The Mellow and the Drama
When Lorde released Melodrama (2017), I had just turned twenty and felt static. I was living at home for the summer and interning in a rare book and manuscript library. Squirrelled away between mountains of paper, my work was quiet and methodical: unfolding handwritten letters from envelopes, searching for the name of the sender, and sorting the missives into alphabetized folders. I loved the secretive satisfaction of reading and organizing these personal traces of a stranger’s life. Since the work was solitary and focused, some of the archivists worked with headphones in and they welcomed me to do the same. Most days, I listened to Melodrama.
But beneath the sound of the music, I could hear the silence of my quiet, solitary days. What was I doing there? Shouldn’t I be exploring some shiny city, or falling in love, or starting trouble? Shouldn’t I be doing all that at school, too? Wasn’t twenty supposed to be more than this? I felt like a passive witness to my own life, filled with doubt. Old friends asked me for updates, and I had nothing to say. Every time I came home, I traveled back in time, reverting to exactly who I was at sixteen because I simply hadn’t changed much since then.
High School Heroine
I still felt like the person I had been on September 27, 2013, the day that Lorde, the singer and songwriter born Ella Marija Lani Yellich-O’Connor, released her debut album, Pure Heroine. It was the only album I would listen to that fall. Any line, any note from Pure Heroine evokes those months in sharp, specific detail: the comments from my creative writing teacher written in green pen in the margins of my drafts; the thick smell of synthetic brown leather bus seats where I sat with my headphones in and my forehead vibrating against the window; the clumps of grass and mud I clapped out of my running shoes; the backs of notebooks I covered with my favorite lyrics.
In high school, I had the ability to float from group to group and receive warm welcomes, but sometimes I wondered if anyone noticed when I left. I could blend in but didn’t always feel visible. The characters in my short stories were the same: observing without acting, absorbing everything but saying nothing. One of my teachers described my writing as “witness fiction.” Lorde was a kindred spirit. On Pure Heroine, she proved herself an expert in the quiet and peripheral, a spectator more than an actor. Lorde was the first artist I’d ever heard who knew this disconnect and used it in her songwriting. She transformed suburban boredom into clever, surreal scenes using the perspective of a collective “we,” thereby disappearing as an individual. Throughout Pure Heroine, these “we” statements defined her group of friends, lending strength to her shapeless identity: “You can try and take us/But we’re the gladiators” on “Glory and Gore,” or “We live in cities/You’ll never see on screen/Not very pretty but we sure know how to run free” on “Team.”
Lorde studied and described her surroundings with a sharpness and imagination I hungered for in my own writing. Though she was only six months older than I was, she fiercely and eloquently put music to everything I felt. As I printed draft after relentless draft of my stories and began searching for publications open to submissions, Lorde was my proof that someone young could create serious art. I kept Pure Heroine on repeat for months.
Nearly four years later when Lorde made Melodrama, her second studio album, I was sorting letters in the library and realizing that I was still peripheral and passive in my own life. Perhaps Pure Heroine had brought me comfort in high school because it allowed me to glorify the observer I was. But now that I felt stuck in that role, miles behind my peers, the dynamism of Melodrama was right on time. Lorde was leaving the wall for the dance floor, and I wanted to move, too.
Melodrama is a concept album, both focused and expansive, that follows an evening at a party: the highs and inevitable lows, the mess, beauty and, well, the melodrama. “Green Light,” the album’s opening track, throws the listener into Lorde’s pulsing world of mixed emotions. “Honey, I’ll come get my things but I can’t let go,” she sings in the chorus, which is a melancholy post-breakup line in sharp contrast with the elated chords and confident quickstep beat that booms under her voice. From there, Lorde moves to the party with “Sober.” She is complex and contradictory: “Ain’t a pill that can touch our rush,” she boasts. Yet already the doubt creeps in: “But what will we do when we’re sober?” Lorde evokes the tongue-in-cheek glory of a reckless night (“Homemade Dynamite”), and the softer, rhythmic heartbeat of a growing crush on “The Louvre.” Then, she offers a moment of deep clarity and self-doubt on “Liability,” and then she shares the shattering realization that a relationship is over in “Hard Feelings/Loveless.”
“Sober II(Melodrama)” provides a notable pause on the album, a ballad backed by violins and a skittering beat that swells to remind the listener, “We told you this was melodrama.” Lorde captures the flimsy, ephemeral nature of the night once the sun rises and we see that the glitter is just broken glass. “Oh, how fast the evening passes/Cleaning up the champagne glasses.” This line could stand alone as a sparkling summary of the album: a celebration of moments of freedom and bliss that contain, coiled within them, the promise of disaster.
“Perfect Places” closes the album with one final, elated depiction of the party’s chaotic beauty—and a puncturing question: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?” This is a question I’ve often asked myself while stepping out of a party and feeling the cool night after the hot, dense air inside. What are we searching for in those darkened rooms? I never quite know why I’m there or if I want to be. Lorde’s piercing ambivalence comforted me; I wasn’t alone in my hatred and love for “perfect places.”
On Melodrama, Lorde takes herself and her young peers seriously. Rather than diminish the intricacies and politics of sixteen-year-olds on Pure Heroine, Lorde studies them with an intimate shrewdness. And now, she is dancing at the center of the room. Pure Heroine welcomed the listener into her social circles with the seductive suggestion that Lorde’s “we” could mean you, too. Melodrama bares more of Lorde herself as a first-person narrator, and our connection becomes more personal, less collective. She is the lead dancer rather than a disembodied voice in our ear. Sonically, she abandons the smooth minimalism of her debut album, but her poetic tendencies continue to shine through the noisier, more chaotic sound. It’s the sound of a party, after all.
I listened to Melodrama all summer at the library, hoping that I, too, had a colorful, emotive ride coming soon. After all, I was about to study abroad, and though I was terrified, I figured I was more likely to find adventure, change, and movement in Paris, France, than in Middletown, Connecticut.
When Lorde performed in Paris, I watched her dance across the stage in a long, wild dress like I’d seen in pictures, but I couldn't have anticipated the way she spoke to the audience: soft and playful as if confessing childhood secrets. I sang every word of our shared story back to her.
Yet within a few months, my fervor for Melodrama cooled. I liked my routine in Paris: studying at the Sorbonne, walking along the river, eating sandwiches in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and swimming at the public pool. But it wasn’t wild or irresponsible, full of passion and glittering parties. I was solitary and peaceful, the same as I had always been—except I wasn’t quite as at peace with being so peaceful. I still wrote “witness fiction,” but now I felt trapped by my own passive words. Meanwhile, Lorde was deep into Melodrama, leaving Pure Heroine behind and me with it. She was able to set aside self-awareness and quiet observations in order to shake loose and dance.
Lorde and I were diverging, and her music slowly slipped to the bottom of my playlists. My expectations for “perfect places” were gradually replaced by a much deeper, more realistic appreciation for France, but I missed when Lorde and I were in sync. I grew restless, wondering where my melodrama was. A self-created conundrum: I couldn’t tell if I really wanted more than my quiet routine, or if I just hoped for excitement so that I could relate to Lorde again.
A year later, I’ve come back to Melodrama because I’m working at the library again, and I remember the songs of last summer. I remember how much Lorde’s music paralleled each moment of my life, how we used to walk side by side. When I think of the hours I’ve spent in her world, under her streetlights and in her bedroom, I wish I had never stopped listening. I don’t want our divergence to be a deal-breaker. After all this time, all this love, have I really moved beyond the voice who sang my thoughts back to me? Has she moved beyond me?
With Melodrama in my ears again, I don’t think so. I fall in love with the shimmering sound of memories on “Supercut” and the descending sweetness of “Liability.” Lorde still makes me think, she just makes me think about lives I’m not living more than the one I am. She still makes me reflect, she just makes me want to dance, too. I see now what I couldn’t last year: I have changed, in my own way. Not Lorde’s way, and not how I expected to, but in softer, smaller gradations. Though Lorde and I are not walking in step anymore, our differences are not a matter of ahead or behind. I’m at peace with being peaceful. I don’t need melodrama in my life to dance along to hers. -Claudia Schatz
Learn more about Lorde and listen to Melodrama and Pure Heroin here.
Claudia Schatz is from New Haven, Connecticut, and is a senior at Wesleyan University where she studies French, art history, and creative writing. Her writing has been published in The Postscript Journal, Straylight Online, and in her book of original short stories, The Edge of the Room (Stethoscope Press, 2017).