If you want to be a lotus-eater, you have to flee to an island. These islands can be financial as well as physical. But it’s essential that you permanently cross a border. To transcend to a new state, you have to depart from an old one.
Relatedly, Lorde doesn’t seem to like being a pop star. Who could blame her? It’s a terrifying bargain, for young women especially. In exchange for money and fame, you have to deal with stalkers, public scrutiny, and fans who worship you near-idolatrously. Your success is always accompanied by its shadow. Slip once, and the same media that sanctified you will feed you to its maw.
Lorde never seemed cut out for Hollywood. She’s sensitive, gracious, and has a good sense of humor. Her work is peppered with references to Annie Dillard, Fitzgerald, and Didion. If nothing else, she’s too well-read to accept a Faustian bargain. When I heard she moved back home to New Zealand, I was happy for her.
But retreat can create a taste for itself. Lorde’s third album, Solar Power, is the work of someone who’s fled to an island but denies she’s lost sight of the world beyond its shores.
It’d be an understatement to say Lorde’s fans weren’t anticipating her new album. Her prior one, Melodrama, was a spectacular chronicle of heartbreak. It evoked the ecstasy of fame, the agony of loneliness, and the difficulties of keeping up appearances. In “Sober,” she described feeling like an imposter in her own life. (“I'm closin' my teeth around this liquor-wet lime/ Midnight, lose my mind... Can we keep up the ruse.”) In “Liability,” she demonstrated a clear-eyed view of her relationship to fame. (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/ 'Til all of the tricks don't work anymore and then they are bored of me.”) Melodrama was deservedly critical acclaimed and cemented her status as a millennial interpreter of malady.
She dropped her new single, “Solar Power,” four years after Melodrama’s release. My first reaction was that it felt distinctly wrong. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like it. I would’ve just moved on and not written this if that was the only problem. “Solar Power” bothered me because a smart, incisive lyricist said things that weren’t true. Early in the song, she invites listeners to “let the bliss begin” by “throwing... cellular device[s] in the water.” “Does she really believe happiness is as simple as putting down our phones?” I wondered. In the bridge, she implores listeners to “Forget all the tears you’ve cried/ it’s over.” But what exactly is the “it” that’s “over?” Is she referring to a past relationship? The coronavirus pandemic? Her own time dodging Hollywood’s “poison arrows?” At best, the song’s unclear. At worst, it’s bizarrely tone-deaf amidst a global pandemic.
“Solar Power” was a heel-turn from an artist who was once one of pop’s best chroniclers of class. What happened to “postcode envy,” “jewels on throats,” and decaying castles? How did the woman who wrote “Royals” come to evangelize the same lifestyle as Jimmy Buffett? The dissonance fascinated me, so I started looking for evidence to explain it. But her public writing only confused me more.
In Lorde’s email for Solar Power presale tickets, she writes: “It’s midsummer. It was a pool day, but the light is starting to fade and people are getting hungry, so I change out of my swimsuit into something light, a vintage Dries slip maybe, apply a slick of tinted gloss, and start laying out little dishes of Castelvetrano olives and pickled fennel and sardines and this sheep’s cheese called Devotion, isn’t that a great name for a cheese, and rummage around in the fridge for what to cook.”
Why is an artist who once decried materialism name-dropping $500-$1500 dresses? What’s with the cheeses? New Zealand Geographic editor Rebekah White tweeted “I'm really worried that Lorde has been replaced by an AI bot that was trained only on Denizen and Monocle magazines.” Writer Allegra Hobbs referred to Lorde’s new work as “lobotomized pop.” I think they’re both onto something. Lorde’s new work lacks the self-awareness that made Pure Heroine and Melodrama landmarks. But we know she had it, so there has to be a reason she switched it off.
I don’t think being rich makes you a bad artist. Fleabag is an emotional tour-de-force, despite Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s father being in the Paradise Papers. Hilma af Klint’s work is a revelation, despite her birth in Karlsberg Palace. I’m grateful I lived to see Nicolas Cage act, despite his original surname.
But being rich does psychologically distance you from the working class. If you’ve never had to work a job you hate, you’ll never understand the primal need to escape it. Reconciling yourself to a life of capitalist servitude entails learning to think around it. It’s best not to consider the whale when you wake up inside it.
Lorde lives in the Auckland neighborhood Herne Bay when she’s in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful place, where the smell of leaves and wet earth mingles with the sea breeze. Money scents the air too. Herne Bay is New Zealand’s most expensive neighborhood. The median home value here is $3 million and rising.
Kiwis haven’t mastered the art of economic segregation quite as well as Americans. So when I moved to New Zealand in April 2021, I accidentally moved around the corner from Lorde’s house. I never met her and didn’t try to. But when “Solar Power” came out, I started thinking about how we occupied the same space but lived in different universes.
In an interview with Laura Snapes for The Guardian, Lorde said she was inspired to get off social media by a specific Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Lorde and I would start our days in the same neighborhood but led very different lives. When she worked on the album, she’d wake up at dawn and “contemplate the promise of a long summer day.” Around the corner from her house, I’d wake up at 7:50 am after snoozing my alarm three times. When Lorde finished her swim, she’d consider whether she wanted to “garden or fish.” I’d put on a collared shirt and catch the bus to my marketing job, where I make just enough to save $200 per week.
Lorde might read after she gardening or fishing. She clearly reads a lot. Melodrama was inspired by a Ray Bradbury story and structured after Euripides. I like to read, too. But I have to keep it secret during the workday. I frantically minimize Jennifer Schaffer-Goddard pieces and Joan Didion essays when my boss walks by and save them as rewards for when I finish work projects. I also spend too much time on Twitter. My screentime report is at least 3 hours a day.
Lorde describes social media as a kind of mental pollutant. “I really think people need me to be able to see our world clearly in order to write about it, and I couldn’t do that and remain online,” she said in her Guardian interview. Her comments about social media betray her belief in digital dualism, or the idea that digital communication and experiences are somehow less authentic than their physical counterparts. But what exactly’s “authentic” about traveling by helicopter to one of New Zealand’s most expensive islands to write an album in isolation? How is that any more “real” than pissing away time at an office job on Instagram?
The conservative assumption that you can access a deeper reality via self-purification pervades Solar Power. It’s implicit in how Lorde presents her home country. Throughout the album, Lorde portrays New Zealand as a pastiche of beaches, cliffs, shivering pines, cicadas, honeybees, blue skies, and soft light. Her descriptions evoke theorist Gaston Bachelard’s “hut dream,” or the fantasy that you can flee your complex life for a simpler one in nature. But Lorde’s New Zealand is very different than the one the rest of us live in. Most of us can’t “let the sun show us the path” because we’re stuck in offices or workspaces during the day. And if we go to the beach and “blink three times when [we] feel [bliss] kicking in,” we have to return to one of the world’s most expensive property markets at sunset.
Bong Joon-ho was right when he said working people inhabit the same country under capitalism. What’s left unsaid is that the rich inhabit a different reality, which flows through borders as seamlessly as their capital. When Lorde invites us to join her in her “new state of mind,” she’s also inviting us somewhere we can’t follow.
I sincerely believe Lorde has good intentions. When she says “I throw my cellular device in the water,” I think it’s a suggestion rather than a boast. When she asks “are you coming, my baby?” I think she genuinely wants her fans to join in her “new state of mind.” It’d be easy to read her suggestions as taunts and crucify her for lacking class awareness. But based on the way she interacts with her fans, I think she has a good heart.
A good heart’s scant protection against the changing climate, though. And in Solar Power, Lorde makes it clear she knows the climate’s changing. In the album’s fifth song, “Fallen Fruit,” she eulogizes a world that’s disappearing. “How can I love what I know I’m going to lose?” she sings. This begs the question: what exactly is Lorde going to lose? My fears of climate change revolve around dying in a natural disaster or being turned into a refugee. Lorde owns homes on at least two continents. When she sings “a pocketful of seed/it’s time for us to leave,” it’s not hard to imagine her doing so from an ark.
Later, in “Leader of a New Regime,” she sings “Wearing SPF 3000 for the ultraviolet rays/ Made it to the island on the last of the outbound planes... I’m gonna live out my days.” She recently suggested parts of Solar Power are satirical, but the lines are revealing nonetheless. Lorde knows she has a spot on the island or whatever protective enclosure the rich will build for themselves. Why sing about it to an audience that doesn’t?
In 2013, Timothy Morton proposed the idea of hyperobjects, or “objects so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” Pandemics, the Internet, and streetwear brands are hyperobjects. Their shared feature is that they’re too big to be comprehended from one perspective. Understanding them necessitates moving between vantage points.
Climate change is a hyperobject. In Solar Power, Lorde makes it clear how distant her vantage point is from ours. If we’re in the avalanche path, she’s looking down from the gondola. It makes for an unnerving shift. A comforting voice becomes disturbing and a familiar face becomes alien. If Melodrama showed how heartbreak lays waste to celebrities and working stiffs alike, Solar Power reveals how politics can make us strangers.
In a piece for Dirt, writer Allegra Hobbs describes how the new Lorde single unsettled her. “It deepened my feeling of dissonance with my surroundings... I narrowly avoided a panic attack while doing hot yoga in a surgical mask,” she writes. “I want desperately for everything to be the same, but everything is different — my relationship to my surroundings, to myself, to others, to the art and content I consume. I do not think it’s going back.”
Solar Power unsettles me, too. I think that’s because it’s a record of denial. Its ethos is that magical thinking can solve material problems. When it blares at supermarkets, restaurants, and from Spotify radio streams, it makes me wonder whether the ruling class will cope with terrifying global changes the way Lorde did. Will they retreat to the beach and preach amnesia? Will they shut out the world and live like lotus-eaters?
“We’re taught to view famous people as gods, now — and I wanted to dismantle that,” Lorde told the Guardian. But her voice booms through public space like a god’s voice. She has enough money to escape mortals’ fates. Lorde may be uncomfortable that the celebrity-industrial complex made her into royalty. But understanding the deal’s terms doesn’t mean you can escape them.