all photos by the author
Dancing in a World Alone
celebrating ten years of making art and listening to lorde’s pure heroine
By Taylor Stout
I can’t tell you the first time I heard Lorde’s decade-defining song “Royals,” but I remember the first time I listened to it with a friend. Since Lorde’s music has connected me with other people in the ten years since that debut single, that’s the more meaningful moment.
The two of us walked down to the beach to take pictures at sunset and found a strange mist that tinted the whole sky an almost fluorescent pink—not quite the choking haze of wildfire smoke, but blurring the horizon nonetheless. I could hear the waves more than see them as we traversed invasive ice plants to reach the sand. We kept laughing and telling each other “THIS IS CRAZY” between clicks of our shutters. I can’t find the pictures from that day among my dusty collection of old SD cards, but it’s a rare instance where I trust the punched-up colors of my memory.
After the sun sank behind the ocean, we started making our way back to my house by the leftover light. I lived about a mile inland on a street named after a tree in a whole neighborhood of streets named after trees. I could never remember the order they were in. Was it Pine then Elm then Palm, or Palm then Pine then Elm? For too long, I held out hope that we were headed in the right direction. I tried a weird shortcut. I knew we’d made a wrong turn when we ended up on the perimeter of some empty basketball courts I hadn’t seen in years.
We were lost—and anxious, giggling in that frenzied way kids do when they don’t want to admit they’re scared. Making sounds made the darkness feel less total.
I felt stupid being lost in the only place I’d ever lived, walking a route I’d walked hundreds of times. But this was the first time I hadn’t been mindlessly following someone else around. All the streets looked familiar, but wherever we were felt like an echo of the walk down, the way you recognize a place in a dream and only realize how skewed your recollection of it was after waking. I was getting tired. My camera strap was digging into my neck. On a hunch, I led us up a hill and around a corner, and finally we were on a street I recognized. The world solidified around me. I knew where to go then. It was just a long walk, and we had no light left.
“Wait, I have something for our journey,” my friend said, pulling her phone out of her bag. “It’s a new song, ‘Royals.’”
“Oh, I know it!” I was thrilled. “The radio’s been playing it every day on my ride to volleyball.” While that fact suggests a skyrocketing popularity, I had yet to actually talk to anyone who also loved the song. She pressed play.
Lorde’s disaffected vocals filled the air from the tinny phone speaker. Lorde was sixteen years old. We were both teenagers—I was fourteen—but she seemed so much more grown up. I couldn’t imagine being sixteen. She had already done something. She was on the radio. How will I feel at sixteen? What will I do? I wondered. I wanted my photos to be in The Whitney, a museum I had never visited, like the photographer Ryan McGinley. He was twenty-five when he had his solo show there—one of the youngest artists to do so—so I still had a ton of time, and “Royals” made me feel brave. We sang along to the chorus. I didn’t know what “Grey Goose,” “Cristal,” or “Maybach” were, and I didn’t care. There was no audience to our performance, no sound but the song, our voices, and the static humming of telephone wires that criss-crossed the city. In the absence of traffic, we walked and skipped down the middle of the street. There was freedom in that shared desolation. We let the song play on a loop. During the third play, we came around a corner. I saw the construction site another friend and I had recently snuck onto after hours to take pictures, and next to it, my house.
the view from my childhood bedroom at dusk
I didn’t see another sunset like that one. Summer ended, and I started my freshman year of high school. Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, came out shortly after on September 27th, 2013.
By that point, I’d heard “Royals” on the radio enough times to have grown sick of it. Every time I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, a radio DJ animated by sleazy enthusiasm would say, “UP NEXT ON UNDER THE RADAR,” followed by sound effects of lasers for a good five seconds.
“This is Lorde, she’s from New Zealand, this is her hit debut single, and get this, SHE’S SIXTEEN!”
Another DJ would chime in with something like: “What were you doing at sixteen, Jimmy?” The two guys would cackle together.
The other would respond: “Not writing hit singles, that’s all I’ll tell you on the airwaves. ‘Royals’ by Lorde, people, take a listen, she’s the next big thing.”
The guys were somehow able to laud her and not take her seriously in the same breath. The song lost the sacred feeling it had possessed when it was a talisman I shared with a friend. It had become radio fodder, endlessly repeated and empty of magic. It took me a couple days before I could listen to the album with an unclouded mind. But once I got over my petty resistance, the music quickly became foundational.
When I reflect on this cultural moment with friends, we often situate Pure Heroine in a wave of influential alternative albums that came out in 2013 and had brooding, black-and-white covers. Think The 1975’s self-titled debut, The Neighbourhood’s I Love You, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me (dad’s influence), and Arctic Monkeys’ AM. Greek statues and neon lights populate these covers, and the skies that appear on them are foggy or stormy—a far cry from my suburban Los Angeles in balmy September. The music was theatrical, literate, and angsty. I immersed myself in this sound and its mood. The first vinyl record I bought was Modern Vampires of the City from Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard; it came with a poster that I hung on my bedroom wall. My official answer to “favorite album” was AM. I wore high-waisted shorts from the Melrose flea market because of “Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood and knee socks because of the Arctic Monkeys song named for them.
But beyond the shared aesthetic, Pure Heroine is the only one of these albums that wasn’t made by adult men. From the other albums, I learned about the woman I should want to be; on Pure Heroine, I recognized the girl I was.
It’s rare we get to see art by teenagers as they’re making it presented on a global stage, let alone see critics take those young artists somewhat seriously. Pop music will skyrocket a young person to fame, but it often does not see her as an artist so much as an object for consumption. Lorde also stood out to me because, simply put, she was a little weird. Her jerky dance moves in live performances garnered criticism. She had long, unruly hair and wore dark lipstick. While she hadn’t written her own music before Pure Heroine, she had written short stories inspired by Raymond Carver’s—a writer who depicted the despair and disillusionment of working-class Americans—because, as she says in a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he was her favorite author “when I was a kid.” (While the idea of a “kid” reading Carver is a little upsetting, the influence oddly makes sense—when I took my first creative writing class at nineteen, he was also the author I tried hardest to emulate.) Lorde became a star without performing the feminine ideals of endless cheeriness and polish that at fourteen, I had already given up on attaining. She was strange and cool and strong. Her art and existence felt like an indirect blessing of my own. I wanted to be tough like her.
So I braced myself against the world. I spent most of my time that September in school, gazing longingly out of windows and feeling bored to the point of almost-physical pain. At home, my mom and dad had just told me they were getting divorced. In the year leading up to this, three of my extended family members had died, as did a pet cat we’d had my whole life.
Retrospectively, these seem like seismic events. But when my mom did try to ask me how I felt about things, I responded, “It’s okay, I don’t care,” and ended the conversation. I didn’t think I was lying at the time, but my memories now hint at some deeper distress. At school one morning, I decided that I was officially “giving up”—I needed music more than I needed math. I tried to hide white earbud wires under my long blonde hair during 8am geometry class. My teacher caught me quickly. He shouted at me to take the earbuds out, held my gaze for a moment, and in a suddenly solemn voice said, “I expected more from you.” Then he resumed his lecture about fractions.
Whenever my dad came by to take me out to dinner, he’d laugh and say, “What are you thinking about? Why do you look so pensive?”
“Nothing,” I’d say, genuinely not knowing the answer. My brain felt empty. I’d lean my head against the passenger side window of his car and squint against the evening sun as he drove us away from my house. “Royals” would come on the radio. I’d try to tune it out.
I didn’t know how to say what was on my mind—I didn’t even know what was on my mind—but it seemed like everybody was telling me how I should be. My track coach told me to smile more. Some guy who liked my friend told me I “talked like a guy.” My English teacher told me I was immoral in front of the whole class for liking The Notebook because “she CHEATS on her HUSBAND.” I needed an album that opens with the question, “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” and ends on the plain-spoken declaration, “Let ‘em talk.” I just hadn’t yet realized that connection between the start and finish. It would take me a few years.
This time wasn’t all teen angst—it’s also when I threw myself into photography and art-making. The time I spent conceptualizing, studying, taking, or editing pictures shone above everything else. My friends and I wandered through woodlands and craggy beaches with backpacks full of dresses to take pictures. We plotted adventures, begging our moms to drive us across the city and back just so we could go to some abandoned building. We hiked up our lace skirts around our combat boots as we traversed LA’s mountain trails. We played Pure Heroine as we sat in bedrooms together editing pictures for hours. We captioned our eventual Instagram posts with its lyrics.
In my images, I wanted to create a dreamlike world. I wanted everything to have some “important” theme, like life or death; I wanted every shadow to mean something beyond itself. I loved symbolism. I had this existence that nearly crushed me with its banality while I refused to process the bigger things going on around me. Lacking words (or courage) to express what I felt, I leaned on visual articulation. I underexposed my photographs because I liked them darker. A friend taught me to exhale on my camera lens before snapping the shutter to make the image look hazy, turning the clear world into some long-faded recollection. I wanted blur and grain and artificial light. I shot at late hours or on rare overcast days to make my sun-blasted hometown look more bleak and mysterious, and I never really dug into why.
On Pure Heroine, Lorde seems to possess a similar dramatism. She’s play-acting and world-building, elevating her overlooked teenage wasteland to something worthy of a stage. It gives a mythological feeling to mundane teenagerhood. And really, there is something mythological to it: at its heart, the concept of “teenagerhood” is a shared story. Pure Heroine may not explicitly be an album about visual art, but it depicts a teenage girl coming into her own as an artist. It soundtracked the years of my life in which I tried, and often failed, to do the same.
the beach as seen from the pier, night and day
Recently, I wondered if I’d outgrown Pure Heroine. I didn’t return to it too often. But looking back over the past ten years reveals evidence of my love for it scattered across my life. New favorite songs revealed themselves in time. My freshman year of college, I fell hard for “Still Sane.” I was faced with a vast newness like Lorde must’ve been as her fame skyrocketed. I listened to it while walking out of the last exam of my first semester and into the snow, about to go back to LA for the first time since I’d left. The suburban boredom of “400 Lux” similarly stood out to me more once I’d left that world behind. I made its opening line, “Never done with killing time,” my first Tinder bio. I just didn’t know what to put and probably had the album playing in the background. But the music was close to my heart—recalling this makes me want to slap myself in the face because I would never be that genuine on something as superficial as Tinder. That’s probably both wisdom and weakness. “Ribs,” the song where Lorde’s constructed bravado finally crumbles, reached such an iconic status that it became a sort of shorthand. I called things “so Ribs-by-Lorde” and people knew exactly what I meant. Its resonance grew richer with time: “It feels so scary, getting old.” At eighteen, at nineteen, at twenty, that line made me think, What did I know at sixteen? I could finally absorb the idea that maybe I didn’t have to be tough all the time—even Lorde wasn’t. I listened to Pure Heroine in my headphones walking through my hometown’s empty streets to a New Years Eve party in 2019. I stepped over hedges and traversed lawns in my bulky work shoes on the way to my childhood best friend’s house. I felt older and happier than I ever had there.
I’m twenty-four now. I’m nowhere near having my photos in The Whitney, but that doesn’t make me sad at all. Remembering it just makes me happy that at fourteen, I was passionate and artistically motivated enough to want it. That artistic ambition has shifted shape more than vanished. That dream wasn’t solely about a certain destination, but about achieving something while notably young. I still feel that pressure to make something of myself, but I also want to take my time. I’m still a guarded person, but I’m more open than I once thought possible. Evidently, I figured out how to use words at some point. I’m not really sure when that happened, but I’m getting better at it with time. I only want to sound like myself.
I still take pictures often, mostly with an old point-and-shoot I got for $25 from an eBay seller called Old Blue Eyes. I don’t really edit them. I took a picture the other night of the sky’s sunset colors over some buildings on my street in Brooklyn. It’s not really a remarkable image in any way. Still, coming across it in the developed photos made me emotional because it’s all I wanted at fourteen, really: a place of my own. I don’t try to manipulate life into something darker or more mythical than what it is. It already feels richer than I can fathom sometimes—precarious and simple. The simplicity of it scares me. I’m trying to embrace that fear, let myself sit still in it. I know that I only feel it because I’ve made something that I don’t want to lose.
After a half-hour journey through Lorde’s world of beauty queens in tears, explosions on TV, and hounds in chains, Pure Heroine reaches its conclusion with a comparatively grounded, gentle song: “A World Alone.” This song has been my favorite on the album for years. It feels like graduating high school. It feels like jumping on a neon-lit dance floor and not wanting anything else, or remembering that dance floor in slow motion. It feels like a cut to black before the conflict has really resolved, but the “conflict” doesn’t feel so big anymore. It feels like peace, finally, for now.
As a teenager, I loved the cleverness of lines like, “They’re studying business, I study the floor.” Now, the plainer moments stand out to me: “I feel grown up with you in your car… I know it’s dumb.” There is simply nothing like being a teenage girl feeling grown up in someone else’s car and then being self-effacing about this big thing you’re feeling. It’s a slight moment that is secretly profound—you see yourself inhabiting some image of life that feels beyond you, the “life” that you imagined alone in your room. It’s here, and it’s both better and worse than you thought it would be. It’s the kind of moment you always notice but almost never speak out loud. I’m thankful that Lorde articulated it. A song like “Ribs” is heart-wrenching, but I love “A World Alone” because the world belongs to the girl at the center of the song, even as chatter of “double-edged people into schemes” rises and falls in the background. In the bridge, Lorde reckons with an end bigger than youth’s:
“I know we're not everlasting
We're a train wreck waiting to happen
One day the blood won't flow so gladly
One day we'll all get still.”
She’s no longer desperately trying to hold onto something fleeting. Instead, an ultimate end imbues the instant—and the love she feels in it—with meaning. Other than this subdued moment, the song fully inhabits the present tense. We won’t be girls forever, and thank god for that. We can only try to love it while it’s here. The future is coming no matter what we do. The future is coming and we can only hope we’re there to take it in. We’ll never stop changing. Near the song’s end, Lorde makes a declaration of love, sweet and simple: “You’re my best friend and we’re dancing in a world alone.” In my first real memory of listening to Lorde, that’s where I was—laughing and dancing with a friend on a dark, empty street of the only place I’d ever known. In the fading light, the same world that made me feel so unworthy and frightened looked so beautiful. It looked like a place where I could make something.
I am writing this essay in my friend Lizzie’s living room. Last night, we went to see Arctic Monkeys on the ten-year anniversary of AM. It’s Sunday and there’s a thunderstorm raging outside. Her roommates Emily and Libby are sitting with us and we’re listening to music. We start with the new Olivia Rodrigo album. We open a bottle of wine and sing along while Lizzie makes pasta. We agree: “She’s so wise.” I feel a wave of shame for everything I wrote at nineteen and thank god I did it mostly in secret. I say, “I think I started having original thoughts at twenty-two.” Lizzie says, “But we were having real feelings before then.” I also think that’s true—feelings so big I could barely feel them, so I felt them in songs written by strangers instead. We fall back into our own musical pasts. We shout band names across the room and scream when they make us remember something we’d forgotten. I ask Emily, who’s also from LA, “Did you listen to KROQ?” and she goes, “YES.” We list the stations: KROQ, 98.7, KIIS FM. We sing a jingle: “one oh two point seven, kiss FM!” We add songs to the queue while trading memories of when we first heard them—at the orthodontist, in our moms’ cars. We talk about how we connected with music as kids versus now. “There’s this thing when you’re young and it’s fire all the time,” Libby says. Lizzie shouts, “TAYLOR, WRITE THAT DOWN,” and I burst out laughing but I write it down. I’m older now but I don’t feel settled at all; I think I’m glad I don’t, as much as I daydream of some peaceful future. I want a record shelf full of things I’ve felt. I want to mean what I say, always. I’m glad we all share this music, even if we used to listen to it alone, even if I wouldn’t know these people for ten more years.