Youth Dating Culture
In 2014, American writer Alana Massey published an essay called ‘Against Chill’ in which she rallied against the culture of ‘chill’ that had come to dominate modern dating. Strung along by too many dates that seemed to go nowhere and praised by too many men for being ‘laid-back’ (code for, it seemed, ‘passively compliant and non-demanding’), she woke up one day and sent one text message to all six of her ‘non-thing somethings’: ‘I’m actually looking for something serious so I’m not planning to see you anymore’. Massey’s dating life, she observed, became like a ‘Blasé Olympics’, in which she and her ‘non-labeled definitely-not-boyfriends’ were engaged in a competition of who could pretend to care the least: the first one to ‘catch feelings’, in effect, loses.
‘Against Chill’ sparked several responses on Jezebel, Mic, and other media platforms, and was shared widely among my friends: it touched a nerve among our generation. We had supposedly obliterated all straitjackets of romantic convention: Tinder revolutionised the scope of our dating prospects; the sexual liberation brought by feminism meant that women could own their sexuality without risking slut-shaming (which nonetheless still occurs, of course); people had more choice than ever with their own dating lives. Yet the emotional liberation that was expected to come with the sexual revolution never arrived. My friends and I dared not be the old-fashioned ‘nagging women’, exerting a old-fashioned desperation for an old-fashioned social arrangement that was so uncool. We had to be the ‘cool girls’ of our sexual revolution: effervescent, sexy, and impervious to all hurt. When the demand to be taken seriously was tied to a decidedly uncool, unsexy motherly form of nagging, the only thing left to do, it seemed, was to pretend that you never cared in the first place.
Lorde, a welcomed alternative
Enter 20-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor, New Zealand singer-songwriter, who swipes at the emptiness of the ‘culture of chill’ in Melodrama, her new album: ‘we pretend we just don’t care’, she croons in the song Sober, ‘but we care’. When Lorde first came to mainstream attention in 2013 with her debut album Pure Heroine, the sixteen-year-old was heralded as a new authentic voice for the youth outside the cliches of mass-produced pop. Against the dogma of the middle-aged men behind the lyrics and production of mass-produced pop stars like Katy Perry and Selena Gomez, young women – and men – did not find salvation in empty demands of mandatory happiness (‘I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air’ in Pure Heroine’s Team); money-chasing (Royals), or – to the point – chasing an emotionally detached coolness (‘It’s a new art form showing people how little we care’; Tennis Court). A recent New Yorker review reflects that upon the release of Pure Heroine, Lorde was seen as an ‘antidote to a pop world obsessed with flash and glamour, someone who insisted on stripping away artifice and cutting to the heart of the collective teen-age experience’.
Melodrama, released three years later, has all the grit and honesty of Pure Heroine, but has departed from the territory of adolescence to explore the highs and lows of young adulthood. A blog post by Lorde in November 2016 reflects ‘Pure Heroine’ was my way of enshrining our teenage glory, putting it up in lights forever so that part of me never dies, and this record — well, this one is about what comes next’.
And ‘what’s next’, Melodrama reveals, is a whole explosive emotional cocktail of heartbreak, self-discovery, recklessness, but most importantly, vulnerability. The album opens with Green Light, an electropop number about the immediate heartbreak of a breakup, and the mourning period that awaits before one can move on (the ‘green light’). Liability is a stripped-down ballad about the emotional nakedness of feeling betrayed by the person you hold most dear; its counterpart, The Louvre, exudes the butterfly-inducing nervousness that comes with a new crush. Sober and Perfect Places explores the unbridled excitement of being young and free, while doing a subtle wink-and-nod at these experiences in no way lives up to the sterile promises delivered by the glitz-and-glamour mass media – and we are all the better for it. Sober speaks on the heart-racing fun of a drunken romp, but asks ‘but what will we do when we’re sober?’; Perfect Places teases the hedonism of ‘all the nights spent off our faces/Trying to find these perfect places’ before asking, ‘What the fuck are perfect places anyway?’
While the journey from adolescence to adulthood is often conceived of in terms of death: of the end of adventure, the end of growth, and a stop to the freedom to romp around the world, free and wild. Melodrama reverses the script. A real adulthood is not about death or taxes, or a a simmering slow burn into convention from an exciting adolescence. It is rather marked by holding onto an openness to the world, an embrace of its twists and turns, and most importantly, a firm acceptance one’s own vulnerable core as the messy, compassionate kernel of one’s own humanity. In a world marked by the blasé Olympics, the best way to protest is to openly embrace the messy, insecure, desperate human that you are. The spectre of the ‘cool girl’ has haunted us long enough; let it die, and usher in an era of post-cool ‘emotionally intelligent mess’ in its place.