In Lorde’s Wake, a Groundswell of Female Rebels in Pop

JON CARAMANICA NYTimes.com 08/30/15

From a distance, this seems like a great moment for female friendship in pop. Look at Taylor Swift’s current tour, which includes appearances from people she admires, often women: Serena Williams, Selena Gomez, Mary J. Blige, Ellen DeGeneres, Lisa Kudrow (hmmm), Joan Baez (what?).

Ms. Swift’s alliances are numerous, and strategic, but complicated, too. Take the video for “Bad Blood,” which includes a who’s who of female guests, yet is about a squabble with Katy Perry.

And, after all, open-armed embrace isn’t for everybody. Ms. Swift’s phalanx of good cheer is one way to do pop, sure, but one of the most significant pop arrivals of the 2010s was someone who embodied the opposite approach. In 2013, Lorde’s nu-trip-hop anthem “Royals” became a slow-burn smash, locating the outsider squarely at pop’s center, making her the latest in a line of anti-pop rebels who find their message more widely welcome than they might have anticipated.

Industry attempts to construct another Taylor Swift generally fizzled, but that’s no obstacle to attempts to build another Lorde. And so unsurprisingly, a wave of female rebellion is swelling anew, most notably in the pseudo-goth pop of Halsey and the shy soul of Alessia Cara, but also among teen and just-post-teen singers finding glossy ways to express unglossy feelings. It’s even there in the noble anti-bro resistance of Maddie & Tae, a country duo.

Of these, Halsey feels the most mindful of the legacy she’s inheriting, and hoping to insert herself into. “New Americana,” her recent single, is a careful study of the “Royals” mentality: underscoring the falseness of celebrity culture, advocating self-reliance through youth and good taste (and, in this case, drugs). “We are the new Americana,” she sings, “High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana.”

It’s an anthem for the opposition, but in actuality it feels reflective of a nonconfrontational new normal. Halsey’s singing is cool and sultry, without edge, and at the chorus her voice goes up in pitch, as if children were asserting their rights to hip-hop, grunge and weed.

“New Americana” comes from her major-label debut, “Badlands” (Astralwerks), both alluringly naïve and deeply cynical. Halsey, who is 20, was a Myspace and YouTube semistar before she was a pop arriviste, but what that means is that she’s been balancing mainstream and subculture for years, and is deft at it.

Pop ambition is built into the structure of “Badlands,” even if its reference points and exterior decoration are more reluctant: “Colors” recalls Fiona Apple; “Drive” suggests Lana Del Rey with a new drum machine.

At her best, Halsey finds ways to explore dark material with lyrical finesse and blunt but crisp production. “Ghost” is a savagely sassy kiss-off, and on “Control,” she sings about mental illness while keyboards creep and tiptoe behind her, like a Disney mystery:

I paced around for hours on empty

I jumped at the slightest of sounds

And I couldn’t stand the person inside me

I turned all the mirrors around.

Sometimes her songwriting veers toward the comically literal, like on “New Americana” or on “Haunting,” where she taunts an ex, “I’ve got a boyfriend now and he’s made of gold.” Like Lorde, she is attuned to the sadness of fame. “I sold my soul to a three-piece,” she sings on “Hold Me Down,” though she doesn’t sound that sad about it.

Whatever the party is, Halsey has been to it, and has written herself as a character that’s seen it all, and rejects it. By contrast, Ms. Cara is almost too shy to participate. Her debut single, “Here,” is one of this year’s most vivid songs; it’s about a party so full of drunk and gossipy teenagers that she can’t bear to be at it. “Oh, God, why am I here?” she laments, before making for the door.

That narrative continues on parts of Ms. Cara’s debut EP, “Four Pink Walls” (Def Jam). Ms. Cara is a little too cherubic to be a true rebel. Her version of outsiderness is that of a naïf, new to the world and still capable of being shocked by it. On “Seventeen,” she sings about, of all things, how she should have listened to her parents when they told her to cherish her younger years. (She’s 19 now.) And “Outlaws,” which pulses with Amy Winehouse-esque horns, is about star-crossed love. Ms. Winehouse is one of Ms. Cara’s favorite singers, though you sense it’s because of the voice, not the trauma.

Only “I’m Yours” repeats the loner wisdom that “Here” so effectively encapsulated. This is a love song, but a refreshingly resentful one. “Some nerve you have/To break up my lonely/And tell me you want me,” she sings, the youthful power of her voice never making her sound flirtatious. Even when she gives in — “I wasn’t trying/To melt this heart of iron/But the way you hold me makes the old me pass away” — she makes receiving affection sound like something you do with arms crossed, eyes rolled, and a heavy sigh.

Halsey and Ms. Cara have compatriots. Bea Miller’s strong debut album, “Not an Apology” (Syco/Hollywood), has flickers of Lorde and Avril Lavigne, and plays like twice-traced Hot Topic rebellion. Melanie Martinez recently released “Cry Baby” (Atlantic), a Lewis Carroll funhouse of an album, twee and goth all at once. And next month, Meg Myers will release her major label debut album, “Sorry” (Atlantic), full of emotionally abrasive yet aggressively tuneful songs.

Pop, though, is largely the story of commodified dissent. Outsider sentiment has long had a home at its center. That’s sometimes the case in country, too, but just as often, if not more, rebellion is snuffed out quick, especially for women.

Take Maddie & Tae, the duo who last year sent up the genre’s trite male fantasies in the wry “Girl in a Country Song”: “I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet/And it’s getting kinda cold in these painted-on cutoff jeans.” It was so astute a critique as to be undeniable. For a while, it was No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

That song’s success afforded Maddie & Tae entry to the club that didn’t want them as members, but judging by their debut album, “Start Here” (Big Machine), not on the terms they originally set. This sweet but tepid album has only flashes of the wit shown on “Girl in a Country Song,” as on the sharp-tongued “Sierra” and the cheeky “Your Side of Town.” But mostly, Maddie & Tae — Maddie is 20, Tae is 19 — want to sing simple songs with simple beauty, a reminder that rebellion has its limits and its detractors, but sometimes it’s merely a means to an end.

But maybe ending up on the inside isn’t so bad after all. Let’s not forget that Lorde, too, is one of Ms. Swift’s friends, and was a recent guest on her stage. So was Ms. Lavigne. And Alanis Morissette. And the country rebel Natalie Maines. How long before these new outsiders become Ms. Swift’s friends, too?

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