I think Lorde is one of the most self-aware pop artists working today. She operates, above all, on precision. Her songs are vectors, carefully tuned so that the there are no gaps between intent and effect. The result is a body of work that feels so specifically and pointedly true.
Take for example this sequence in the “Green Light” video I can’t seem to get out of my head. Lorde is walking down a dark city street with headphones in, clutching at her phone, singing along. She twirls herself around a street sign, trips down the sidewalk, arms thrown up sort of lazily, and dances her way across the storefronts. Then she stops at a wall, sort of bites her lip, and smiles to herself while she sings the words: “You said that you would always be in love, but you’re not in love, no more.” She pushes herself up off the wall and makes her way down the street again while the synths build to a beautiful chorus under her vocals.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny moment, but I’m fascinated by it anyway. If anything, it showed me that Lorde understands exactly what she’s making. All the instrumentation cuts out, save for a pulsing bass drum and a soft choir in the background rising and falling with each line. It sounds the way anticipation feels, like you’re standing on the edge of the sidewalk on the tips of your toes, waiting to take off across the street. Her voice floats up in a graceful sigh under that relentless drum, while there’s a single synth note building and building, cutting a sharp line straight through it all. It sounds like a feeling you can’t quite contain, something murmuring frantically just under the surface.
She performs this moment in the video so perfectly — it just sounds like a girl dancing in the street, unable to walk or run or be normal because she can barely hold herself together; she’s about to burst. It’s so exactly right — equal parts deadly focused and heart-wide-open. Her little smile isn’t pretty as much as it’s a seam splitting with the weight of being so much more than just one thing. Because that’s how it feels when you’re claiming a street and a moment as distinctly your own: vulnerable and terrible and wide-awake with the sharp thrill of being just that heartbroken.
In Vogue’s April 2016 profile on Taylor Swift, Lorde was quoted as saying, “in order to do good work, write these deeply personal records, we’re constantly in a place of metacognition. Sometimes it can feel like you’re a scholar writing a thesis about your own brain.” So she’s highly aware of the iconography she’s working with — and that awareness makes the act of going out at night and dancing alone tilt ever so slightly on its axis to become A Girl Dancing Alone. She’s painting a portrait of herself in real time, and she’s invited us to watch. “Green Light” is about that liminal space in between moment and memory, as she’s shifting from girl to Story of a Girl.
I think there’s something to the anonymity of the video that adds to all this. She’s not in glam makeup or dancing with a full backup band. She’s wearing Adidas, her hair is down, she’s carrying her phone in her hand because she has no purse or pockets. She could be any one of us, is what I’m getting at here, and that’s so important. Not because of the bullshit relatability politics that so many pop stars fail to fool us with, but because it’s the logical culmination of the process of storytelling. She went from a person living through a certain experience, to filing that experience away as memory, to constructing an image of herself as a person living through that memory.
That image is everything. It’s why “Green Light” is so mesmerizing. The thing is, you don’t have to be an autobiographical writer like Lorde to understand the unique complexities of seeing yourself as a story. Not to make this into, like, every college freshmen’s Intro to Women’s Studies term paper on gender and the media, but, to quote John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”:
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.”
So that’s it then. “Green Light” is us watching Lorde watching herself, both being a young, heartbroken woman dancing her pain away, but also self-reflexively seeing herself as one. The difference between the two is small but crucial. It’s why I feel the song so hard, deep down in my bones. We’re standing right there with her at the end of the sidewalk, hair a mess, voice hoarse, feet tired. We’re waiting for it, we’re wanting. But we’re always watching.