Are We on Lorde's "Team"?

The New Zealand singer/songwriter known publicly as Lorde has presented the world with a new take on pop music from her powerful yet delicate vocals, poignant lyrics, and minimalist musical arrangements. Lorde's music often dares to challenge the status quo of pop starlets, expressing dissatisfaction with the "good life" of all-night parties, heavy drinking, and bratty behavior. Her hit song "Team" continues the theme first established in her number-one single "Royals", encouraging her audience not to get wrapped up in the world of Hollywood pipe dreams and consequence-free outbursts of immaturity. For Lorde, we all live in the real world where our words and actions will have long-lasting consequences for our lives and the lives of those around us. She calls on her audiences around the world to start thinking about growing up. Although Lorde has said in interviews that "Team" is "a tribute to her friends and country", is "speaking for the minority", and represents her "take on most modern music", these impulses speak to a broader movement that rejects the current industry standard presented by the media and encourages audiences to embrace a simpler and more authentic lifestyle.

The chorus of the song is where, I think, Lorde would say the tribute to homegrown New Zealand lifestyle is most obviously prevalent. The poetess speaks of living in cities "you'll never see on screen", cities that are humble and normal and lack the media glamor of New York or LA, or the cultural landmarks of London or Paris. In this context, Wellington and Auckland are media nonentities. They don't have the requisite glamor or significance to make them like the cities depicted in the movies, the sexy cities where sexy people spend their time doing sexy things and having a whole lot of fun. She says that the cities that she is familiar with are "not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things". At first glance, this could be seen as a jab at the inner city decay of some of these Hollywood cities; they may be pretty in the movies, but they are horribly mismanaged and ugly on the inside. In this case, the small, unnoticed cities are in a better position to become beautiful because, even though they lack the glamor, they are at least more civilized. However, the next line, "Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams", seems to upset this idyllic depiction of the country town. If the poetess is better off for living in a less media-influenced atmosphere, then why is she living in ruins? I think, despite the claim of being a tribute, this is more likely a critique of the progressive urbanization of smaller cities and country towns as the people who live in them insist more and more on creating a lifestyle for themselves that imitates the glamor of those cities presented by the media. The humble country life is set on converting itself into that sexy city full of sexy people doing sexy things and having a whole lot of fun. In this sense, the comment "we still know how to run things" is an ironic statement, implying that, even though we may not look as pretty as the people in the movies, we still know how to run our lives in the same way that they have given us as a model. We can pull off a pretty decent imitation. Suddenly, the idea of "team" gets confused: whose team are we on? "We're on each other's team", the poetess says, but sides are now conflated. In the context of hometown tribute, the poetess claims that she is on the same team as her New Zealand family and friends, the home crowd, as it were. However, the context of critique puts the small-town community on the same team as the Hollywood media conglomerates, which makes for a much more uncomfortable message.

This leaves us with the image of the ruined palace. In the sense of critique, how is this to be understood? We can imagine that the palace in the poetess's dreams reflects her glamorized image of what life is like within that elite sphere of sexy people in sexy cities doing sexy things. The image the media gives us of the "good life" is idealized in our minds and becomes an end goal for us. Ultimately, we want to attain happiness in our lives, and happiness is constructed for us in the depiction of Hollywood wealth, prosperity, freedom, beauty, and enjoyment. We want that for ourselves, and so we go out of our way to create the same atmospheres we see on screen in the reality of our own communities. The poetess points to the popularization of the nightclub lifestyle as one of these idealized "palaces" that, when actually lived out, becomes a ruinous place. Her depiction of the nightclub lifestyle is engaging because she is able to merge two idealized notions of the "good life" into one. In the first stanza, she compares the modern nightclub lifestyle with the lifestyle of the eighteenth-century beau monde popularized through the high society depicted in novels such as Jane Austen's. The poetess draws on the similarities between then and now, how we are still attempting to live out these fanciful courtship rituals in our behavior and dress in the nightclub: "Wait till you're announced / We haven't lost all our graces / The hounds will stay in chains / Look upon your greatness", and again "Call all the ladies out / They're in their finery/ ... Now bring the boys in". She creates a sense of the same social graces being enacted today that were enacted in centuries past. Women still parade themselves in their finest array for the men to see, as they wait, like hounds on chains, before they are invited to indulge themselves. The same complex games are being played between men and women now as they have been forever, a game that involves seeking out happiness without getting hurt. We continue to search in each other for the key to our idealized palaces. Our happiness above all, even in the Hollywood version of it, is communion with another, is true intimacy, is love. And we seek it in the places the media tell us we will find it, in the pretty palaces we see on the silver screen. The problem with this, for the poetess, is that this entire framework is built on lies. The media's depictions of happiness are not true. The nightclub lifestyle does not bring intimacy, happiness, and love, but lies, ruin, and brokenness.

At the end of the first stanza, the poetess insists on the dance as the place where the innocent go to find intimacy, but it is also the place of lies, and the place where people can become comatose: "Dancing around the lies we tell / Dancing around big eyes as well / Even the comatose, they don't dance and tell". The physical action of dancing is compared to the mental metaphor of "dancing" around an issue, of avoiding it. We try to avoid admitting our innocence, our "big eyes" that long for the idealized palace to become a reality. We try to avoid the multiplicity of lies that crop up within the club culture -- feigned interest, feigned impulsivity; feigned desire; feigned honesty; feigned intimacy; feigned love -- by not speaking of them, by letting the dance speak for us. Even then, the dance itself becomes a lie, as two bodies come together when the two minds often couldn't be farther apart. As the idealized palace becomes more and more ruinous due to the failure of the lifestyle to make it a reality, the dance becomes almost a catatonic motion in which both parties go through the steps of the ritual almost by force of habit rather than desire. However, even the most comatose of participants will still laud the lifestyle as the means to happiness.

The poetess develops this theme in the second stanza as she expresses what the comatose refuse to tell: the nightclub lifestyle, the media-endorsed image of happiness, is a lie. "So all the cups got broke, shards beneath our feet": the cups from which we all tried to drink happiness have fallen to the ground, and we are now stepping on the broken shards. We need to recognize the pain that the false images of happiness have caused us; we need to admit that this dream world is not the proper vehicle for finding happiness and remove ourselves from it. The poetess admits with some defiance that she's "over getting told to throw my hands up in the air". She has lived the life, tasted its fruits, and found it lacking in substance. Her experience has shown her that "revel[ing] without a care" does not bring meaning or communion into one's life, nor is it of any use in building up the ruinous palace. The dream of love and intimacy has been replaced with a reality based on animalistic competition: "everyone's competing for a love they won't receive". Competition does not win love. Being the most beautiful, the most popular, the richest, the sexiest, the most like a Hollywood starlet, is not what achieves true love and intimacy between people. The most this can win is a superficial and unsatisfying brush with sexuality, but beyond that is nothing but ruins and shards. It leads to brokenness. The nightclub lifestyle does not lead to community, but to its exact opposite in competition. The foolishness of it is revealed in the fact that the true prize desired by those who compete -- love -- can never be won in this manner. The poetess suggests that what "this palace wants is release": what our innocent dreams really need is to be freed from their ties to the fantasy created by the media as a living advertisement for happiness. To be truly free is to seek out happiness in true love and intimacy, which is found away from the glitter of deception and competition.

In this sense of the song, we are on Lorde's team if we get ourselves out of the running, if we leave the competition, and if we focus on building up true community rather than living in the ruins of imperfect dreams. There comes a point where we need to let go of our attachment to what hurts us in order to find the true happiness that is at the heart of the palace.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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