Ruminations

In a World Alone: Why Lorde is Lousy Live

This is one of her earliest performance in the United States, in the fall of 2013, before she becomes too mainstream. “Royals” is a hit, but only us, the true fans, know the real extent of her evolving discography. At this point, just eight months before she returns to the sold-out WaMu theater, she’s only really able to fill the intimate room that is Seattle’s Showbox at the Market. My roommate and I ate steak before we arrived, fueling ourselves for what we hope will be the performance of a lifetime.

And it is the performance of a lifetime, for Lorde. Or so she says, telling us it’s the best show she’s ever played. “Is it because it’s the land of legal weed?” she asks in an attempt at banter. We don’t really laugh. We want it to be over so we can get some fresh air and buy tortilla chips at the City Target next door and talk about what that was that we just witnessed.

Lorde, a New Zealand native, in her music video for “Tennis Court.”

Lorde, the stage name for the 17-year-old (16 at the time) singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, combines stunning vocalizations that melt the listener with low, slow seduction, with words that freeze audiences with the precise, unrepentant observations of a teenage laureate.

Her power, a rough-edged and unearthly energy, is electrifying. Watching her filled me with a sense of immense jealousy. How could a girl my own age (Lorde and I are both 1996-ers: I was born in June, she followed in November) have such success, such talent?

And yet, her performance left me feeling empty inside. Though I left more in love with the music, I was entirely disillusioned of the girl that had just danced, for a meager 45 minute set, like a drugged Marine attempting to perform a military exercise: arms moving out left and right with ferocity, her feet stomping in her big black boots, head tweaking and unkempt mane flying. (For  Vulture’s “Complete GIF Guide to Lorde’s Dance Moves,” click here.)

When we finally broke out on to the busy street, we began our dissection of the performance. I was having trouble putting my dissatisfaction into words. All I could articulate was that her performance made Ella, the girl, seem a bit immature, even if Lorde, the artist, was operating an unprecedented level of skill.

My roommate, who had seem many more concerts than I had and was able to draw on comparisons to past performances, said that she believed the problem was simple: Lorde was performing only for herself.

What she meant was that Lorde gives nothing to the crowd. Her dance moves, though spastic, are totally contained. She stays in one place on the stage, as though she were a mime trapped in a 1 cubic square foot box. Sometimes her hair would drape over her and you would lose sight of her face entirely. Even when it was visible, it seemed largely unburdened by emotion. It was almost as though she were hoarding her energy, for fear that if she gave it us, she would never get it back.

I saw Lorde again that December, at Deck the Hall Ball in the significantly larger venue of Key Arena. She went on at 4:35 p.m. and her performance was largely the same. The audience clearly adored her music, had heard the popular songs on the radio and sought out the lesser known music online. They wanted to like her, we all wanted to like her, but it was clear none of us really could.

Later that evening, in between performances by various groups like the Head and the Heart, Alt-J, and Vampire Weekend, the French band Phoenix performed. The band’s beats are infectious, but lyrics are almost indecipherable. Yet they managed to light up not only the stage, but the whole of the arena. Thomas Mars, the lead singer, spent the majority of the set standing on top of the general admission section, giving us his everything. In return, every audience member (nearly 18,000 in all, spread out from the foot of the stage to the top of the rafters) gave him all they could, moving for almost an hour in perfect unison, jumping forward, arms pumping, shaking the venue. It was an unforgettable performance. 

It was then that I realized what my roommate meant about Lorde performing for herself. I imagine her walking off stage, her black lipstick perfectly intact, her hair slightly heavier with a light sweat. She still spoke, to her boyfriend, and her mom, and her manager, at a normal volume, her voice a bit raspy. She ate a small meal, not very hungry. She had the energy to continue with the rest of her afternoon.

But when I visualize Mars walking back to the green room, I see him stumbling a bit, his legs still numb from the hands of the audience members who held him up like a human trophy. He was sweaty and ragged, his voice destroyed. He ate like a wildebeest and went to sleep early that night.

The comparison between Lorde and Mars is inherently unfair, as Mars is a 37-year-old and has been performing with Phoenix since 1999 (the year Lorde turned three). Lorde, on the other hand, is young (a strength and a liability) and has only recently arrived on the international stage. If I were being generous, I would compare her to her peers, like Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber (who have strength and weaknesses both dependent and independent of age). But I don’t think there is much to learn from those comparisons. Lorde is better than any one else in her general age range in the music world right now, her talent far surpasses Grande and Bieber, and to grow she must aspire, she must compare herself to the greats, not to fellow youth.

Ultimately, I am glad I saw one of her first American performances. Though I was disappointed in that moment, I realize now that I had the rare opportunity to see someone my own age whom I admire, at the start of their success. I will be able to follow her career, see her sporadically in concert, over the coming decades. I will be able to watch her grow, and, more importantly, grow alongside her.

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