Review: Lorde is Pop Music’s Most Humble Royalty

The New Zealand singer hit Oakland and let her talents speak for themselves.

Lorde’s greatest strength may actually be her vulnerability. The 21-year-old New Zealand native is powerfully gifted, but during her performance at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, she tempered her talents with an authentic humbleness that one rarely sees from pop stars headlining a stadium show. Instead, the artist born Ella Yelich-O’Connor eschewed theatrics in favor of raw talent, letting her voice and the electropop beats that frequent her two albums do the heavy lifting.

It wasn’t long ago that Lorde was headlining the nearby Greek Theatre, where in 2014 she performed two shows behind her blockbuster debut, Pure Heroine. During a pause in her 90-minute set, she fondly recalled those shows, and noted that the Bay Area was an early adopter of her work. If it was lip service, it was damn convincing, and given she offered similar sentiments during a 2017 set at Outside Lands, it’s tempting to take her at her word.

Being genuine is a rarity in pop, especially in an age when younger fans have made a habit of deifying their favorite artists. Embracing their image as divine beings, contemporary pop artists offer performances that are less a concert and more a circus as imagined by a millennial P.T. Barnum. There is often an army of back-up dancers, tons of dazzling special effects, and even the occasional acrobatic component.

At her Oakland show, Lorde opted against these theatrics. Instead she had a modest crew of dancers that performed a type of ballet that reflected the concept of her new record, Melodrama, as the narrative of a party.

To emphasize the voyeuristic component of watching the drama of a party unfold, a translucent rectangle represented the show’s singular set piece. Throughout her performance, Lorde and various combinations of dancers mounted pantomimed triptychs inside the structure, which was also attached to cables that allowed it to rise high and sink below the stage.

Beyond that however, it was mostly just Lorde — dancing wildly to “Homemade Dynamite” and sitting atop the rectangle for a radiant cover of Frank Ocean’s “Solo.” The reward for the years she spent honing her sophomore album with assistance from fun.’s Jack Antonoff is that music is strong enough to sustain itself—there’s really no need for fireworks.

Whether Lorde was belting “Liability” with only a live keyboard for accompaniment or pulsating with jubilation and fury as she closed out her main set with “Green Light,” everything she needed was already in her lungs and in the peculiar electricity that seems to pulsate through her when the beat drops big.

The crowd was already primed for some bangers thanks to an opening set from Run the Jewels.

Perhaps viewed as a curious choice to support Lorde on tour, rappers El-P and Killer Mike seemed elated to be trading verses on the same floor Stephen Curry lights up nightly. Some in the audience — which ran the gamut from middle-school girls to hipster bartenders and date night parents – took a few songs to warm up to the spitfire duo, but eventually everyone succumbs to Killer Mike’s bombastic flow.

It’s hard to say how many ears Run the Jewels may have converted during their 45 minute set, but it’s a testament to Lorde’s engagement with what’s good in music that she opted to tap both them and the brilliant singer-songwriter Mitski to accompany her on various legs of her current tour.  

She’s also good with off-the-cuff quips, like when she queried the audience about whether Oracle was indeed where the Golden State Warriors played.

That’s exciting!” she responded. “When I shower in the morning, I’ll be trying to avoid athlete’s foot from the Golden State Warriors.”

Later she did some notable pun work, acknowledging the similarity between Oakland and her native Auckland.

“Maybe they’re sister cities!” she enthused. The infectious enthusiasm of her words were almost enough to make it fact, the only evidence some enterprising teen would require to perhaps later make a sneaky edit on Wikipedia.

By offering her insights not as gospel truth but instead as the musings of a friend, Lorde proved she has no interest in playing the diva. It was evident in her choice to perform the first of two costume changes in full view of the audience from within the confines of her Plexiglas rectangle. It was clear in the dress of her dancers, who wore comfortable grey garments (one guy even had a sweatshirt tied around his waist) and did not resemble supermodels who had taken five years of movement classes but authentic dancers of shapes and sizes.

In short, Lorde made it clear on Tuesday night that her throne isn’t meant to occupy a lofty perch. While she may have earned the right to gaze down at her mass of adoring admirers, Lorde isn’t concerned with being royalty.  It seems all she wants is simply a crowd to dance with.

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