Almost four years ago, “Royals” — the debut single from the precocious, lion-maned New Zealand teen who had the audacity to introduce herself as Lorde — became the first song by a woman to top Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in 17 years. It was awkward, this attempt to squeeze it into a recognizable genre: “Royals” was a pop song through and through (that chorus!), but it also had an attitude that made it feel like an alternative to something. Lorde, though, was confounding from the outset. She was more No than Yes; more Yeezus than Red. “Royals” was her greatest contradiction: Half the reason it made it to pop radio was because it sounded, if you weren’t listening hard enough, like a celebration of the things it was actually sneering at. Pure Heroine, the dark, verbose, and massively successful debut record that followed, seemed from the get-go like an impossible act to follow. It earned Lorde two Grammys and an honorary membership in Taylor Swift’s squad, and thus raised an uncomfortable question: As the world she’d once been skeptical of swallowed her up, how would Lorde be able to retain that signature defiance?
She was smart to wait until she was almost bursting: “Green Light,” the first single from her forthcoming album Melodrama, is animated by antsy, pent-up energy. The tempo is a brisk walk away from someone you were hoping you wouldn’t run into; the verses are a tumult of words carefully chosen to sting, grumbled while still in that person’s earshot. “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar,” Lorde growls.
The video for “Green Light” is equally forceful. It’s the Lorde equivalent of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” — a glorious female weirdo dancing out her heartbreak against an indifferent landscape. Bless the manager who never forced Lorde to take dancing lessons. There’s something life-affirming about the way she moves onstage and in her videos, like a rhythmic exorcism.
It can’t have been easy for Lorde to hold onto her weird over these past few years. It’s hard for anybody in this age of crowd-sourced coolness — the second anybody’s discovered doing anything halfway unique these days, it’s just as quickly commodified into a hollow “personal brand.” Some of Pure Heroine’s lyrics provided a gentle critique of its cultural moment (“It looked alright in the pictures,” she sang on the opening song, a little sarcastically) but it was also a celebration of the sharp edges and human impurities that get erased by Instagram filters. The chorus of its other hit single, “Team,” was perhaps the most emblematic of Pure Heroine’s cracked-glory ethos: “We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen/Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things.”
“Green Light” is, like all of Melodrama, a collaboration with Jack Antonoff — a fact that will probably garner it (somewhat justifiable) comparisons to Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods.” But there’s something a little more gnarled and internal about Lorde’s songwriting: Even her dance moves, as they’ve matured, have given off the feeling that she’s hunching further and further into herself. “Green Light” pulls off a trick similar to “Royals” with the way it feels at once in conversation and a little apart from everything else on the radio right now — immediate but still forward-thinking. Maybe that’s just how she grew up: After all, it’s always already tomorrow in New Zealand.