Lorde made headlines back in June as the first female artist to top Billboard’s alternative songs chart since Tracy Bonham in 1996, just months before the New Zealand singer was born. This is a cool thing, in as much as the chart has been dominated by male acts for a very long time, but it’s also sort of a nonevent in that the chart itself has no particular meaning outside the record industry. Lorde’s PR team pushed this achievement in press releases all the same, in part because it’s a sign of the singer’s success, but also because they are working hard to position her as alternative to bigger pop acts.
Billboard’s alternative songs chart, formerly known as the modern rock tracks chart, has existed since 1988 and serves to monitor a constantly mutating market for commercial rock music that can be considered “left of center.” It started off primarily focused on Anglophile “college rock,” but then shifted with cultural currents to favor the popular grunge and alt-rock that arrived in the wake of Nirvana hitting the mainstream, and then cycled through corny late ’90s fare like Sugar Ray and Third Eye Blind, the rap-metal era, and a long stretch of the mid-’00s in which the rapidly declining rock radio format was mostly just Foo Fighters or things that sounded a little like Foo Fighters. In recent years, the chart is mainly characterized by the sort of vaguely indie-ish music that ends up in a lot of advertising — Phoenix, The Black Keys, fun., M83, Foster the People. The only consistent thing about the alternative chart is that if a song is performing well on it, it will almost always cross over to the mainstream.
On a superficial level, it can be hard to understand why Lorde is being lumped in with the alternative rock crowd. There’s not a lot of “rock” in her songs, and her voice comes closer to the R&B-influenced inflections of pop radio than the yelps, whines, and shouts that have always dominated “alternative” music. There are moments on her debut, Pure Heroine, that tip in the direction of artier indie music — she leans pretty hard on ambient drones and minimalist beats on cuts like “Ribs” and “400 Lux.” But overall, it’s a set of songs that exist in more or less the same cultural space as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. (Not to mention Drake, who is also a pretty big fan of ambient minimalism.)
But Lorde makes sense as an “alternative” act because she consistently positions herself as an outsider. Pure Heroine and her enormously successful Love Club EP are full of songs about feeling distanced from the popular kids, alienated by the conspicuous consumption of pop stars, and marginalized by coming from a place “you’ll never see on screen.” This dovetails nicely with the singer’s rapid but organic rise to prominence — she bubbled up seemingly out of nowhere on Bandcamp, and scored a sleeper hit in “Royals” based on enthusiastic word of mouth. Lorde is a pop singer, but a pop singer for people who feel like today’s pop music is not made for them. It’s also pop music for people who crave the sort of “discovery” experience that is more typically associated with indie and alternative acts.
Lorde’s underdog position is very appealing, and on her own terms, her music is as relatable as Katy Perry’s songs about triumphing over adversity, or Rihanna’s hits about glamorous, doomed romance. This makes her a very good pop star, in her ability to synthesize common feelings, fantasies, and self-perception into evocative, accessible music. There’s a touch of melancholy and angst to her music but she mostly comes off like someone who is happy with who she is, and comfortable with standing apart from the crowd. Unlike Perry, she’s not in the business of telling herself or anyone else that they’re some special “firework,” but she does spend a lot of time repping for working class people from small towns and far-flung places, which is sort of hard to come by in contemporary pop. When she sings songs about love and romance, the details are pointedly small in scale and low key in sentiment, as if to highlight that she’s just a normal person. A normal person like you.
The benefit of Lorde being an “alternative” pop star is that it lowers the stakes for her in ways that may work out well for her in the long term. She’s not expected to directly compete with pop juggernauts like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga, and has room to develop a more cultish following along the lines of other left-of-center pop singers like Robyn and Lykke Li. Lorde doesn’t have to be perfect right away, and there’s plenty of room for her to develop and hone her craft. But the fact that she’s been so successful already suggests that a lot of people have been craving the sort of humble, vaguely arty alternative that she presents, and she could be the harbinger of a change that could place her at the center of pop culture rather than at the margins. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened for an artist who started out on the “alternative” charts, after all.