Elle Hunt on the moment when pop’s mood started to shift – towards slowness and sadness
After a year in which our lives were held at red lights, the world was ready for Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’.
With its propulsive piano, swooning chorus and precisely placed swear word, 17-year-old Rodrigo summoned up memories of first love and new independence at a time when we all felt grounded in our bedrooms.
From December to January, Rodrigo’s streams shot up by 2,500 per cent. Comparable recent smashes like ‘Despacito’ and ‘Old Town Road’ took time to build to ubiquity; ‘drivers license’ reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 within two weeks, then stayed there for two months.
But in the cloud of teenage feeling that Rodrigo cast over the globe, another artist was unexpectedly made conspicuous by her absence. To some, ‘drivers license’ sounded like Lorde.
The likeness is there in the suburban melodrama of the lyrics, the wry sample of a car’s open-door ding, the percussive piano, the particular attention to dynamics and phrasing. And it is positively overt in the bridge, when the fluid melody suddenly stalls and Rodrigo, her voice in layers, sings of “RED. LIGHTS. STOP. SIGNS.”
That Lorde – real name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor – came to so many minds, though she has only two albums to her name and nearly four years have passed since the last, is testament to her outsize impression on pop, starting with her own year-defining song, ‘Royals’.
‘Royals’ began as a curiosity posted on the music-sharing platform Soundcloud in late 2012, then blew up into a cross-format radio hit, on high rotation on R&B and alternative stations alike. Its chart domination in 2013 broke records, many relating to Lorde’s young age of 16.
What was most striking about ‘Royals’ was that, no matter where it was played, it sounded like nothing else before or after. At that time, the charts were full of bombastic pop and EDM by Imagine Dragons, Martin Garrix, Pitbull, Macklemore, Avicii: songs that made a big show of saying not very much.
‘Royals’, by contrast, was stark and sly about the gulf between modern music and modern lives: counting out coins for train fare, going to house parties. It was a teenage experience many of us recognised.
With her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine, which included ‘Royals’ as one of its tracks, Lorde (and, separately, Lana Del Rey) developed what became known as “whisperpop”: a style of singing with hushed intensity that is now ubiquitous, from Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez down.
Soon after, the default perspective of pop music started to shift from that of the triumphant party animal (think Ke$ha, Katy Perry) to the loner looking on, such as in Alessia Cara’s ‘Here’, ‘All My Friends’ by Snakehips and Tinashe – even, eventually, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran in ‘I Don’t Care’.
By 2017, pop had become slower and sadder. Nearly 90 per cent of number ones that year were in a minor key, up from 62 per cent in 2016 and just 29 per cent in 2015. The average tempo also sunk below 100 beats per minute for the first time in 15 years, which commentators linked to the sombre global mood after Brexit and Trump.
‘Royals’, at 85 bpm, was ahead of its time. But just as the industry fell in step with Lorde, she quickened her pace in ‘Green Light’: the first single from her sophomore album, Melodrama, with a driving tempo of 129 bpm – and a queasy opening shift from a minor to major key.
On ‘Writer in the Dark’, Lorde eschewed whisperpop for a Kate Bush or Bowie-esque piano ballad, demonstrating a classical sensibility also evident in Eilish. Other songs on Melodrama, like ‘Hard Feelings/Loveness’, sprawled and took turns where Pure Heroine was contained – suggesting that Lorde’s ambition was to buck the trends that she had helped set.
Four years later, those songs are present in the DNA of ‘drivers license’ and now ‘deja vu’: Rodrigo’s recently released follow-up, with sing-song verses and clattering drums. To say the title is ironic means no disrespect to Rodrigo, clearly a potent songwriter in her own right, as well as a self-stated Lorde fan.
But where ‘drivers license’ delivered us back to our pasts, Lorde’s instincts are those of the pioneer: she has said her forthcoming album was inspired by her recent trip to Antarctica, an “alien environment”. It might prove the green light we are waiting on, to re-enter an unfamiliar world ourselves.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill