Earlier this week, New Zealand singer Ella Yelich-O'Connor – AKA Lorde – won two Grammys, including best song for the sleeper hit Royals and – almost – topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 (her song Royals came in at number two, Tennis Court at number 12 and Team at 15).
Amid the breathless celebration of the 17-year-old’s music lies an implicit positioning of Lorde as a positive alternative to the “raunchy” sexuality of other young female pop stars, such as Miley Cyrus.
The press around Lorde regularly highlights her “self-proclaimed feminist” status, whereas the overwhelming media image of Miley remains the twerking “ratchet” girl who drew the ire of many feminist pundits after the 2013 Video Music Awards.
Why Lorde’s feminism is taken more seriously, I believe, is due mostly to something which no-one wants to talk about: class. Not in terms of the size of one’s bank account, but class as disposition linked more to education than cashflow. We need only think of “cashed-up bogans” to realise wealth does not automatically dovetail with the “good taste” associated with the middle-class.
Emerging from the discussion around Lorde is the assumption that she, via her music, is tasteful, “classy” and worthy. Implicit – if not sometimes explicit – in this discourse is the implication that pop singers such as Miley are less classy, more brash and tasteless.
Lorde, like Miley, is a pop singer. But Lorde sits in the “indie pop” segment of the music industry. She writes her own songs, appears to have an “unfiltered” social media presence and her fashion sense has been repeatedly framed as original and unique. That’s a far cry from the discussion around Miley, whose music is – apart from being formally different to Lorde’s – written by others and whose style and, in fact, entire image is critiqued as derivative at best and racist cultural appropriation of African-American culture at worst.
Key to high standing in indie-pop music is an aura of authenticity. Indie musicians are, of course, just as “produced” as starlets such as Miley. Lorde, for her part, was signed to Universal when she was 12 and no doubt the incredible clout of her association with a “major” led to her significant media presence, particularly in the US.
In Lorde’s press we hear of her love of modern American fiction (on Vonnegut: “he’s way sassy, but I love that”) and collecting first-edition books; her lyrics are described as “acerbic” and “literate”.
We know her mother has an MA (Lorde proofread it!) and that she comes from a middle-class suburb of Auckland. She is acceptably, inoffensively tasteful and middle-class.
Praise for Royals in the US focused on Lorde’s apparent critique of the “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds” culture of attributed to mainstream pop. A New York Times article went as far to say that Lorde is “calmly insubordinate” in her critique of “conspicuous consumption”. This, the author claimed, is far better than the “clichés” that characterise Miley’s work.
For all this hyping of Lorde’s apparent critique of capitalist consumer culture, we see the same old class positions rehearsed. Lorde is indie – original and authentic. Miley and her ilk are not. Middle classness remains the status quo.
In GQ we are told Lorde is a “far cry from those … standard Disney-groomed teenage[rs]” - a clear reference to Miley. Further, she is cool – “deep” and wearing a Cramps t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone. Compare this with Miley’s caricatured Rolling Stone cover appearance – topless, tattooed, tongue lolling. GQ tell us that Lorde is not a “guilty pleasure” for middle-class adults – presumably unlike the “nostalgia for the mud” one might expect from playing Bangerz.
Lorde herself maintains these distinctions in numerous statements explicitly criticising other female pop stars. On Miley, she expressed a concern – following the now infamous VMA performance – that music events will eventually culminate “in two people fucking on stage at the Grammys”.
She also weighed in on Selena Gomez suggesting that the song Come And Get It was detrimental to women’s rights. Of course, in both statements, Lorde declares her position as “a feminist”. She similarly self-positions in an interview with the writer and performer Tavi Gevison (herself the subject of hyperbolic commentary such as being labelled “the most prominent feminist of [our] generation”) where Lorde is articulate on the nuances of post-feminist discourse.
Miley, on the other hand, is more blunt in her articulation of feminism: “I’m a feminist for sure”.
The issue here is not whether one pop singer is a “better” feminist than the other – but how the discussion around Lorde and Miley’s positions as young female pop-stars rehearses a particularly insidious class-based discrimination.
Along with the new, it seems, we have a continuation of the same old tune.