On Miley & Lorde: pop princess rebels?

Two albums. Two young women. Total opposites. And… I’m addicted to both.

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 12.49.18 AMFirst up: Lorde. Royals is just the start. She’s from New Zealand, 16 (!), and writes her own (very poetic, very cool) lyrics. She’s the rebel-smart-girl who, I imagine, smokes cigarettes between classes but is really down with Salinger and gets As on her lit papers. She’ll drink an underage beer (or five) but gets home by her curfew. Then again, her parents are chill, so she probably doesn’t have a curfew. (Here is a great interview with her done by Interview mag, of course.)

Next up: Miley. Yeah, I know, I can’t help it: I’m into Bangerz. (Not every song, but… I am down with lots of it.) Miley is 20. She does not write her own lyrics; she gets top producers to do that for her. I don’t need to paint a picture of Miley’s life for you, because we’ve all been inundated with the details already. (But here’s her Rolling Stone cover story interview, just in case.)

They’re both Scorpios (although Miley’s on the cusp). Their music is big right now. They both go by pseudonyms. And they are both young women. Naturally, this means they are ripe for comparison: two ways to do fame, 2013-style, as a young female pop icon.

We all know that Miley is… just being Miley. She was famous before she was a personality; and now that she has the stage, she uses it to experiment with being a personality. At 20, she’s a seasoned star, posing nude for Terry Richardson; flaunting her body and sexuality on national TV; and making waves with her personal life, her style, and her ever-more-“rockstar” antics. OK Miley. You do you. And right now, Miley is—and/or wants everyone to think she is—a badass. Got it. Then comes the music: Bangerz is a mixed-bag album of collaborations with rappers, hip-hop producers, and “hood” (her words, not mine) influences. Some of it is catchy, some of it is crass, some of it is weak. The unifying thread throughout is Miley’s voice, which is satisfyingly straightforward: loud, clear, a little raspy, but under control. She’s no Beyonce in the vocal department, but she sings with strength.

Lorde, on the flip, came out of nowhere and remains—to a certain extent—an enigma. Which is how she likes it. Her break-out single Royals (and the rest of her debut album, Pure Heroine) is an ode to the punk nobodies; to the tough kids from the suburban block; to the small-town hipsters living a less-than-luxurious life on the outskirts of the city lights. In interviews, she reiterates this image and this background. She’s an outsider, reclusive but unmistakably cool, a quirky/regular teenage girl with a hard-won edge. So it goes with her album: it’s beat-and-voice heavy, uniformly slow, with haunting rhythms and choruses. Her soft, clear, slightly undulating voice wafts over synth beats. It’s hard to tell if she’s singing or speaking; no matter, the words lilt. And you pay attention to what she says.

(Note: I could write a whole post just comparing the videos from “Royals” and “We Can’t Stop”… There’s just TOO MUCH to #unpack and #decode, SO MUCH juicy cultural #appropriation and #representation, and endless amazing parallels…)

Miley’s face and body are everywhere. There’s barely an inch of her flesh that we haven’t seen. She’s out and about in LA, at parties, walking her dog; and the paparazzi snaps crop up copiously. She’s also a big social media sharer. Cleaned-up at a red carpet event or post-party makeup-streaked, the barrage of images streams endlessly. The only way for Miley to make a point with her personal brand, to get noticed against the background noise of her daily photographed life, is to be bolder, crazier, stupider: that always catches the public eye. Miley knows that, like any good kid of the reality-TV age. So she owns it all. YOLO is apparently her life motto. All publicity is good publicity—the bigger, the better.

Lorde initially released only one photo of herself, a classical chiaroscuro portrait (see above). Since then we’ve gotten a little more; but it’s a carefully curated selection. Unsmiling, heavy-lidded, never too candid, Lorde’s image is one that she continues to fully control and art-direct, in the way that only a true teenage Millennial can intuitively art-direct her own fledgling brand. In the same way that she feminized the masculine “Lord” to make her stage name by adding the “e” on the end and thereby playing on traditional precepts of royalty and power, so too has she co-opted the visual language of wealth, luxury, and celebrity in her pictures. There’s lots of dark lipstick, black winged eyeliner, flowing hair, gilded chain jewelry. Girl knows exactly what she’s doing. Her restraint speaks volumes about her vision—for herself and for her music. (She reminds me, actually, of early Lana del Rey, who chose a character for herself and created the mystery and sound to surround it. But where Lana thrived on 20th-century Americana and pin-up nostalgia, Lorde looks forward to a kind of ironically-rich post-economic-collapse aesthetic.)

(Now’s a good time for you to click over to my favorite Lorde song, The Love Club.)

And here’s the thing about Lorde: she’s 16, clearly beautiful, a pop star on the rise… and has, thus far, completely avoided the sexualization pitfall that inevitably makes (and, usually, breaks) all of the female pop stars… ever. (Think Madonna, Britney, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, obviously Miley—all started young, all captured that lusted-after fame through the use of their own burgeoning sexualities, all had to figure out ways to deal with the ensuing objectification.) Instead, Lorde embraces the battles of youth, idealism, change, and growth. Am I being hyperbolic? Sure. She has a love song on her album. But it’s a GREAT love song, and it isn’t about her body.

Compare to Miley, who has gone above and beyond the classic call of female pop star sexuality, provoking strong reactions to her decisions in the feminist spectrum—is she inviting objectification or sidestepping it through appropriation? What to think of “Wrecking Ball,” which is a really great, raw, emotional song… but is accompanied by her most sexually-charged video yet? How DOES one interpret the licking of a sledgehammer in the context of the song? Is her Bangerz song “FU” emancipated or retreading old territory? etc.

(And you should listen to FU because why not?)

So: two young women. Today’s new pop princesses. Fame for both; Lorde’s is on the way up—and Miley’s is guaranteed for as long as she lives (if Lindsay Lohan is any indication).

And, for both, a definite rebellion against the rules of being a pretty-faced female singer. Miley’s rebellion against the script is to act out, to continually shock. Lorde’s is to reign everything in—to keep her clothes, her words, and her concept clean of the trashy side of pop, of the cheapening male gaze.

The cool thing about both cases (and one area where I have to give Miley credit, and applaud Lorde) is the self-awareness with which both artists approach their brands and images. They are not Britney, publicly melting down, hiding from the flashbulbs. They’re pop-culture-savvy. Their authority over their own sounds and looks makes them stand out from their peers.

I don’t know if you can call this “leaning in”—but at the very least, they’re looking everyone straight in the eye. That’s a good start.