How Lorde Created ‘Solar Power’ From Bubblegum Pop And Natalie Imbruglia

Lorde has crammed a bucketload of influences into 'Solar Power' - and you might have missed a few of them.

lorde solar power photo

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“Who is an artist reference on Solar Power that might surprise [the fans]?” Vogue asked Lorde in its 73 Questions feature. “Natalie Imbruglia,” Lorde answered, with a slight grin.

She knew she was throwing a curveball. This is Lorde, after all. The artist who brought dark alt-pop to the mainstream garnering adoration from David Bowie and Kanye West. Google and you’ll find she’s one of a select few artists that have had the ‘genius’ tag stitched to them.

On the beginning track of Solar Power, however, Lorde sings, “If you’re looking for a saviour, well that’s not me.” Melodrama was intense and concentrated, the product of heartache experienced in your teens in New York City. Solar Power isn’t that. It’s the result of stillness. A hazy, lightly psychedelic exploration of the earth’s natural gifts and our treatment of them. It’s often peaceful but also permeated by feelings of doubt and anxiety. For every moment she’s caught staring at the ocean as guitars waft around her, we’re brought back to earth by another existentialist thought.

Melodrama had fans referencing Bowie, Robyn, and Frank Ocean — artists who live on the periphery of mainstream pop. Solar Power, however, has them darting into a period of perceivably manufactured pop Lorde is referring to as “2000s bubblegum pop.”

“This sounds like if All Saints had recorded George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ instead,” wrote one fan on a forum when the lead-single dropped. When ‘Mood Ring’ arrived, the influence of the sound made even more sense — recalling M2M, Imbruglia, S Club 7, and even Natasha Bedingfield.

‘2000s bubblegum pop’ is a broad term but it seems Lorde is referring to acoustic-driven, escapist pop stretching from the late ‘90s to around 2004. Before the James Blunts and Ed Sheerans of the world captured the acoustic guitar in a bid to make pop music relatable, “bright, forward, shimmery acoustics,” as Lorde puts it, was mainstream pop’s trademark sound. Put a guitar next to a tinny, dry drum and you’ve got a beat that defined many ‘90s kids’ summers. For many, it’s deeply nostalgic but it’s critically forgotten. You’re hardly reading think-pieces on how Jennifer Love Hewitt’s ‘Barenaked’ influenced pop music and that’s because it didn’t.

Like a Von Dutch cap though, it seems it’s been long enough for the heart to grow fonder.

Bring It All Back To Me

In an interview with the New York Times, Lorde said she was trying to capture “the music of my youth. This kind of early ‘00s sun-soaked thing.” Given she was finding inspiration in the sun and the beach, there’s a good reason her mind leapt towards this kind of music.

The seminal hits of many of these artists feature music videos on a beach: S Club 7, dancing on the beach in ‘Bring It All Back’; Jennifer Paige driving to the beach in ‘Crush’; M2M basking in the moonlight on a beach in ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’; All Saints plunging into the ocean in ‘Pure Shores’. No matter whether it was a beacon of positivity or an anthem of heartbreak, everyone was heading to the beach to sort out their feelings.

The sound puts the melodics of The Beatles and Fleetwood mac through an ‘00s production filter. During this period the charts were being ruled by pristine boy band pop production and glossy, futuristic R&B. You can hear those pop melodies and R&B-inspired beats undercutting songs like Jennifer Paige’s ‘Crush’ or M2M’s ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’, wrestling with breezy, organic instruments pulled from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

No matter whether it was a beacon of positivity or an anthem of heartbreak, everyone was heading to the beach to sort out their feelings.

Natalie Imbruglia’s 1997 record Left Of The Middle set the blueprint for the genre, buoyed by the earth-conquering ‘Torn’. It was born from a period of post-grunge, alternative pop music led by Alanis Morrisette and Fiona Apple.

Imbruglia’s music was cleaner than her peers — her vocals were forthright and crisp and the instrumentation was tidy. ‘Torn’ topped the charts in Australia and the UK and earned her three Grammy nominations. She never came close to topping it but she didn’t really try either, consistently fighting against a big pop record with her record label. “I was successful, rich, and terribly unhappy,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald recently. A tale you can imagine Lorde warping into a song.

As Imbruglia retreated from the spotlight, the acoustic pop sound only grew. It was all across the post-Spice Girls solo albums from Emma Bunton and Melanie C, it was the backbone of Ronan Keating’s smash debut Ronan, and bands like All Saints and The Corrs also twisted the sound. The hits were aplenty — that is, everywhere except the US, where Imbruglia failed to notch a top 30 chart hit. They soundtracked the turn of the millennium summer in Australia and New Zealand but the US didn’t catch on until Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Unwritten’ turned up in The Hills in 2006.

Perhaps that’s why Lorde producer Jack Antonoff was so perplexed when she brought him the inspiration. “It was so far out,” Antonoff told NYT with Lorde adding, “He was like, ‘wait, so you like this?’”

Don’t You Think The Early 2000s Seem So Far Away?

We’re introduced to Solar Power with a meandering guitar joined by snake rattles on ‘The Path’. “Teen millionaire having nightmares from the camera flash,” Lorde sings without detouring far from her usual sound. Then, almost halfway into the song a dry drum cracks through and the song unleashes. Immediately, the Imbruglia shines through. It’s nostalgic and optimistic, as Lorde sheds her celebrity skin.

‘Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)’, the most pop-leaning moment on the album, feels like Antonoff has saltwater flicking from his finger as he strums the guitar. “You’re gonna love again so just try being open,” she sings, gliding across the instrumentation with the same free-spirited ease as Nelly Furtado offers on ‘I’m Like A Bird’.

“Don’t you think the early 2000s seem so far away,” Lorde sings on ‘Mood Ring’, an interesting observation given that it’s the song that best recalls the era. The beginning eerily recalls Spice Girls’ ‘Viva Forever’ — a song Lorde didn’t know until The Guardian pointed it out to her. From there, we plunge into a pool of nostalgic guitars with a drumbeat that the record label would have rejoiced at if Imbruglia offered it to them in 2000. An S Club 7-style perk keeps the song afloat but it’s undercut by a pointed satire of new-age wellness rituals that wraps the digestible, pure happiness.

Even when Lorde is drifting away in a weed-clouded train-of-thought on ‘Oceanic Feeling’, you can hear All Saints’ sultry pop murmuring in the distance. In fact, the monologue from ‘Never Ever’ wouldn’t go astray at a point here.

Like memory, these influences float in and out of Solar Power with ease. ‘Dominoes’ harks back to the folk simplicity of Simon & Garfunkel while ‘The Man With The Axe’ is not unlike some of Fleetwood Mac’s stormier works which Lorde has covered in the past. When you think about the acts that tout Fleetwood Mac as inspiration these days, from Harry Styles to Haim, they’ve all soaked in that sound while detouring via ‘00s bubblegum pop.

Styles has covered ‘Torn’ in the past while Lorde and Haim have teamed up before to cover Sheryl Crow’s 2002 hit ‘Strong Enough’. Just recently, Lorde has recognised that her and Styles are, “on a similar tip right now.” Before Solar Power, Styles’ 2019 album Fine Line marked a return to acoustic pop with its biggest single ‘Watermelon Sugar’ taking us on a horny trip down to the beach. We could be at the beginning of a trip to recapture the magic of a forgotten era of ‘00s pop.

And it makes sense. Everyone has been forced to appreciate fresh air a little more this year, taking their moments out of lockdown to find solace in beaches or parks rather than clubs and restaurants. Still, even when we find those momentary flashes of light, it’s hard not to be hit by thoughts about the pandemic or the climate crisis.

Selling Happiness

Lorde doesn’t ignore those flashes of terror. For those concerned you’ve lost your dark pop hero to the sunshine, she doesn’t completely convince us that she’s turned away. As always, darkness lingers. ‘Stoned At The Nail Salon’ allows all those thoughts to flood in and even when she’s sounding gleefully optimistic, she’s delivering it with a wink, knowing not even she is convinced by what she’s selling.

When you’re young, you devour without question. When you’re older, it’s harder to swallow.

Solar Power is partly a critique of new-age wellness techniques. “Part of why this album was so FUN to make was that I got to explore these tropes of people seeking wellness, enlightenment or even utopia,” she said in an email to fans upon the release of ‘Mood Ring’. She satires the wellness industry on that song but it’s clear, even as a sceptic of such techniques, that she’s found personal happiness through her moments in the sun.

Pop artists have promoted the sun for decades. From The Beatles’ ‘Sun King’ to Sheryl Crow’s ‘Soak Up The Sun’ to Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Pocketful Of Sunshine’, pop music has been lapping up the serotonin of the sun forever. In a feature with The Guardian, former Smash Hits writer Jordan Paramore said that ‘00s bubblegum pop, in particular, was “selling happiness”. A pop music wellness cult, if you will.

It’s easy to see how Lorde, basking in the sun, allowed her nostalgia to wander back to this time. To the music that originally sold her this idealised concept of summer and optimism. When you’re young, you devour without question. When you’re older, it’s harder to swallow.

Sure, we don’t believe that happiness is as easy as S Club 7 laid out — “just smile and let it go” — but for three-and-a-half minutes you may just feel a serotonin spike. Blink three times if you feel it kicking in.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. He also co-hosts the podcast Flopstars. Follow him on Twitter.