Pure Heroine: a scientific and artistic exploration of the music of our youth

Sciences Po undergraduate Imme Koolenbrander paints a portraiture of the space between music, memory and human connection.


I was with a friend at the Quai de la Seine in Paris on a bright September afternoon, between a 3 euro bottle of wine, a cigarette stub and a wad of dog shit. In the spirit of 2014 Tumblr, we were having a discussion on Lorde’s 2013 debut album “Pure Heroine.” We found commonality in how we discovered the album entering adolescence, and how it’s been one of the most influential albums guiding our lives. I noted on the way I felt the album shifted meaning as I grew up; from an aggregation of edgy lyrics to rid me of #imnotlikeothergirls angst*, to an exploration on transitivity and memory **. He added that it felt like a medium to explore the new, unknown world. Despite being critically outshined by its younger sister, Melodrama, released in 2017, we cannot let Pure Heroine go. 

Psychology offers us some answers as to why. Adolescence is an age of firsts. Our brains and growth hormones are firing like crazy, amplifying everything we experience, and storing it all in lasting memory, known as the reminiscence bump. On the other hand, when we hear the music we like, we release a series of chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy, such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Combining the two, listening to music of our youth remains a vivid experience, where we can grasp on to those first rushes of emotion. 

Music is also a token of belonging to a social identity. Daniel Levithen, via his book ”This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” explains, “we listen to the music [our friends] listen to as a badge, as a way of belonging to a certain social group.” Srijon and I were both on Tumblr during its peak— a world of fan fiction and alien icon t-shirts. Pure Heroine defined Tumblr music, along with an array of semi-aligned artists, from Fall Out Boy’s emo rock to Marina and the Diamonds’ bubblegum pop. Maybe Pure Heroine reminds us of joining the online world, full of new ideas, political interactions, and identities; and less of the 52 year old men disguised as teenagers we were told to fear. As Lorde sings in A World Alone, “Maybe the Internet raised us?” 

I talk about “youth” as though it’s an event of the past. As though our current lives do not have the same transformative poignancy as early adolescence. Perhaps Pure Heroine is more a matter of comfort for us now, then a relic of times past. According to a Deeper survey, we tend to listen to the most new artists and music before we’re 30. This may be because it’s simply easier to listen to music we already know than to configure ourselves to new music. Our brains release just-enough levels of dopamine when listening to familiar patterns. It is such stimulation with slight variations that gives pop(ular) music its name. As musical sequences are stored in our brain, we are guaranteed a pleasant experience from each re-listening.

All these explanations could explain why Pure Heroine and other music I listened to in 2014 feels different to the music I know and love now. Yet, compared to the music I listened to at that time, Pure Heroine stands out. Perhaps it’s because Pure Heroine itself is an ode to youth. Beyond biology, this album encapsulated the precise angst and distress that comes with growing up in the Anthropocene, where we are trapped in physical space as our minds are fed with the limitless possibilities of the world. 

Lorde, a 16-year old at the time of release, faces the pressure of an external world, rife with expectations and growing crises, constantly brought to our consciousness. “The men up on the news/ they try to tell us all that we will lose,” sings Lorde in Buzzcut Season. Despite this, she finds, or tries to, find comfort in the connections she can forge around her, ranging from the occult in Team to solidarity in Royals. Lorde ends the album with the track, “A World Alone,” resigning ultimately the “we” she represents, to the tangible “we” that truly exists in her life— her, and one other. “Let them talk,” she closes, choosing to tune out the noise, and focus on her concrete self. 

The backing of this album, which is simple, but not stripped, also propels us forward and highlights Lorde’s lyrical mastery. We are brought along as Lorde tries to grasp the restlessness of adolescence as time continues to slip by. Yet, a constant sense of brooding pulls us back to a real or imagined past. Perhaps, it is this tension that we can relate to. 

Close your eyes, and Lorde engulfs you into that time and space of transience yet yearning. “We’re never done with killing time / can I kill it with you?” asks Lorde in ‘400 lux”,  where she highlights the ennui of suburbia as she rides along with a love interest in their car (modes of transport is a theme that strings together the album). Surrounded by a repetitive, clicking beat and distant sustained notes, Lorde muses, “I love these roads where the houses don’t change (and I like you)/ Where we can talk like there’s something to say (and I like you)”. 

‘Ribs’, perhaps the universally accepted masterpiece of this album, features a similarly minimalistic soundtrack, with dreamy synths and a driving rhythm. We are propelled forward in liminality, an enclosed hallway of memories, which explodes into a field of controlled vibrancy. “You’re the only friend I need / sharing beds like little kids,” she sings at the climax, trapping us in a nostalgia that may not even exist. 

Having encountered Pure Heroine, an album on adolescence, during the beginning of our adolescence, has allowed Lorde’s artistic integrity to merge with our long-term brain chemistry. This may be why our generation connects to Lorde, in the same way that previous and future generations each have their muses (from Kate Bush to Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo). And it may be why we continue to approach this album in times of distress, happiness or instability. 

Lorde herself disagrees. In her latest album, Solar Power, she sings, “all the music you loved at sixteen, you’ll grow out of.” Will the pull of Pure Heroine decrease as we settle down? How will our memories shift with our worldview? Will we cringe at our childish obliviousness, or look back fondly to innocent times, or will we simply acknowledge a time past and move on? The fragility of memory and emotion will always cloud our interpretations of the art that speaks to us. Yet, however much we change, at least we enjoyed the music when we did. 

* “I don’t ever think about death, it’s alright if you do, it’s fine.” – Glory and Gore 

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