When you’re feeling nostalgic and reminiscing on 2013 teenage culture, Tumblr probably comes to mind. As teens scrolled and reblogged on the website until the early hours of morning, there was one notable album by an artist who helped define this period of time and the culture surrounding it. Lorde’s Pure Heroine raised an entire generation of Tumblr obsessed class clowns / beauty queens and helped guide many of us then-teens live through such turbulent years.
The debut album from then 16 year-old Lorde (born Ella Yelich-O’Connor) was released on 27th September 2013 to worldwide and critical acclaim – an achievement that, at the time, was a surreal accomplishment for a teenage artist from Aotearoa. The album transcended a domestic breakthrough and skyrocketed Lorde straight into monolithic popstar terrain.
Now a two-time Grammy Award winning artist with three critically acclaimed studio albums (and an impending fourth), join us in feeling proud and sentimental – because it’s the 10th anniversary of Lorde’s Pure Heroine.
Before reminiscing on Pure Heroine, it’s important to remind ourselves of the context for Lorde before the success of her debut album. Having self-released her debut EP The Love Club on Soundcloud in November 2012, then re-releasing it commercially on 8th March 2013, Lorde and her then-producer Joel Little had found themselves dominating a particular scene: New Zealand’s music landscape. The EP gained over 60,000 downloads without any promotion; instead, the attention was organically coming from curious and eager listeners both online and in-person. The Love Club, particularly the EP version of the now Grammy Award winning ‘Royals’, was inescapable on local radio stations, and there was an electric excitement in the air for Lorde’s trajectory. It was already obvious in early 2013 that Lorde was a pop innovator bound for international success.
As ‘Royals’ continued to gain more radio airplay and streams on Soundcloud, teens from every corner of the world began to build momentum around her through Tumblr. Lorde’s pen-game was noted as wise beyond her years for a 16 year-old, an expression also used in the past to describe Fiona Apple when she released her 1996 debut album Tidal at only 18 years old. Critics and listeners began to do the obvious: compare Lorde’s sound to other notable rising pop stars at the time, such as Lana Del Rey and Sky Ferreira.
However, when Lorde released Pure Heroine, the conversation became one less about comparison and more of people wondering: “what kind of pop is this?” The album’s still notable and regarded for both its unique lyricism, contemporary themes, and minimalist pop production. Although minimalist and stripped-back production began to appear within hip-hop and rap, pop music was incredibly EDM-maximalist at the time of Pure Heroine’s release. Lorde used Pure Heroine to redefine and evolve the pop genre into a space for experimentation and risk; a space for her to push boundaries and make a corner for her ideal of pop.
By earnestly exploring relatable themes such as adolescence, expectations and materialism, Pure Heroine contradicted and critiqued what Lorde perceived as limitations within pop music and also the limitations society places on teenagers. Lorde was self-aware of being different from her fellow pop artists, as she grew up and lived in New Zealand. Coming from a country that’s far away from most of the world and incredibly claustrophobic in its size, the album’s lyrics on isolation really resonate not only to those from New Zealand, but also with angsty teenagers who understand what it’s like to feel both physically and mentally disconnected from family and friends. Although the lyrics and production are dark and atmospheric to reinforce its ideas, there is still a warmth to the album that resonates and uplifts those who relate to it. She is also able to make her listener feel safe and understood within her world, which is reinforced through her constant use of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.
From the sweet and sunny synth work on ‘400 Lux’, to Lorde fondly reflecting on friendship and adolescence in ‘Buzzcut Season’, and her bittersweetly singing “raise a glass ’cause I’m not done sayin’ it, they all wanna get rough, get away with it, let ’em talk ’cause we’re dancing in this world alone,” on closing track ‘A World Alone’, all 10 songs on Pure Heroine still sound innovative and ahead of their time. However, there are four songs which stand out, both for their individual successes and for their ongoing relevance within today’s culture.
The album’s opening track ‘Tennis Court’ is notable for its moody and minimalist production, evoking a sense of rebellion and cynicism from Lorde. The song’s music video is iconic in that a halo-braided and dark-lipped Lorde blanky gazes at her viewer, only mouthing along to the lyrics “yeah”. The video is cheeky and genius, because its minimalism mimics not only the production of the entire album, but also her complicated thoughts on becoming a possible popstar. When she sings “but my head’s fillin’ up fast with the wicked games, up in flames, how can I f*ck with the fun again when I’m known?” it became evident that Lorde had insight into her future in music before it barely begun.
‘Royals’ is not only a Grammy Award winning song, but also Lorde’s most listened to. Now with over one billion streams on Spotify alone, ‘Royals’ was an inescapable gamechanger and earned Lorde a number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the youngest singer to earn number-one in America since the 80s. Like many of the things Lorde does, the music video for ‘Royals’, (with nearly one billion views on YouTube), was ahead of its time and looks straight out of an A24 film. The video beautifully aligns with Lorde’s sentiments toward commercial music at that time, with her singing “but every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room, we don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” As she sings this, we see shots of Lorde and her friends in desolate Auckland suburbia.
‘Ribs’ feels like a warm hug in a cold and daunting party. “You’re the only friend I need / sharing beds like little kids / and laughing till our ribs get tough / but that will never be enough,” is one of Lorde’s most popular choruses, even today, with ‘Ribs’ having over 500 million streams on Spotify alone. It’s a song containing the magic of transporting you to specific memories and sensations. Pure Heroine’s third single, ‘Team’, is a bittersweet ode to the youth who grow up in disconnected places – yet it’s a land for them to rule. The song’s music video concept was born out of a dream Lorde had, and it’s still a fresh take on the unfair limitations and grind placed on teens. But teens flourish in the end, and they will team up against those who restrain them (as they should).
The response to Pure Heroine was, as mentioned earlier, worldwide and critical acclaim. People from all around the world were listening to and discussing the album. It was all the talk (especially on Tumblr) and there was a lot of buzz for Lorde, who was still quite a mysterious figure at the time. As the world got to know her more, they fell in love with her humble wit, quirkiness and wisdom. Word of her talent travelled fast, and within a few months of the album’s release, Lorde won two Grammys: one for ‘Best Pop Solo Performance’ and another for ‘Song of the Year’. She then went on her first international tour, playing over 100 shows. Lorde also received personal praise from one of her biggest inspirations, David Bowie. Before he passed away, he said he thought Lorde was the future of music.
Pure Heroine’s impact and influence on the future is undeniable. After the album released, other pop singers stepped back from EDM production and began creating more stripped and minimal pop songs. By utilising her voice and putting it centre stage over Pure Heroine’s minimalist beats and production, Lorde paved the way for pop singers who also bring emphasis to their voice and harmonies being first, instrumentation second. This is now seen in artists Lorde has influenced, such as Billie Eilish, Clairo, and Olivia Rodrigo, to name a few. So not only did Lorde (and Joel) help create a new approach to pop production, but her signature way of singing and harmonising also inspired the newer generation of pop singers too.
On a smaller scale of impact, Pure Heroine made New Zealanders feel seen by the rest of the world and that felt exciting. Lorde was opening new doors for her fellow Kiwis, and since then we’ve seen other incredible local artists, such as BENEE, further open the door which had once felt closed off for artists in New Zealand.
Pure Heroine will continue to live on ‘til its “veins run red and blue”, because it’ll forever be the space Lorde created for herself and us to return to when we feel nostalgic and in need of a familiar friend. And beyond those of us who spent time with the album when it released, Gen-Z have now found their own world within the album. They tend to create TikToks reflecting on their fleeting youth with ‘Ribs’ attached. Both the teenagers of now and those of the past will keep Pure Heroine relevant and alive – it truly is a one of a kind masterpiece and debut album.