Why Lorde really appeals to middle-aged men…

22 06 2014

Admittedly I sometimes have reservations about writing articles on this blog. It happens about as much as Rolex tends to come out with a new model watch, yeah, not very often. I also have a confession to make, I kind of like cinnamon donuts. AHA! caught you out didn’t I? You fell right into my trap! Though yes, I admit that I very much enjoy the music of young New Zealand born prodigy, ‘Lorde’ (born Ella Marija Lani Yellich-O’Connor). Actually, her proper name sounds a little like the entire team of a private school cross-cultural debating team, so a monosyllabic and cryptic moniker was obviously a shrewd marketing choice. Having said that, I suspect that her song-crafting and style had quite a lot more to do with her success than a cool name.

 

Yep, I get the tension that is already palpably evident in your head at present.. “Where the hell is he going with this article?” and “Why is a middle aged man listening to, let alone writing about, a pop sensation not even finished high school yet?” or possibly “Why do I never get sick of tacos, no matter how many times I eat them, when I get sick of every other meal that I eat a lot?”. Ok, maybe YOU weren’t thinking that but I was and man, I am gonna have to write me an article about THAT very, very soon, but not now.

 

The reason I like Lorde is very simple. Her music is characterised craftsmanship, intelligence and genuine talent, not sex. I think it is no accident that fathers across the world find themselves listening to Lorde, even when their daughters or sons are NOT in the car. Her age puts her right at the age at which many forty years old men conceivably have daughters. Therefore, Lorde’s parents are similar in age and, allowing for some quirky variations in musical taste, Lorde may well have grown up in a milieu of music in a garden which might not necessarily be sound nor savage (couldn’t resist a bandy pun or two there!) but certainly not unlike that of most men listening to her music. There is the ambient grooves and basslines reminiscent of the heady days of early trance and house, lyrics that tend to be provocative and cryptic like the work of the Smiths, U2 or coldplay but not derivative of them and the melodies are pared back and haunting, almost a little like Robert Smith, of the Cure (who possibly seems to be giving make up advice to young Kiwi songwriters as well, these days!).

 

 

One of the hallmarks of a truly good musical artist is the ability to sell more than the ’empty carbs of the pop world’ which is sex wrapped up in the plastic of riffs better left in advertising jingles. Instead, despite her modest years and relatively limited experience in what is fast becoming the most competitive era ever for the sale of popular music, she is carving up the pie with some genuinely good material in a manner that established artists like Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Beyonce are finding increasingly hard to emulate. Lorde-RS So middle aged-men get Lorde because the musical style is eclectic, whilst reminiscent of a lot of things they half remember from their youth, which they half-remember wasn’t half-bad, back in the day. So about 12.5% association with something vaguely good in the past. What is great is that Lorde has so much more to offer than the shell that we all walk around in. Not so for artists such as Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga who each left nothing to the imagination when strutting out of highschool into packed arenas in their late teens/early twenties. There is, most certainly, something a little ‘pedo’ in a middle-aged man’s interest in the ‘music’ of any of these artists when the product being sold is both so young and so obvious.

 

Typically, such artists are “unit puppets”, just flogging their latest cheap, tacky fads to plump ailing record sales for a little girl who has grown up and lost core fans distracted by the musical equivalent of Sizzler Salad Bars as such fans have also grown up. Not so with artists like Lorde. It is perhaps a little naive to suggest that she, and artists like her, thrive because of authenticity and free reign to write precisely what they like, wear what they like and have control over how that ‘brand’ is developed. What she does have is, however, genuine product which is not dependent on her age, her body and her gender. Instead, along with other successful artists like Alannis Morisette, Avril LaVigne and Alicia Keys, she is a song-writer not just a singer. Sure the content does involve the usual pop themes of love and love lost, but not a whole lot. Instead, we get lyrical poetry (perhaps an unsurprising observation given that her mother is an acclaimed New Zealand poet but kids don’t always follow their parent’s day jobs!). Nevertheless, we hear class contrast, generational angst, concerns about superficiality in social interactions and the influence of mammon on man. Intelligent, philosophical, thoughtful writing and ambient, trancy and layered vocals with pitch-perfect harmonies (possibly worked on in the mixing and editing but still beautifully done) and, the hallmark of successful female artists: a different voice.

 

So why the appeal to middle-aged men, specifically and why should this be important in any way to those who direct this juggernaut of a musical phenomenon? Primarily because it represents generational change. We have the first glimpse of our millenial/Gen Z music, almost like a time trip into the near future. Arguably, the music reaching our ears through whatever media we choose to consume is the last flickers of Gen Y artists, that are sounding tired, stretched, over-evolved, like some actress that has been poorly advised to pay too much for cosmetic surgery that  creates more beasts than beauties.Typically, the generation consuming the music has it delivered by the generation above, but here we see a wonderful window into what could be the future of millenial artist pop. That’s exciting.

 

 

Generation X is characterised by its cynicism, search for authenticity and obsession with relational depth (as opposed to Boomer/Gen Y focus of relational breadth). Likewise, their children seem to have inherited these values. Millenials question superficiality, generally have drive, focus and ambition that is tempered with acceptance of honest feedback about their ability to achieve such goals. Unlike Boomers, whose suspicion of ‘the establishment’ was near universal, which often led to “plugging in and dropping out” in search of a new utopia (almost universally disappointed with the outcome..when human nature is involved), Millenials see the inevitability of the establishment and work within it, breaking and shaping it when needed (and allowed to). In an almost Frankl-esque dedication, these Millenials understand that the ‘Matrix’ is something that we need to work with but we choose how much it changes our sense of self. Digital natives yes, but not the mindless slaves we thought they’d be. Using technology to find relational depth, make their brains more alive, more creative, more rich not less rich. The games they play tune their brains, build creativity within boundaries like lifting weights at the gym, using their networks to study seriously and faster than their older natives, now in employment.

Lorde at Madame Jojo's, London Lorde seems emblematic of a generation that their parents can’t help but get excited about. True, many Gen Ys don’t know what to make of these younger ‘upstarts’. This is not, however, die to the fact that Millenials are so enigmatic but more a function of the fact that Gen Y tend to be so self-absorbed or, now, running around on minimal sleep now they are breeding, that they simply don’t have the time to care. Of course music artists, particularly female artists trying to share this consumer-space with artists like Lorde are not happy in the slightest, and the knives are out. This guest is, in their opinion, unfashionably early and they are not happy about the way the party might change.

 

Now the fathers of Millenials who listen to the haunting melodies ringing through their homes in wireless convenience also find tracks on their own devices feeding these melodies they find themselves humming. Daughters going to Lorde concerts may find their Dads not only footing the bill but offering to come along. In doing so, these involved ‘Neo-Dads’ far from experiencing the derision common in earlier generations at this kind of cultural invasion or cringeworthy example of an uninvolved Dad trying to ‘get hip and be cool’ to be-friend his distant daughter, is often greeted compassionately by such gestures. Dads and daughters these days have a lot more to do with each other than they once did. Dad is not trying to be a friend, he will always be the ‘daggy old dad’.. but he is there and that is, for the meantime at least, cool. From the Dad’s point of view, this is a damn-sight more tolerable to sit through for $100 a pop than, say Britney Spears or Taylor Swift or even Pink, for that matter.

 

The music is cool, accessible and it is about the talent, intelligence and concert atmosphere of an artist and work, not a piece of female flesh teasing the men and causing the women to covet mimicry of that blatant sexuality to get the same attention from men. Again, there is more than enough evidence that marketers are way ahead of the curve on this one (money is that most powerful motivator!). Even the clips selected for this blog post contained advertisements for Joe Satriani concerts (1989 Surfing with the Alien, anyone??) and Rolling stone arguably bought into this phenomenon with Lorde in a Cramps shirt and a nod to early Gen X punk with both their cover and headline.

 

Yep, this young lady is for youth and their dads (with a possibility that more than a few Mums might also want to ride this train!!). Economically, nothing could be smarter for Lorde than continuing to push boundaries of music and stage performance whilst remaining decently (if esoterically) dressed and not dipping her feet into the superficiality of carnal hedonism as she ages. In an age where profitability from music sales is bottoming out and album sales contribute paltry revenue for even the most popular artists, sales of concert tickets are a coveted stream of income. Having on board the fathers of fans as benevolent benefactors of entertainment coin is very, very savvy. Deep pockets and an appreciation for the art is driving a medium which simply can’t be pirated: the live experience. Much like the glory days of stadium rock and pop concerts that were the staple of bands in the 1980s, such fathers are keen to support this once again. A format long in decline to the chagrin of performers as music became diverse and democratised in the age of the internet, good concerts are slowly, but surely experiencing a resurgence with artists such as Lorde and, just like a feudal system that young Ella Y-O is often enamoured with in her lyrics, we are seeing a new generation of Pop royalty rise among the ashes of a cacophony of peasants. Long live the Queen, then eh? Mickovich

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The ‘Beauty Myth’ Myth..

15 01 2013

If an earworm is a song that you can’t get out of your head, then I guess a mindworm would be an idea you can’t get out of your head… This is one of them. Much has been said in the popular media about the enduring issue of female body image and following the seminal work by Naomi Wolf in 1991: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. This work essential birthed a US movement, which has now spread worldwide, purportedly to expose the ‘beauty myth’. So what, exactly IS this myth? According to Wolf, the myth is that ideal or archetypal female beauty ought to be the standard for women to aspire to when it is, quite patently unattainable for the vast majority of women to ever achieve. Moreover, she states that the beauty myth leads to assault in five areas of  female experience: work, sex, religion, violence and hunger.

Now this article is not so much concerned with Wolf’s postulates here, in fact they had (and still have) considerable merit in exposing and asking questions about what we value about women. Instead, I am going to examine the irrational car wreck that occurred when the self esteem industry, the personal hygiene mega-corporations and overpaid advertisers met Wolf’s ideas. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you exhibit A: A ‘Dove’ ad, analysed by Gruen Planet last year. The irony of this is that the ‘Dove’ brand is one of hundreds owned by Unilever, that provides hundreds of products in the cosmetics, beauty and hygiene products sector of the market and is worth billions, essentially through its extraordinary success in persuading women that ‘natural’ is not good enough. What is mind-boggling is that a company this large can basically question the whole idea of attainable female beauty whilst making a profit by selling hundreds of products that promise just that. The campaign is now a ‘textbook standard case study’ in undergraduate marketing courses.

So why is beauty SO important to women (predominantly) in the developed or developing world? The reasons and complex and myriad but, at their core, it is because we can afford to obsess about beauty. If you live on a part of the planet where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs forms your daily ‘to do’ list, which usually gets stuck somewhere around the “food” and “shelter” issues, then exfoliation is a LONG way down that list.

So surely the female obsession with unattainable beauty can be firmly laid at the feet of men, can it not? By far the easiest target of the angry feminist, the more ‘utlitarian’ gender appears not to be guilty. Groups of women frequently ‘do themselves up’ at functions where men aren’t even present. If the goal of presenting an image closer to the ‘ideal’ was to attract men, it is rather intriguing then to see so many apparently happily married women dressing and being made up to this standard, even for work, where their husbands are not even present. Is it possible that the mimicking behaviour of pre-adolescent girls stems not from the influence of fathers and brothers but mothers, sisters and female friends? Do women trade on that most basic and primal commodity to establish social power amongst each other? A wall of psychological research would proclaim a resounding ‘yes’.

Sure women do ‘enhance’ beauty to a mythical standard to attract men, it works. However, the more important benefit appears to be higher standing amongst women. Couple that with well-developed social and emotional skills and you won’t find it hard to pick out your ‘Alpha female’ from any bevvy of women out for an event. So how does this relate to the beauty myth. Easily. Men are far more in agreement with what constitutes an attractive woman, whilst women are notoriously difficult to pin down key attributes of a physically attractive male. So here is a test: 1. Would you consider this woman generally attractive:

andie-macdowell-footloose

2. Ok, how about THIS guy?

Gerard Dep

Well people around my age may remember both Andie MacDowall (top) and Gerard Depardieu (bottom) as both acting in the classic feature “Greencard”. At the time, Andie was in the top ten regularly of polls of beautiful women in the US and Gerard of beautiful men predominantly in (his country of origin) France.

But wait, we know you want MORE, right? Well, such ideas go further in a way that seems, at first glance, to be a noble and admirable goal but one which leaves women in an even poorer state. Let me explain. The ubiquitous message we hear in the 21st century about women is that “All women are beautiful”, that all women should be proud of their bodies and realise that they are beautiful. Now this seems to include genetically responsible conditions such as deformities, large visible birth marks, skin abnormalities and so forth, but also those predominantly related to health and lifestyle including obesity.

This is where the message gets weird and dangerous for women. We are now (often) telling women that ‘you are all beautiful just the way you are’. We say it to the morbidly obese, we say it to the anorexics struggling to hang on to life in hospital and we say it to tragic burns victims that can’t face looking in the mirror. Why do we do it? To make them feel better? The absurd thing about this is that psychologically it can’t work and fundamentally, rather than devaluing the concept of beauty, it simply elevates it above all else… because everyone MUST be beautiful, right? No, everyone is not required to be beautiful and, I am going to say it; everyone is not ‘beautiful’.

Let me use two analogies that relate to men. Firstly, physical strength. This is an archetypal ideal for some men.. the ‘condom full of walnuts’ look and able to lift a truck up with your bare hands. Are ALL men strong? No. Some incredible men, like the actor that played Superman, the late Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic from a tragic horse-riding accident until his death in 2004 could not even lift a spoon. Is it important that all men are strong? No. Is it OK to say that some are not strong? Yes, of course.

Now what about smart men? Another archetype for men in establishing a socially stable hierarchy is intelligence. Notoriously hard to measure but we seem to know it when we see it. Now, is EVERY man a smart man? You’d have to be off your rocker to support that notion (or at least go for a drive!). Is it important that ALL men are smart. No. Not at all.

So why doesn’t telling women that they are beautiful work long term to improve their health, self-esteem and social opportunities? For the same reason that mothers telling woeful singers on Australian/American/UK Idol that they are awesome singers. It is a blatant lie because making them feel good is now far more important than being  good. When it comes to beauty, however, it doesn’t stick. We know this because survey after survey (even of beautiful models) show that women do not like the way they look. they don’t feel  beautiful. It is not fair but it is reality that beautiful women tend to have social capital in groups of adults, both mixed and single gender.

Despite flaws in intelligence, empathy, integrity or other attributes, beautiful women tend to get more attention in class, in interviews, in selections for promotion and other areas of societal competition. If a woman is told she is beautiful but not does experience the ‘benefits of the beautiful’ then she will know that what is being peddled about her ‘beauty’ is a lie. Worse, it now shows her just how far down this (unfair) hierarchy she really is, because beauty is the most important commodity.

This gets one step more bizarre when we encourage women whose health issues impinge on their beauty to ’embrace who they are’. Now for this controversial point, I expect some brickbats in the comments, but, PLEASE, read this section carefully. It is as damaging and absurd to tell an overweight woman that she is beautiful just the way she is and to not change a thing as it is to tell a smoker with lung cancer that his x-rayed lungs with grapefruit sized tumours are ‘a thing of beauty’ so keep on smoking.

Overweight or not, requiring someone to obtain some unattainable ideal of beauty is unfair, shallow and places value on something that for most of us might be very hard to change. Encouraging someone, whether they be anorexic or obese, or choose to use damaging solaria to get a tan with UV rays is simply irresponsible.

Ok, are you still with me? So what can we say to women about their bodies that can help them with health and their psychological well-being? What about that they are worthwhile human beings and that we ALL can benefit from being as healthy as we can be, particularly if we are globally rich and overindulged. Secondly, that, just like God, we can broaden the value we see in people; some are funny, some are empathic, some are very smart, some have awesome work ethics and tenacity, some are reliable and so forth. Let’s be genuinely complimentary about the people around us and the real beauty we see. Not flattery (which is an untrue compliment to make people feel good). Just let people separate themselves from the importance of being physically beautiful.

If you think there is heresy in this article. Stop, ladies and consider how we treat overweight men, funny-looking men or strange-looking men. It is a LOT more socially acceptable to pay out on an Australian man for being any of these things than a woman. Why? Because neither men nor women generally value physical beauty of men in the way that women do. Men have the same needs for self-esteem too, but physical beauty, in most research, is a lower priority for men. Watch out though if you insult his intelligence or his physical strength (or sexual prowess, an area where men are often woefully inadequate and very sensitive to criticism!).

So where does this leave us? With some sensible but promising work to do. What if we devalued physical beauty to a more reasonable level, whilst acknowledging the benefits to the ‘lucky ones’ in much the same way we do for those of gifted intelligence? What if we divorced health issues from self-esteem issues and decided that being healthy is more important than feeling beautiful. Health is a far more objective measure and it is quite possible that if you are proud of your ability to get yourself healthy (lower/higher fat percentage, healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, healthy liver and kidneys etc) you will be more confident regardless of how you look against the impossible standard and can realise your real worth as a caring and interdependent part of society.

Finally, what would society be like if we stopped being obsessed with the way our bodies looked and burdening our communication with others about our own physical and emotional inadequacies and focussed instead on the lives of others and the less fortunate whose lives we mentioned earlier. Now THAT, to me at least, sounds beautiful. Women who live like that, regardless of how they look are VERY attractive.. don’t you think? 😉