March 2014

Arts & Letters

Kids these days

By Anwen Crawford
Laneway, Lorde and other disappointments

Am I the only critic immune to the charms of Lorde? The 17-year-old New Zealander has the world kneeling at her feet. Her song ‘Royals’ has already earnt her two Grammy awards and been a number one single around the globe. Magazine covers and television appearances are hers for the taking. She’s been praised as honest, incisive, even a genius – so why do I find her so very, very boring?

Like any number of current pop starlets, Lorde sings as if she can’t quite be bothered to commit to an emotion – any emotion – which gives her vocal tone an odd blend of self-satisfaction and vacancy. Her music is a perfectly inoffensive and forgettable mixture of sparse, programmed rhythm tracks and vaguely melancholic synthesisers. She sounds like Dido (remember Dido?), but in air quotes, as if she knows that you know that she knows that straightforward pop music is something she’s a cut above.

‘Royals’ has been called a new ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and if Lorde shares anything with Kurt Cobain, a previous generation’s cultural cipher, it’s her seeming ambivalence towards success. “In a perfect world, I would never do any interviews,” she told Billboard magazine last September, as her song reached the top of the US charts. I prefer pop stars, particularly female ones, who are prepared to own their ambitions. Lorde has been signed to a major label since she was 12 years old. It’s fine to be ambivalent about the effects of fame, but no one frogmarched her onto the cover of Rolling Stone.

Whether she craves success or not (and I strongly suspect that she does), the current moment in pop’s cycle is Lorde’s to reign over, and here she is, at the beginning of February, onstage at the Laneway Festival in the grounds of the Sydney College of the Arts, before what must be at least two thirds of the festival’s 12,500-strong crowd. She could easily fill the Sydney Entertainment Centre under her own steam, so it’s quite a coup for the organisers to book her for a festival that she’s not even headlining. I watch her from the outer edge of the assembly, but neither her songs nor her stage presence have the force to reach that far.

The summer juggernaut of the Big Day Out is faltering, but Laneway, which originated in 2004 at the now-defunct St Jerome’s bar in Melbourne’s Caledonian Lane and rapidly spread around Australia, is only getting bigger. Ticket sales in Sydney were increased for this year’s festival, despite some local opposition, from a previous cap of 8000. A Singapore leg debuted in 2011 and now North America has its version, in the beleaguered city of Detroit: an apposite choice, for Laneway speaks the language of inner-city gentrification. There are “pop-up” organic restaurants and jokey signs (“Keep walking: Save your Facebook status update for later”), and sponsorship comes from, among other sources, an energy drink and a credit card company – two utensils of the wired, metropolitan life. There’s a bike valet, and at one stall you can charge your smartphone and at another buy raw-food chocolate brownies.

I wonder how many visitors know that the Sydney festival site was once Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, founded in 1878. In 1994, patients of Rozelle Hospital, as it was by then known, were moved to accommodation in outer parts of the extensive parkland, and the sandstone buildings were leased to the University of Sydney. A decade ago I completed my undergraduate degree here, and I could never swear that the grounds weren’t haunted, as afternoon shadows cast by the still-barred windows lengthened across hallways.

Today, by a courtyard into which I used to emerge, squinting in the sunlight, from photographic darkrooms that were once isolation cells, the American artist Autre Ne Veut is climbing a speaker stack. Dressed in a backwards-facing cap and oversized sports shirt, he looks very much your standard suburban hip-hop devotee, and his sound is a reconstruction of R&B as if the only prototype available to him were a sun-warped cassette tape of forgotten chart hits. His self-titled debut was released in 2010, and it irritated and intrigued me in equal measure. Relying on songs from last year’s more widely distributed follow-up, Anxiety, his performance today manages to do the same, though his blurry, synthetic arrangements are given slightly more force by a live drummer and a female backing vocalist. Autre Ne Veut is in some respects Lorde’s inverse: he sings like he really, really means it, but the music is pure kitsch, like an endless Hall & Oates medley. Are we meant to take his vocal sincerity at face value or read it through his knowing appropriation of bargain-bin pop hooks? “I know that someday I’m gonna die,” he sings from atop the speaker stack, hands lifted as if in prayer, and I think of my friend, whom I met just here, at 19 a shy first-year student, at 30 dead from disease, and I want to shout back, “No, you don’t.” None of us do. Pop music is part of the apparatus we use to push away knowledge of our own mortality, postponing thoughts of certain death so that we may dwell in an everlasting now – but that’s not exactly party talk, so I move on.

Over on the main stage by the front gardens, Kirin J Callinan, formerly of the Sydney-based Mercy Arms, is playing a set that reminds me of nothing so much as Marilyn Manson, minus the face paint and conservative-baiting Christian iconoclasm. His band – all bare-chested like him – create a harsh-edged, industrial sound, and Callinan’s stage persona is almost a parody of tormented masculinity. It’s the “almost”, though, that pulls him up short of something truly compelling. Again I wonder: do I take this seriously, or is it for laughs? Perhaps it’s the wrong question.

Laneway is an over-18s event, but the majority of the audience look younger than 23. For them the enormous archive of popular music is both instantly accessible and entirely ahistorical, its lineages flattened to an infinite, virtual plain. I see young men (only men) in band T-shirts that range from Metallica to Miles Davis to Black Flag to Michael Bolton – the last I presume is ironic, but who really knows? Every possible genre is up for recycling and reinterpretation, and the result is often pastiche but more often yet a dying echo of musics past; it can’t even rightly be called nostalgia, since that would imply some kind of yearning. Hence artists like London trio Daughter, who dress in black and sound like a thousand other reverb-heavy guitar bands since The Cure, though one of their guitarists occasionally plays with a bow, which I’ll admit is unusual. Or Brooklyn-based Parquet Courts: snotty and choppy and trebly and I’ve heard it all before. I don’t think that whatever I was listening to at 20 was necessarily any better, but I am annoyed that for the most part the future never arrived. In 2014, why does a Fender Telecaster still count as imaginative effort? Where is the pop music that hasn’t been invented yet?

Punk throwbacks like Parquet Courts aside, most artists here today borrow considerably from the rhythmic structures of dance and hip-hop – though, like Autre Ne Veut, they often include some live instrumentation. Sydney-based Jagwar Ma have the crowd back in the courtyard enthusiastically dancing – their vocalist Gabriel Winterfield is highly reminiscent of The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown and, like The Stone Roses, Jagwar Ma have the confidence and ease to extend a groove for as long as necessary. Later, on the same stage, Earl Sweatshirt is one of very few African-American artists on the bill, and he knows it – “Where my niggas at?” he yells, and answers himself: “They ain’t here!” A member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the inflammatory hip-hop collective that emerged from Los Angeles around 2007 and counts Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator among its members, Sweatshirt onstage doesn’t quite live up to the ominous, creeping drama of Doris, his 2013 major-label debut. It’s during his set that I make my obligatory visit to Lorde, then wander back again. It occurs to me that the circulation of the festival-goer mirrors contemporary listening habits rather too well: we drift through the selections on offer, noncommittal, with at least half our attention elsewhere.

I’m eating pumpkin dahl bought from an “organic street food vendor” when Lorde launches into ‘Royals’, so far the defining hit of her brief career. I’m not the first to wonder whether the song is disingenuous, calling out the material aspirations of contemporary pop music – which means, largely, hip-hop and R&B – while musically indebted to the very same genres. “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us / We crave a different kind of buzz,” Lorde sings, but I wonder what that “buzz” might be. Musical festivals have a historical association with the counterculture – think of Woodstock, or early Glastonbury – but that connection has long since been severed, along with the link between “indie” music and a broader oppositional politics. Today’s “indie” works as a mark not of opposition but of taste. If you can navigate the open waters of online music consumption, if you can afford fair-trade coffee and chemical-free cotton shirts, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a morally superior consumer, better than those who get their music from Triple M and their groceries from Woolworths, and way better than the nouveau riche of hip-hop. Maybe I should give Lorde a free pass – at 17 I was sure that the music I listened to made me a worthier person, too. What’s the buzz? In the end, is it only a music festival sponsored by an energy drink?

 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Lorde performing at the Laneway Festival in Sydney. © Will Reichelt

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