Lorde: Shying From Fame’s Spotlight

ALEX HAWGOOD NY Times 12/01/13

Lorde, the 17-year-old pop prodigy from New Zealand whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, is suddenly quite famous. Her first full-length album, “Pure Heroine,” entered the Billboard charts in October at No. 3. Its breakout single, “Royals,” (a.k.a. Bill de Blasio’s victory anthem) has sold over 3.7 million copies in the United States alone during nine weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100; she is the youngest solo artist to hit No. 1 since Tiffany in 1988. And just recently, Songs Music Publishing secured the publishing rights to her songs in a reported multimillion-dollar deal.

But Lorde is also quite self-conscious about her rising stardom. “It’s still pretty weird,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m definitely on the outskirts of fame. Like, if fame was a gated community, my house would be the one you could see from the street.”

Yet Lorde’s behavior suggests that the perimeter of fame’s real estate is exactly where she wants to remain. For “Royals,” she inverts the good-life bragging of archetypal Top-40 radio songs into a cry of consumer alienation.

In several other interviews, she has spoken frankly about the smoke and mirrors behind generational peers such as Selena Gomez and “Justin Bieber or whatever” as being “not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.” Her personal uniform, whether on tour or making an appearance at the occasional highbrow event like the actress Tilda Swinton’s 53rd birthday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, tends toward a gothic, monastic all-black spareness. (No meat dresses here.) And when her EP “The Love Club” was released last year at no charge on the music-sharing site Soundcloud, she shrouded herself in mystery by not posting any pictures of herself on the Internet.

Lorde is not alone in her selfie-lessness. Several recent big-name acts, including Daft Punk, a pair of Frenchmen whose faces remain obscure despite being the biggest electronic act of the past 15 years, and the Weeknd, a publicity-shy R&B singer from Toronto who initially wouldn’t reveal his identity after his music caught on fire on YouTube, have chosen to take an arm’s-length approach to being famous.

The current incarnation of Fame with a capital F — the white noise of TMZ, endorsement deals for social-media sensations still in high school, and, perhaps, a weariness with celebrity cross-pollinations (who hasn’t Marina Abramovic worked with at this point?) — has arguably become a credibility problem for performers hoping to convey a sense of authenticity and, perhaps more important, sustain some creative longevity. (Even Kanye West hides behind a series of custom Martin Margiela masks throughout the near entirety of his stage time on his current “Yeezus” tour — in an effort, one could surmise, to direct commentary back to his role as an impassioned artiste and away from being better known as Mr. Kardashian.)

“I think if your ambition in making music was to be famous, you’d have something wrong in your head. I’d call it a side effect of making music,” Lorde said. “And I don’t wish I wasn’t well known, but I don’t think it’s something to crave at all. There’s a weird culture now of putting talented people on crazy pedestals, making them these sort of deities, so my relationship with fame is to try and bridge that gap a little.”

Some see a disinclination toward the white-hot spotlight as an intelligent marketing strategy that discreetly helps perpetuate star power nonetheless. “What’s different with Lorde is that her publicity is marketed as anti-publicity,” said Anne Helen Petersen, a professor of film and media studies at Whitman College who recently blogged about the formation of Lorde’s celebrity-noncompliant person. “Here’s a girl who hates manipulation, who exercises meticulous control over her image, and has no qualms about speaking her mind.”

Taking the anti-publicity tour even further is Sia Furler, the Australian singer and songwriter better known simply by her first name. Billboard’s request that she appear on the cover of its Nov. 2 issue was intended to anoint her as an industry titan of Dr. Luke and will.i.am proportions. But Sia had other ideas. In lieu of a traditional portrait, she requested the magazine publish a Banksyish image of her naked from the bust up with a brown paper grocery bag over her head, as well as a 350-word “Anti-Fame Manifesto” that invites the reader to, when thinking of the famous, “imagine the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world.”

Despite co-writing songs for Rihanna and Britney Spears, providing guest vocals for Eminem and David Guetta and appearing on the soundtracks to “The Great Gatsby” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Sia wrote in an email: “I don’t want to be famous,” She added, of the Billboard stunt: “ I thought it would be funny, on top of achieving two great things: 1) I would be ‘getting away with something’ 2) I would be essentially doing the promotion I needed to do to shift units, without subscribing to any facial recognition. My life is simple and I want to maintain that simplicity.”

In some ways, this less-is-more approach recalls the mystery and glamour of the golden age of the Hollywood star system, except now with a feeling of transparency and a self-aware eye roll. “Sia has an unusually sharp sense of humor, and I’m sure she appreciates the irony of claiming to not be famous while both appearing on the cover of the U.S. music industry bible and, as everyone in the U.S. music industry knows, being the most talked-about songwriter and artist of the moment,” said Peter Robinson, the founder of the music blog Popjustice. “I think it’s a smart pre-emptive move: she’s got her own album coming out next year and every A-lister is queuing up to release one of her songs. She knows she could become overexposed, and she’s trying to set the agenda.”

Mr. Robinson went on: “Public life is about caricatures, and if you’re able to manage those caricatures or even define them yourself, then that puts you in control. Sia wants to be known as the A-list artist who doesn’t want to be a celebrity.”

Bill Werde, the editorial director for Billboard, was understanding of Sia’s requests. “Fame is the status quo — I mean, everyone is famous now,” he said. “I have to wonder if you’re a 17-year-old, like Lorde, the way you rebel these days is by taking the anti-fame stance. Frankly, I hope the generation coming up would see celebrity for it is. Or even if they don’t, they have an urge to rebel against it and see the fame machine as something ridiculous that almost feels from another time.”

Lorde professed somewhat more modest ambitions. “It’s just about trying to keep what you do pure, which is hard these days,” she said. “And obviously there’s some give, but my five-year plan definitely does not involve soundtracking a sandwich ad.”

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