When Lorde dropped onto the scene with 2013’s Pure Heroine, she was a strange, dark, enigmatic force. A 16 year old from New Zealand, her signature sound of slow drums and deep beats shook up the music charts (her competition: Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers—even the “Harlem Shake” made it onto the charts). “Royals” signaled an exciting direction for chartable music, one not predicated only on exuberant silliness but that made space for something a little darker, a little deeper, a little quasi-gothy. She was a weirdo before Jughead made the claim, with effortless cool. The heavy, slow beat-and-clap of “Royals” and “Team” became a real thing. It’s not for nothing that literal David Bowie called her sound “the future of music”—and of course, he was right.
With her follow-up album Melodrama, Lorde built on her previous sound and reputation for idiosyncrasy. In a recent article detailing just why Lorde’s music seems so different from contemporary pop music, Time got into the actual structure of her biggest hits, which employ the difficultly-named “mixolydian mode”. As someone who doesn’t understand music theory, this doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it essentially means she’s adopting a scale historically used in blues and rock unexpectedly in pop music. Pop is incredibly formulaic (that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s a successful genre for a reason), but we love Lorde precisely for bucking that formula and still making it work. Think of the song “Green Light”, which shifts to a surprise chord at the pre-chorus (“But I hear sounds in my mind…”), a shift that doesn’t make sense in pop theory but one that gives the song its unsettling power. She is always tightly in control of her sound, sure-footed in her formula-breaking. Melodrama was not as commercially successful as Pure Heroine, but Lorde’s artistic influence carries on in current chart toppers like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. It’s very hard, for example, to hear the swelling bridge of “drivers license”, with its layered voices and slow claps, and not think of Lorde.Continue reading