Let’s get this out of the way up front: No, Lorde’s concert Saturday in Columbus did not feel empty.
If you’ve heard anything about this tour supporting Melodrama — last year’s critically acclaimed follow-up to her star-making 2013 debut Pure Heroine — it’s that the 21-year-old New Zealand singer is playing to half-full arenas. On opening night, it was even grimmer than that, with only 6,000 people showing up to Milwaukee’s 18,000-capacity BMO Harris Bradley Center. This poor turnout mimicked the commercial struggle of Melodrama itself, which quickly plummeted down the albums chart after its #1 debut and failed to spin off a single anywhere near as big as the chart-topping, format-flouting “Royals” or even its #6-peaking companion piece “Team.” To sum up her predicament, the Grammys nominated Melodrama for Album Of The Year but felt comfortable denying Lorde an invite to perform at the ceremony.
The tour, announced last June on the day the album dropped, was clearly booked with the expectation that Melodrama would saturate pop culture the same way Pure Heroine had, further cementing Lorde’s status on the pop A-list. This plan evidently overestimated public interest by a long shot, but understandably so. Melodrama’s underwhelming reception is a mystery to me — not just because we at Stereogum liked it enough to name it the best album of 2017 but because it’s packed with should-be hits. The lithe and snappy “Homemade Dynamite” isn’t a hit? The euphorically surging wistfulness delivery system “Supercut” isn’t a hit? “Green Light,” the audacious anthem with the instantly iconic Grant Singer music video, couldn’t climb above #19? Surely these songs are not so different from “Royals” and the minimal synth-pop that made her a star?
In The Guardian, Laura Snapes recently argued that Lorde’s underperforming album and tour will be good for her career in the long run, removing the burdensome expectation to be a pop powerhouse and setting her up for a long and fruitful career the way the similarly received Paul’s Boutique did for the Beastie Boys. That’s probably accurate, but her gig Saturday did not feel significantly less crowded than the other pop shows I’ve seen at the Schottenstein Center. Admittedly, a few sections of the top bowl were curtained off, but vibe was warm and enthusiastic, and the place was full enough that Lorde could transition from “How you doing out there?” to “How you doing up there?” and receive thunderous cheers in reply. Reflecting on her success at such a young age, she admitted, “I still kind of think my mom’s just bribed all these people to show up,” and the words “all these people” did not ring hollow.
Her set was full of that sort of basic arena banter. This was her first show in Columbus, so she told us, “I feel like it’s crazy that we’ve never met before. This is a very spicy first date, don’t you think?” Somewhat undermining that joke, she later added, “I feel like we have so much to catch up on, guys. It’s been our whole lives. I have so many questions, mostly about your love lives. Are you dating anyone, Columbus?” This was not so far off from the mild chitchat Lorde’s friend and fellow former teenage star Taylor Swift spouts at every show, and it generated the same feverish response from the room. It was pop-star 101.
(Side note: When you’re in Columbus, the most basic pop-star banter of all is shouting “O-H!” and inevitably being greeted by a hearty “I-O!” from the crowd. This is a popular Ohio State football cheer, one that concert promoters evidently coach musicians to try out when they visit here. Lorde was so delighted by the reaction to this trick that she deployed it three separate times, including once during a cover of Frank Ocean’s “Solo.” It was so overkill that I almost expected her to change the “Green Light” lyrics to read, “I whisper ‘O-H,’ the city sings ‘I-O’ back to you.”)
So yeah, Lorde was greeted like a pop star, and in many ways she’s got the whole pop-star thing down. What Saturday’s show underlined is that she’s her own kind of pop star, one with a different skill set and point of view than we’ve come to expect from people with this job. For one thing, her vocals are not conventionally stellar. This has not always been a deterrent to pop stardom — just ask Ms. Swift — but in this business it’s both an obstacle to overcome and an opportunity to be creative.
Although Lorde’s voice is a fascinating instrument in its own right, material like that “Solo” cover demonstrated that it’s not a current of electricity ready to be set free on command like Ocean’s. When she goes high, she has to work for it. When she goes low, her bellows and growls dig into her songs like claws, scraping and quivering from the back of her throat. In that case you’d think the louder, faster songs less dependent on vocal prowess would work in her favor, but on stage she was largely swallowed up by the noisier numbers. The barebones material — like “Royals,” but also Melodrama ballads “Liability” and “Writer In The Dark” — allowed her to show off her voice’s unique quirks to powerful effect.
If Lorde’s singing is unconventional, her dancing is — well, you’ve probably seen her dancing. The woman is not exactly graceful. Although she engaged in a few coordinated maneuvers throughout the night, she mostly left the heavy choreography to about a half-dozen dancers and focused on her usual contortions, punching both fists simultaneously at off-kilter angles and going full Thom Yorke. You either love it or you laugh at it, but she owns those moves, and her stage show was set up to make smart use of them.
Often Lorde would occupy one side of the stage while her backup dancers stood off to the other, miming out some scene in conjunction with her lyrics. Other times they’d be suspended in the levitating glass box that served as the show’s main bit of stagecraft, doing their Cirque du Soleil thing while Lorde remained earthbound. When the show opened with the booming, skittering “Sober,” the dancers wandered in the foreground spotlight while Lorde remained behind them shrouded in shadows. The dancers occasionally lifted Lorde skyward, but especially after the camaraderie on display from openers Run The Jewels — who compared themselves to “the weird drunken cousins who stumbled into the wedding and took over the karaoke machine for 40 minutes” — she seemed on her own out there, as if drawing all of us into a one-on-one conversation.
This staging accentuated Lorde’s songs, which often focus on solitude, interior monologues, and surveying scenes from afar. Introducing “Solo,” she noted, “It’s a song about being alone, which is one of my favorite genres of music.” Her catalog reflects that preference, particularly Melodrama, an album largely about learning to thrive on your own when your friends and lovers abandon you. Approaching pop stardom from an introvert’s perspective plays out gloriously on record, a format that allows Lorde’s auteurist vision to manifest in all its vibrant color. On stage, it added up to something less consistently awe-inspiring but just as piercingly intimate, with a few instances that approached her catalog’s spine-tingling peaks.
“Yellow Flicker Beat,” Lorde’s contribution to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, built from some of those low-register snarls into a violent tidal wave, Lorde sweeping across the stage as if off to war. The Disclosure collab “Magnets” revealed itself to be more of a banger than I remembered and a fine venue for her fired-up body motion. Seeing her perform “Royals” already feels special, a slice of our shared cultural history brought to life before us. But Lorde has only gotten better since Pure Heroine, so the run of older material like “Tennis Court,” “Buzzcut Season,” and “400 Lux” early in the setlist mostly just stoked my anticipation for the best tracks from Melodrama.
And man, did those Melodrama highlights deliver. “The Louvre,” Lorde’s most guitar-centric song, lost none of its lovestruck splendor boom-boom-booming across an arena. “Supercut” was just as much of a sentimental rush on stage as on record. “Perfect Places” soared in the setlist’s penultimate spot, its gleaming synths and gang vocals sounding like the apotheosis of the original Pure Heroine sound. But nothing topped the set-closing “Green Light,” the disjointed multi-part epic that somehow coheres into rapturous grade-A pop music.
There was still an encore to come, but understated curios “Loveless” and “Precious Metals” plus “Team” amounted to a comedown after the exclamation point that was “Green Light.” When that song’s final chorus gave way to its instrumental grand finale, Lorde losing herself in dance amidst exploding confetti, I’ve never been more confused about why the world at large failed to embrace it. But it’s not like nobody embraced “Green Light.” There was a legion of adoring fans losing their minds along with her — maybe not quite enough to sell out an arena, but more than enough to render the moment larger than life, the way pop spectacle is supposed to feel.