DURING THIS FALL's busy release schedule, reigning pop queens battled it out for supremacy. Lady Gaga seemed most likely to succeed, but her Artpop disappointed with unoriginal, dubstep-leaning production (although her Robyn-aping "Gypsy" is pretty irresistible). Katy Perry fizzled with Prism, largely because it gave people too vivid an idea of what it would be like to have sex with John Mayer (warm, beige, with notes of cinnamon and hepatitis). And Miley Cyrus flexed the twerk heard 'round the world, but the rest of Bangerz wasn't nearly as conversation-worthy.
Instead, the season's best pop albums have come from relative newcomers and underdogs: Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time sounds like the Bangles' Different Light after a weekend steeped in cheap vodka and street drugs. The guilelessly enjoyable Haim stitched together decades' worth of chart-topping sounds on Days Are Gone, becoming a litmus test to effectively separate music- and fun-loving people from the irredeemably grumpy. And Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor—who smartly shortened her stage name to Lorde—released the presumptuously titled Pure Heroine, and somehow lived up to it.
At press time, Lorde's "Royals" is still fastened to the number one spot. If nothing else, it's provided a welcome palate cleanser after much of 2013 was spent under the date-rapey dominion of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." "Royals" is willfully naïve: "I've never seen a diamond in the flesh," she sings, and while that's surely no longer the case for Lorde, it's actually sort of believable coming out of the mouth of a preternaturally wise 16-year-old from New Zealand. With little more than electronic fingersnaps and overdubbed vocals, Lorde condemns the celebrity culture that's infected mainstream pop music.
Condemns, but doesn't exactly dismiss. Play back "Royals" in your head, and surely the hook you hear is "gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin' in the bathroom/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel rooms." While the rejoinder is "We don't care/We aren't caught up in your love affair," Lorde evokes these lavish trappings, triggering the latent desire for riches and decadence in the listener's mind. It's a brilliant if caustic move—kind of like how Boogie Nights lets you peer through the keyhole into the very watchable world of '70s porn, then shows everyone's lives turning to utter shit.
Lorde's already courted trouble by talking smack about Selena Gomez and other pop princesses, which shows her youth more than anything else. But she's only going to get older and wiser (she turned 17 on November 7), and the rest of Pure Heroine sounds like hit after hit simply waiting to be unearthed. The restrained production and natural, almost breezy songwriting of "Royals" are just as evident in the simultaneously exuberant and melancholy "Team." As far as the inevitable backlash against a rookie who's already bested pop queens at their own game, the last line of "A World Alone"—which starkly closes out Pure Heroine—sums it up best.
"Let 'em talk."