When "Royals" nabbed the MTV Video Music Award for Best Rock Video last month, the win made Ella Yelich-O'Connor—or Lorde, or Miss Teen Goth New Zealand 2014—the first female artist to claim the 25-year-old prize.
From Guns N' Roses to Metallica, from Pearl Jam to Limp Bizkit, from Jet to White Zombie, one of the most androgenic prizes in the industry had finally gone to a woman. Instead of excitement, though, the milestone met mostly mass confusion and mild anger: Wait, Lorde makes rock music?
Complaining about industry awards is an unwinnable game, an especially pointless one with regard to the VMAs. The annual show celebrates what's currently mega-popular, in hope of flattering the nominated stars enough to perform. The live snippets are the bits that go viral, allowing the VMAs its last lifeline to relevance and credibility.
But if one were to suspend disbelief long enough to consider the gripe, it's true that Lorde doesn't make rock music—at least as your parents, grandparents and, yes, maybe even you consider it. But why should she?
Last year's Pure Heroine represented a very effective debut for Lorde. It is heavy on beats and light on guitars, best described as personally quirky and modestly dark synth-pop, buoyed by a strong influence of radio R&B. The uniform shape and production of its songs afford Yelich-O'Connor an easily identifiable "Lorde" brand, even if it makes most every tune seem like a withered version of her dominant single. It's not a rock record, if for no other reason than it contains no obvious "rock" songs.
In spite of its objective non-rockness, "Royals" has become something of a rock standard. In the past year, both Jack White and Bruce Springsteen—the rockist-iest of rock dudes—have covered it. "Royals" has become a standard for frat-row and restaurant party bands. When arranged for a guitar that's ideally thumped for dramatic emphasis, the song scans in content, with a message of self-determination, of rejecting the parts of culture a smart kid perceives as bullshit. Its outsider attitude makes it rebel rock. To wit, Springsteen belts the parts lamenting Lorde's adolescence in "a torn-up town" with all the relish you'd expect of The Boss.
Indeed, Lorde has cannibalized certain aspects of rock iconography, using them as a basis for her pop. Her inclination toward the genre is well-established. Unearthed recordings from her old band, And They Were Masked, list influences like PJ Harvey, The Mars Volta, Soundgarden and Fugazi. Their loud guitars were focused. And now, Lorde may be tip-toeing toward guitars, anyway. "Easy (Switch Screens)," her excellent collaboration with programmer and producer Son Lux, lets a mean skronk solo scramble its moody trip-hop atmosphere.
In concert, she consistently features an impassioned cover of The Replacements' "Swinging Party." Fronting Nirvana at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, she succeeded through visible enthusiasm for the material, despite being the most outlandish choice in a murderers' row of hip female vocalists. And beyond just memorizing Cobain's lyrics, she seems to have internalized his outsider-in-the-spotlight identity. She's taken stark, emotionally wrought Canadian songwriter Majical Cloudz as the opener on her current tour, for instance, in a move reminiscent of Cobain's highly visible patronage of beloved cult acts like The Vaselines, The Raincoats and The Meat Puppets.
Overall, though, you get the feeling that Lorde is ambitious enough to realize rock music's current second-class status. And her alt-rock disposition isn't the only demonstration that certain rock moves remain potent ingredients in mainstream pop. Boy bands, long the archenemy of rock purists, have been picking up guitars and letting rip. One Direction dabble in power-pop. 5 Seconds of Summer are basically mall punks. Bruno Mars opened his Super Bowl half-time show with an extended drum solo. Miley Cyrus just covered Led Zeppelin. Lorde, then, has eluded a limited following by embracing a rock attitude while forgoing a rock sound; she's taken what she's needed and left the rest for culture's carrion crows.
In strict commercial terms, the classic drums-bass-guitar configuration isn't much more dead than anything else. When Tom Petty released Hypnotic Eye in August, for instance, it became his first album to ever reach number one on the Billboard charts, no matter how incorrect that seems.
A place on top of the sales charts isn't the chief determiner of mainstream relevance in 2014, even if the old metrics have started to incorporate means of digital distribution into its new figures. YouTube views, Facebook shares, Twitter mentions and the like are the new methods of cultural centrality. Petty reached the pinnacle by selling only 131,000 first-week copies. That nebulous, modern stuff drives its own sales. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits, the compilation that seemed present in almost all of the clunky black CD-binders living under '90s suburban car seats, has sold less than 8 million copies in 20 years. Lorde's Pure Heroine has sold 2.5 million copies in a year.
Still, Petty's chart-topping 16th studio album seems blissfully unconcerned with reaching the kids. Unlike U2, a band so desperate for relevancy that they'd sneak a new album on to your phone in the dead of night, Petty's OK playing to his greying choir. Hypnotic Eye is a relaxed record, cozy in its own obsolescence. Petty's voice, which possessed the hint of wisdom even in his youth, has held well. It sits perfectly among the album's familiar blues-riffing. But the notion that doing this stuff could earn the elder statesman a mass swing in popularity? It doesn't exist during Hypnotic Eye.
Remember the last time a band arrived to "save rock 'n' roll" with a combination of cute haircuts and gritty integrity? The Strokes sounded uncannily like early records by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty was a far better model for mass appeal than Television or The Velvet Underground, though those bands were mentioned in every piece of Strokes press until someone realized that it was hard to tell if "American Girl" or "Last Nite" had just been cued on the jukebox. The Strokes failed to bring anything back. Conversely, the cutting edge of indie-rock has bent further toward synth-pop, hip-hop production and R&B singing. And that's where we find Lorde.
In a moment of eclectic interests and digital troves, no genre can ever truly die. Classic rock made by young guns like Ty Segall exists on a cult level. There's renewed pockets of hardcore punk, now with greater gender inclusion, and increasingly ambitious strains of heavy metal abound. But achieving real mainstream success seems to mean that artists can no longer seize the center by leaning too much on any one genre or appealing to any one demographic. It's a way to age as gracefully as Petty, perhaps, but not to make an inescapable anthem, as Lorde did. But her great strength is the instinctual understanding and shrewd application of a slow-dawning truth: Rock might well be dead as a dominant cultural force, but its vital organs remain available on the black market.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Organ donors."