Lorde's US tour has flopped – but it might be the making of her | Laura Snapes

The New Zealand star is playing to arenas that are only a third full. But dropping out of pop’s upper echelons may give her the long future she deserves

After the Grammy awards snubbed Lorde in January – she was the only best-album nominee not invited to perform at the ceremony – the 21-year-old New Zealander issued a challenge to anyone who doubted her live skills. “IF YOU’RE DEBATING WHETHER OR NOT I CAN MURDER A STAGE … COME SEE IT FOR URSELF,” she tweeted.

Undersold gigs on her current US arena tour suggest that far fewer people than expected have taken her at her word. At the opening night in Milwaukee on 1 March, about 6,000 showed up to an 18,000-capacity arena, according to a box-office employee, and fans have estimated similar showings elsewhere on the tour. As it had done at the Milwaukee date, promoter AEG closed off the upper tiers at shows in Sacramento, Oakland, Kansas, Seattle and Denver, and gave free upgrades to fill the floor. Ticketmaster issued a discount code to encourage fans to splash out, reducing premium seats from $99 (£71) to $39 (£28).

Lorde: Green Light - video

Lorde isn’t the only major pop artist who has struggled to fill arenas in the US recently. Arcade Fire, Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding have all played to less-than sold-out rooms; Jay-Z’s 4:44 tour was his highest grossing solo tour, but had low ticket sales, while forthcoming tours by Smashing Pumpkins and Taylor Swift are reportedly not the sellouts that had been expected. Inflated ticket prices could be one cause, and, to a limited degree, blocks snapped up by secondary ticketing sites that didn’t manage to offload their haul. Maybe the trend also says something about the difficulty of persuading a relatively passive, streaming-inclined audience to invest in an artist.

Lorde’s predicament also reflects the surprising lack of commercial success for her second album. Despite receiving more critical acclaim than any other 2017 pop record and topping various year-end best-album lists, Melodrama has been a relative commercial flop. It peaked at No 1 in the US then dropped to No 13; it’s currently at No 155. In the UK, it peaked at No 5 and then spent 20 weeks in the Top 100, compared with 51 weeks for her 2013 debut, Pure Heroine. Some fans are convinced that the choice of singles is to blame – ie the fact that she hasn’t released widespread favourite Supercut. Even so, the album’s promotion has been odd, featuring just two videos in a year, and little press following the album – even around the Grammys, when public favour was on her side.

Lorde: Supercut (live) - video

On one hand, the lack of enthusiasm makes little sense. Melodrama is a fiercely assured, immersive and emotionally sophisticated record, filled with moments of pure pop transcendence. (Flinging my body around to the album’s lead single, Green Light, at last year’s Glastonbury was genuinely one of the most euphoric moments of my life.) On the other hand, we’re living through a period when playlists trump albums and attention spans are short. Green Light is structurally adventurous, opening with a stark, piano-backed verse before breaking into a brilliant house-influenced chorus, but the hook arrived at 1m 15secs, and Spotify data shows that 35.05% of listeners skip a song within the first 30 seconds. Plus, in pop, spending four years following up your debut can leave you easily forgotten.

But maybe “pop” is the operative word – or red herring – here. After co-producing Melodrama with Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, Lorde has been clear that she wants to write and produce her next album alone, a move entirely out of sync with current cut-and-shut chart songwriting practices. “It’s nice to have a busy year,” she told Billboard in January, “but I’m also aware that for the most part my life is going to be pretty quiet. It’s going to be about making this work when I feel like I have something to say.”

She’s always carried herself more like an auteur than a modern pop star – telling journalists she wants to be Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell – and is aware that “that takes time”. It’s more than likely that ducking the expectations of pop’s frenzied upper echelons – the ones she leapt into with single Royals – will serve her artistic ambitions and career longevity.

Lorde at the 2018 Grammys with Melodrama co-producer Jack Antonoff, left, and her brother Angelo.
Lorde at the 2018 Grammys with Melodrama co-producer Jack Antonoff, left, and her brother Angelo. Photograph: Lester Cohen/Getty Images

There’s a strong precedent for the transition from mercurial pop success to a more dependable, liberated kind of career perpetuity. After their time in Talking Heads and Roxy Music, David Byrne and Brian Eno went from chart stardom to urbane experimentalists. Scott Walker and Alex Chilton left behind teenybop crooning to peddle night terrors and powerpop; Robyn quit major-label teenage stardom and became an independent vanguard and one of the biggest pop influences of the 21st century, while Aimee Mann broke ties with Geffen, after two decades of varying major-label strife, to start her own label and ensure the future of her career.

The Beastie Boys renounced the lewdness of their 1986 debut License to Ill with the complex and sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique (1989), which was deemed a commercial failure, but re-established them as the group they wanted to be. Seizing control early on was the defining quality of Kate Bush’s career. You hope the same freedom will be afforded to Carly Rae Jepsen, who followed the viral 2012 hit Call Me Maybe with her 2015 album Emotion, which sold atrociously but has attained modern cult classic status.

Not, of course, that there are any signs of Virgin EMI abandoning Lorde. They demonstrated total confidence in her – and rightly so – when they let her work predominantly with Antonoff on Melodrama, rather than making her do the rounds of the Los Angeles songwriting rooms. Nor will her devout fans, in thrall to the worlds she conjures in her music and the intimacies that she shares with them on social media, from behind-the-scenes tour photos to unfiltered retorts to doubters, and even late-night skincare chat on her Instagram stories.

Courtney Wilson-Yalden, 21, travelled from New Zealand to attend five shows on the US leg of the Melodrama tour, and describes them as a “magic world” despite the empty seats. “Maybe we are the strange ones,” she says. “We love to let it all out through Lorde’s music. She brings people together in the best way.”


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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