When Lorde released her third studio album, Solar Power, it represented a noticeable shift in the New Zealand singer-songwriter’s approach to life. Kesley Swintek lays flat the opposing poles that Lorde balances in herself and her music: her summer and winter, her happiness and her melodrama, her celebrity and herself.
Lorde’s third studio album Solar Power navigates irreconcilable opposites and murky in-betweens. Celebrity or homebody. North or South. Happy or sad. City or countryside. Summer and winter. I’m fascinated with Lorde herself as a prism for the ideas she unravels on her album. Lorde or Ella. As a supplement to listening to her new album on repeat, I’ve followed along with the emails she’s sent to fans in the lead up to its release. The messages read as personal, like she’s writing directly to me. She clips screenshots of her Notes app and pictures of yellow flowers. She gives me a name: SCWWTS (Sensitive Cutie Who Worships The Sun). She signs off each email with an initial and a kiss,
The first time I heard Solar Power, I was reminded of Sheryl Crow’s 2002 summer anthem, “Soak Up the Sun.” A bop featuring strumming guitars and playful percussion that I’d listen to on a CD in my childhood bedroom, or sing from the backseat in the car with my mom.
I’m gonna soak up the sun
I’m gonna tell everyone to lighten up
Lighten up: become less heavy. Feel happier. What is it about the sun, about literal solar power, that triggers euphoria?
Lorde is happy, and it feels a bit surprising after the angst and moodiness of her second album, Melodrama. But maybe we should’ve seen this coming. On “Liability,” Lorde sings “you’re all gonna watch me disappear into the sun.”
Happiness feels shameful. In a culture of high productivity, happiness translates as the enemy. If we are happy, we should’ve aimed higher. Contentedness is a synonym for laziness. In the wake of a year of collective trauma, happiness implies that maybe life hasn’t challenged you. Elation as void of complexity or nuance. Happiness is a privilege. Yet, online, everyone is happy. Happiness is a mirage, a performance. Lorde plays with this, citing Jia Tolentino’s widely shared essay on optimization as an inspiration for her track, “Mood Ring.” In the essay, Tolentino writes:
The ideal woman looks beautiful, happy, carefree, and perfectly competent. Is she really? To look any particular way and to actually be that way are two separate concepts, and striving to look carefree and happy can interfere with your ability to feel so.
To be happy is to invite skepticism. Is Lorde really happy? A mood ring gauges the temperature of the wearer’s finger and associates the changing colors with emotions. Happy, Calm, Sad, Nervous. My mood ring never left my finger, though it was often waterlogged and therefore appeared black. I’m sure you can figure out what mood that labeled me.
Wellness is the commodification of happiness. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands becomes if you’re happy and you know it post it on Instagram. Share your skincare routine. Buy these crystals. Read your horoscope. Rinse. Post. Repeat.
In an email, Lorde identifies “the ultimate mood ring,” as her “iP***e.” She sings:
I can’t feel a thing
I keep looking at my mood ring
tell me how I’m feeling
I think of social media, the consumption of lives and an algorithm-driven quest for validation. Substitute “mood ring” for “Instagram,” and Lorde is interrogating the close ties between projection, consumption and self-worth. On her titular track, “Solar Power,” Lorde sings:
no shirt, no shoes only my features
my boy behind me, he’s taking pictures
and I throw my cellular device in the water
She unveils a universe where images are kept for the self, not shared as invitations for judgement, ridicule or (rarely) approval. In another email, she admits, “being off social media makes me feel incredible.” Her body is her own. On the cover, she upends the traditional gaze and leaps over the camera, baring skin in a playful, distorted fisheye lens. My friend texted me, “never thought i’d see so much of her butt.” In an interview with Stephen Colbert, she describes the shot as “feral and sexy.” When I look at the image, I see the triangle formed by her outstretched legs. Is this her version of the Holy Trinity?
Her stage name already invokes religion, and Lorde plays with it. On the title track, she describes herself as kinda like a prettier Jesus. On the opening song, “The Path,” she denounces her position of influence: Now if you’re looking for a savior, well that’s not me. If not Lorde, do we turn to the sun? Let’s hope the sun will show us the path. Or better, her treasured dog, Pearl, to whom she dedicates the song “Big Star.” Everybody knows that you’re too good for me, don’t they? Honestly, my dog is probably my savior. I’m obsessed with her, proved by the thousands of pictures I’ve taken of her on walks, or lying on the window seat, watching squirrels dance across the tree branches in our yard. Lorde taps into something extremely vulnerable and human by writing a song for her dog.
On tracks “California” and “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” Lorde uses place to explore this division of herself between Lorde and Ella. “California” opens at the moment of fissure, when she won her first Grammys at sixteen years old.
Once upon a time in Hollywood
when Carole called my name
I stood up, the room exploded and I
knew that’s it, I’ll never be the same.
“The Path” uses specific memories to humanize her experience as a celebrity.
Arm in a cast at a museum gala
fork in my purse to take home to my mother
Her cast at the 2016 Met Gala is a literal break with our cultural expectation that aligns “celebrity” with “perfection.” To bring the fork home for her mother is endearing, something that maybe you would do if you merely brushed against fame or celebrity.
If Hollywood and LA are celebrity, New Zealand is home. New Zealand is all over Solar Power, as inspiration and literally. She writes, on the release date of the Solar Power music video, I’ve made something that encapsulates where I’m from — my family, my girlfriends, my outdoors, my constant ruminations, and my unending search for the divine. For Lorde, New Zealand is anonymity, boredom, the “roaring tunnel of cicadas,” the beach. She records the crashing waves and humming cicadas with the Voice Memos app on her phone and uses them in the album.
“Stoned at the Nail Salon” is the answer to “California.” LA called Lorde into celebrity, and on “SATNS” Lorde feels called home to New Zealand. In an interview with The New York Times, Lorde admits that after touring Melodrama, she was drained, identifying herself as “a hothouse flower, a delicate person and a massive introvert.” She’s describing burnout, a state of emotional or mental exhaustion. Burnout itself invokes heat, like a battery that’s been powered on for too long. Lorde parallels her own suffering in the spotlight with our planet, warming at an alarming rate.
It’s time to cool it down
whatever that means ▲
Kelsey Swintek is a writer living in Pittsburgh. Her essays have appeared in Hobart and Nowhere Magazine. She is a graduate of St Andrews, where she studied Comparative Literature and Art History. Kelsey currently serves as Writer-in-Residence at City Books, a local bookstore in the North Side of Pittsburgh. Find her online at kelseyswintek.com.