New Zealand-born pop singer Lorde has a way of transcending age.
The 17-year-old blasted up the charts and won a Grammy for her debut single, “Royals,” a clever treatise on rejecting mainstream riches and culture.
Yet, when people talk about the Kiwi singer, there’s often this vaguely condescending, ageist remark thrown in: “For her age.”
Multiple critics deemed her 2013 debut album “Pure Heroine” a solid effort – for her age.
She’s savvy and wields a sharp wit in magazine interviews or a Reddit’s Ask Me Anything session, sounding street-smart as well as book-smart – for her age.
As she demonstrated last week to two sold-out crowds at Oakland’s Fox Theater, her live show is bold and confident – for her age.
While the phrase’s intentions seem to come from a place that conveys her maturity, it simultaneously feels like a way to shortchange her and her accomplishments.
I suspect many people don’t expect the same level of depth and complexity from a 17-year-old girl as they might from someone twice her age.
But whether a performer is talking about being 17 or 37, they’re speaking about their life experience and where they are in life. In the case of Lorde or other younger singers and songwriters, there’s the tendency to invalidate or deny their work because they don’t have as much life experience.
To be fair, many singers near her age with mainstream appeal sing bubblegum pop songs about love and relationships.
Lorde, born Ella Yelich-O’Connor, stands in stark opposition to that practice. Speaking to Kiwi music publication New Zealand Listener last year, she said, “I think we’re past that – it’s 2013. Every song doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m absolutely nothing without you, I’m holding onto your leg, don’t let me go.’ It’s tired.”
Because of their younger age and chosen genre, many people are apt to dismiss them as creative agents. There’s no denying their audience and their appeal, but it’s material that listeners are more likely to expect from someone in their late teens or early 20s.
That’s why Lorde surprises people. “Royals” and the other songs on “Pure Heroine” struck a multigenerational chord.
Her smash hit speaks to many people who feel detached from social media, wealth and much of pop culture, aiming to stand as an outlier to such things.
“That kind of lux just ain’t for us. We crave a different kind of buzz,” Lorde sings.
In the same NZ Listener interview, Lorde described the luxury she describes as “opulent, but it’s also bulls—.”
The irony now is “Royals” has moved into the mainstream, the same way dissent and dissatisfaction often gets absorbed into it and sold. Her rejection of richness does the same thing as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” moving up the charts while tapping into the zeitgeist of frustrated people everywhere hurt by financial strife. Standing with them is fine, but it’s still a pose.
Bigger than the specific appeal of “Royals” is following up such success. Lorde, 15 when it was written, faces a monumental task that would be daunting whether she was 17 or 47 – “for her age” is irrelevant.
Using the phrase “for her age” could be intended as a compliment, but it has a way of undercutting her work. In the case of “Royals,” it takes what is salient commentary about aspiring to wealth and reduces it to a discussion about the age of the speaker instead.
I’m guilty of using the phrase, too, and I can’t promise I won’t say it again in the future. But I’m going to be conscious of trying not to limit her and others in such a way. Because age doesn’t have to be a limiting factor when making music that has a profound impact.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.