If the big movie studios still believe in the inherent efficacy of the tentpole approach -- big names, big budget, big splash -- despite some notable flops this summer, Universal Music Group’s game plan for a 16-year-old singer from Auckland’s North Shore in New Zealand has been a telling case history of a countervailing trend, the discreet “slow play.”
Note the name Lorde -- Ella Yelich-O'Connor at birth -- which is just beginning to emerge from a tightly woven cocoon of mystery and discretion.
Even before her “The Love Club” EP was No. 1 on the New Zealand Album Chart, “she was already the focus of a hotly contested bidding war, rapidly being signed up for the U.K., U.S. and other major territories, simply on the strength of her music and blindingly obvious potential alone,” according to the copy accompanying the online order form for her sold-out debut U.S. show at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Manhattan Tuesday night.
“Tweeted about by everyone from Grimes to Sky Ferreira to Doomtree, and picked up by BuzzFeed, Perez Hilton, et al. -- these are the beginnings of an impending roar, about an artist who is, quite simply, cut from a different cloth,” it continues.
“Lorde Hypnotizes at First U.S. Show,” reads the hed atop Jason Lipshutz’ live review of the show in Billboard. She “introduced her collection of immaculately drawn pop compositions … with a confidence and demeanor well beyond her years, only allowing the disposition of a sunny 16 year old to show up in the corners of the performance.”
Here’s a video of her performance of “Tennis Court” with the very self-aware opening, “Soon I’ll be getting my first plane.”
Other reviews were just as positive. “Basically, she’s better in person than she is on tape, and that’s a very rare and very exciting thing to discover,” writes VH1’s Meghan O'Keefe.
But search for Lorde on the Universal Music group website and you get nada. In reporting that her song “Royals” was the No. 1 iTunes download Down Under in May, The New Zealand Herald’s James Ihaka and Nicholas Jones wrote that Lorde had signed with Universal, “which also represents artists including Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Elton John and the Eagles.” “The label has cultivated an air of mystery about the teenager,” they said. “Although having a large social media presence, she has uploaded very few photos of herself.”
In fact, Universal signed Yelich-O'Connor when she was a mere 12, performing in her school’s talent shows.
“The music-making process was very, very casual in the beginning because I was only 12 and didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Yelich-O'Connor told The Beast’s Marlowe Stern last month. “I took singing lessons and stated working with songwriters in a very casual setting -- trying to find someone and a sound I could click with.”
That turned out to be songwriter-producer Joel Little, with whom she collaborated on her EP.
“She chose the name Lorde because ‘it felt interesting, and also kind of masculine,’ Yelich-O'Connor told Stern, “and also because she’s always been captivated by royalty, including Marie Antoinette; Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia; and ‘many Elizabethan rulers.’”
“In an age of instant gratification, this elusive approach to publicity is increasingly popular among labels and artists,” the Wall Street Journal’s Megan Buerger wrote on July 26. “It's a delicate courtship in which musicians must seduce success without seeming like they want it.”
“It’s also very strategic from a business perspective, I think … young stars are especially wary of over-saturating the market, of being Justin Beiber, and having people get tired of them too quickly,” Buerger pointed out to WSJ’s Live’s “Lunch Break” anchor Gwendolyn Bounds. “And so record executive now are pulling back and saying ‘okay, let’s maintain an air of mystery about this.’ And that just gets people talking.”
But too much mystery for too long can be a recipe for oblivion. "I always say mystery makes history,” Charlie Walk, EVP of Republic Records, whose Lava imprint signed Lorde this spring, tells Buerger. He and his team have been working on “raising Lorde's profile” on the theory that "a funny thing happens when you don't promote: nothing."
It her introduction to the YouTube video of “Royals,” published on May 12, Yelich-O'Connor writes: “i'm only at the beginning, but it has always been important to me that everything feels cool, feels right. this song means a hell of a lot to me, and to others, and i guess what i tried to do is make something you could understand. a lot of people think teenagers live in this world like 'skins' every weekend or whatever, but truth is, half the time we aren't doing anything cooler than playing with lighters, or waiting at some shitty stop. that's why this had to be real.”
When it comes to getting real, I clearly can’t figure out whether to call her Lorde or Yelich-O'Connor. But that’s my problem; at this point in her career, Lorde/Yelich-O'Connor has nothing to worry about including “waiting at some shitty stop” (whatever that means, but that’s my problem, too).