The new song and video for "Solar Power" by Lorde ties together so many recurring themes here.
This is a clear attempt at a Manic Pixie Dream Girl role, or an earthly guardian angel (a beachier, "prettier Jesus") who nurses a sad sack back to social-emotional health, in order to help him to fulfill his potential.
These roles appear during the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, as people are coming out of their refractory states from the previous vulnerable phase of the cycle, and feel like mixing it up again with the opposite sex. The last heyday was 2005-'09, which drew people out of their refractory states from 2000-'04. The most recent vulnerable phase was 2015-'19, and as of last year people are ready to come out and play again.
In this song, though, she's not aiming at a specific sad sack, who's been unlucky in love. It's more about nursing everyone back to health, not just men, and not just in the romantic domain of life. She could easily be encouraging a group of women to find confidence and fulfill their potential. She's a free spirit leading by example.
The earthiness and the dating-and-mating aspect is still there in the double-entendre about "my cheeks in high color / overripe peaches". But it's aimed at a general audience.
And Lorde does check almost all of the boxes of the MPDG type.
Crucially, she's born during a manic phase of the excitement cycle, and was re-born in adolescence during such a phase at age 15. She was born in 1996, during the late '90s manic phase, and turned 15 during the manic phase of the early 2010s.
Manic phase births imprint on a zeitgeist where energy levels have taken off in a spike, which is carefree, invincible, and resilient regarding risk and loss. This gives them a natural attitude of dusting yourself off and trying again, not wallowing in abjection. The last such crop were those born in the early '80s manic phase, who led the MPDG way during the late 2000s restless warm-up phase. (And before them, those born during the late '60s manic phase, who led the way during the early '90s restless phase, such as Julia Roberts and Sarah Jessica Parker.)
You might not have known it — certainly I did not — until this new video and the cover art for the accompanying album, but Lorde has a pronounced hourglass shape. The MPDG is fundamentally a nurturing role, and this is reflected in their hyper-feminine waist-to-hip ratio. Also, they tend to be butt girls rather than boob girls, and Lorde is no exception. This relates to their being corporeal rather than cerebral, as corporeal people are butt people, while cerebral people are boob people. And the MPDG is an earthly nurse, not a cerebral therapist or Socratic tutor.
The one thing that she misses in the MPDG checklist is being heterosexual (as is the norm) or bisexual (a la fellow late '90s birth Rebecca Black in the Manic Pixie-ish "Girlfriend" from earlier this year).
Here is an item from Blind Gossip, whose clues clearly point to Lorde as the lesbian being described ("drama" referring to the title of her then-new album Melodrama, and the related link being about a "Royal" being gay, referring to her breakout hit "Royals"). She got defensive about "What's wrong with lesbians" when questioned by an Australian radio interviewer about her close friendship with (closeted lesbian) Taylor Swift — another dead giveaway, if I had been paying attention back then. Google image search both of their names, and you can see they were very physical and excited to be around each other, even though they seemingly had little in common. Taylor was just hyped up to find another lesbian in the music industry, and a quasi-forbidden 7-years-younger minor at that (no hate, 16/17 and 23/24 is totally natural).
I didn't suspect she was lesbian because lesdar is incredibly hard for outsiders to refine, unlike gaydar, but I should've been tipped off by how mature / old she sounds and presents herself. Lesbians are fundamentally a peri-menopausal group of women, in contrast to gays who are fundamentally a pre-pubescent group of boys ("ewww, girls are yucky"). Lesbians are more likely to be butt girls than boob girls, so that's another match.
When "Royals" came out, she was only 16, but her voice, affect, and the rest all came off as 10 years older. In the new video, she could easily be in her late 30s or 40s, just having a really tight body for her age. It sounds more aimed at an adult contempo audience, who want to rejuvenate their lost or slipping-away youth. When the women are doing the tai-chi inspired poses, I immediately thought of those "yoga your way through menopause, and discover the best you possible" kind of products.
However, this does allow her to target a broad audience, and to talk about more than just dating and mating, as though she were a wise middle-aged hippie, rather than a naive or ditzy youth. So her being a peri-menopausal lesbian works for the song, but does keep it from being a true MPDG role.
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So far I've discussed her persona instead of the music itself, because this is mostly a change-of-character performance from her indie / dark persona. The music is OK, not something I would buy, but not something I would change the station for if it came on the radio. I was never into her earlier stuff either (didn't hate it, though), so this isn't necessarily a backslide for her maturation.
But how does the music embody the larger themes? It's fairly subdued for the most part, with plainspoken vocals, occasional layers of sighs, and sparse instrumentation. In that way, it's like the dream-pop sound typical of the previous vulnerable phase of the cycle, characterized by trance-like droning layers rather than dynamic melodies and riffs. It taps into the late 2010s drowsiness and moodiness that is still a familiar feeling for us, especially her target audience who need encouragement to leave behind their cocoons.
There's hardly any percussion, although the guitar strumming is a bit syncopated, and the pick striking the strings is amplified so heavily that it takes on a percussive timbre, all creating a stirring-awake rhythm. People are just coming out of their cocoons in the early 2020s, not off onto an energy spike just yet. And it builds steadily toward an uplifting choral finale, for when we are finally awake and raring to go.
It sounds nothing like George Michael — I don't know how that became a common take. Everyone in the media today is a failson or faildaughter being propped up by central bank handouts (quantitative easing), so it's no surprise to see them have such an impoverished store of references in memory, that they heard a sparse verse with an acoustic guitar strumming, and instantly went to "Faith".
What does it actually sound like? It does have an early '90s vibe to it, since the 1990-2004 cycle was a low-energy cycle, whereas the cycles before and after it were high-energy (1975-'89, and 2005-'19). Or an early '60s vibe (another low-energy cycle, 1960-'74, before the high-energy one that followed). I can't think of a particular example from the early '90s, though.
However, it otherwise sounds like "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield.
Technically this was released first in 2004 in the UK, where it went nowhere, but really released in '05-'06 in the US, where it was one of the biggest songs of 2006 and cemented her fame here. "Unwritten" is a bit faster and groovier, but is still very sparse in instrumentation, features a simple acoustic rhythm guitar in the verse, and has minimal percussion (mainly a muted bass drum, akin to the bass guitar in "Solar Power").
The vocals in the verse are fairly plainspoken, occasional sighs for layering, but it gradually builds toward an uplifting choral finale, which is in a Christian gospel style — not unlike the New Age-y religious chant of "solar power" in the Lorde song.
Thematically, it's another anthem about finding confidence, not letting the past weigh you down, and turning over a new leaf, ready to fulfill your potential. The running metaphor is writing, and the initial state she's in is having writer's block, like a sad sack from an MPDG movie who starts off stuck in a rut, at an impasse in life. Totally in touch with the zeitgeist of shifting out of the early 2000s refractory state and into the restless warm-up phase of the late 2000s.
And just like Lorde, Bedingfield was born during a manic phase (the early '80s, along with the MPDG actresses from that same late 2000s era). Judging from her other music videos (like "These Words"), she looks like more of a butt girl than a boob girl, and styled as a free-spirited gypsy. Unlike Lorde, she seems pretty heterosexual, full of youthful energy and libido, and not like a middle-aged mentor (however funky they may be).
Both songs are less about the music per se, and more about channeling the zeitgeist, and spurring forward the social-emotional changes under way between the vulnerable and restless phases of the excitement cycle. They're more cultural than aesthetic, but no less important for that.