodface still three years away, Crowded House’s Paul Hester was more graphic than Finn about the desperation of clinging on to the hit machine.
“We just want to connect with the soft white underbelly of the American public and lock on like a dog f---ing another dog. The idea is, you don’t fall off. You just hang on.”
Lorde certainly hasn’t fallen off and isn’t just hanging on. Aged 20, she’s confirmed her musical mastery and maturity with that most difficult of achievements: the successful follow-up album.
This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.