What Lorde Can Teach Her Pop Peers

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Lorde has risen to the top of the Billboard charts faster than any pop star in recent memory, but the 17-year-old (as of last week) New Zealander has already cemented one aspect of her public persona: An impressive, impolitic willingness to clash with her fellow young female stars, most recently manifested in her spat with Selena Gomez.

In September, Lorde called Gomez’s song “Come and Get It” “so pathetic,” saying “I don’t think girls should be listening to that kind of thing and I don’t think that is normal or healthy,” adding that she considers herself “a feminist.” “That’s not feminism,” retorted Gomez last week in a new interview with Flaunt. “[Lorde is] not supporting other women. That’s my honest opinion, that’s what I would say to her if I saw her.” She said she was likely to stop covering Lorde’s music on tour, which she’d been doing until then. This followed Lorde’s comments on Taylor Swift — “so flawless, and so unattainable” that she can’t be “breeding anything good in young girls” — and Azealia Banks, whom she called pugilistic, saying on Twitter, “azealia banks likes to pick fights with dudes in that if they hit her she calls them a bitch and if they don’t, they’re a bitch.” She also publicly turned down Katy Perry’s offer to join her on tour.

Of course, spats among pop stars are nothing new. The rap world has beefs, and the pop world has shade: the sort of side-eyed commentary notable both for its obliqueness and its eagerness to prove the speaker’s own merits. It’s attention-seeking, self-congratulatory, and fun in a way devoid of nutritional value. Katy Perry, for instance, took an opportunity to shade erstwhile friend Rihanna, whom she’d previously called out for drug use, in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, calling herself a “real songwriter” and noting that, “A lot of the times my peers are just picking songs. They shop for songs like they shop for shoes. That’s why they can put out records really fast. That’s just not my style.”

But this kind of traditional pop-music feud is part of the show, and no one takes any of it too seriously. Lorde is doing something slightly different She’s not critiquing Swift or Gomez, strictly speaking, for our entertainment. She’s doing it to work out her own problems with the pop scene. Her critique is uncomfortable because it’s rooted in something other than a desire to humiliate or score points off her fellow pop stars. She's thinking aloud about what kind of impact her public image has, and how to adjust to the world of superstardom that she suddenly occupies. And her approach to working this all out in public stands in contrast to, say, the more carefully calculated "strategic hot mess" of Miley Cyrus, who brushed off Sinead O'Connor's emotional open letter with the back of her hand.

O’Connor, along with Cyndi Lauper, and “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie”–era Alanis Morissette is Lorde’s antecedent in the world of pop stars too ethical or sensitive to play the shade game. She may not be as unbalanced or decadent as Courtney Love, but she comes similarly prepared with a list of observations on the pop world. Consider the fact that “Royals” is, itself, a lengthy objection to the music-world excesses that most pop stars perpetuate

Yet — as Lorde’s very earnest apology to Taylor Swift, posted to Tumblr, made clear — shooting from the hip isn’t the easiest way to approach stardom. And critiquing success once you yourself are successful is an even more delicate operation. (Witness Lady Gaga, delivering grand theories of fame to diminishing returns.) Even if Lorde sometimes presents her ideas in a manner that’s frustratingly juvenile (Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” sounds to many listeners like silly pop fun, not a threatening message), she stands out because, in a world where you’re either gauzily pro-woman or shady, she’s not a booster.

There's a decent chance that Lorde will smooth out her rough edges and figure out how to be more girl-friendly. She started her career by singing ambiguously about pop stars while making specific critiques of other female singers. As she grows into her fame , it would be most expedient for her to reverse that formula and emulate Taylor Swift: subtweeting via song, while remaining studiously anodyne in interviews.

That might be best for her career. But adhering to the patronizing Swift-Gomez definition of feminism as unconditional support for other women would make her less interesting and less honest. A little dissonance can sound pretty good.