I swear I’m not jealous. I just wanna know: How did Lorde, Lena, and Tavi become so worldwise, so young?
Here is an inventory of my very complicated feelings about Lorde, the teenaged singer of “Royals,” and that song, which is about middle-class teens rolling their eyes at rich ones and a culture that glorifies them.
It’s such a startling observation of class warfare, and I am in awe of its concise and searing message: Our art is about excess, and we cannot relate. I, too, rode on the train to the party, counting my change along the way, back when I was growing up in Brooklyn, before it was Brooklyn. There is something so pure about the pursuit of a good time and the ability to ignore the wealth of others—especially since I grew up into someone who now lives six houses on the wrong side of Beverly Hills town limits, and I have become someone who is consumed by thoughts of others’ wealth in a way that is distracting and unhealthy.
A little bit I object to the naïveté of the song. When I was growing up, I didn’t think about money, and I didn’t want to be rich. I wanted to be happy, man, and wealth and happiness were incompatible. Because back then I didn’t know how much preschool and groceries cost. That kind of impoverished comfort is the luxury of those who don’t realize how much life costs. But why object to a song that only represents the thoughts of a young person about other people? Mind your own business, Brodesser-Akner.
But what stings me the most is the deftness of the observation. There is nothing like something we’ve all noticed and have yet to put into words. The difference between artists and non-artists is the ability to notice what we all notice and put it into words. What doesn’t seem acceptable to me is to be able to do it as such a young age.
Because when it comes down to it, I object to Lorde’s precociousness. I object to her ability to metabolize her thoughts and manifest them into an actual art form that is then hand-delivered to the world. I have the same objection to Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence. I had that subdermal fire of creativity once, before I was so fucking tired. I had such acute observations that weren’t blurred by the cost of diapers and the way the world really works. Where was my wherewithal? How dare they possess the ability to metabolize their existences from the ground, instead of where most of do it—with it safely in the past, under the cozy velvet blanket of perspective told in a tale of “Remember when.” How dare they be better than I am? I like to pretend that it’s their access to technology that gives them the edge; I didn’t even have a computer at that age, and I certainly didn’t believe rumors that there would be an Internet.
There’s a sense that creative genius is not like an affinity for math or science: It is somehow magical. And it’s hard to convince yourself that that magic truly exists if it lays dormant for so, so many years before rearing its head. The question Lorde brings up for me with every beat of her very awesome song is this: Can you be someone whose creative pursuits are worthy without being someone who was a prodigy about the whole thing in the first place?
I got hints of how old I was when I married at 30 and was never called a young bride, and then when I had children at 32 and was never called a young mother. I became more suspicious with the advent of the Facebook ad and the Living Social ads, which combined to make me consider Botox and Restylan and Retinols.
But the thing that really brought it home was when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature and all over Twitter the line seemed to be something along the lines of “… and she didn’t even publish her first novel till she was 37!” Like, what a great achievement. Like, now that life has passed her by and she is barely a shell under all her wrinkles and gray hair, she was still able to cobble together enough sentences to put together an entire book. A miracle! A miracle!
I had a magazine job out of college, but then helped with a startup for writers, then got married and then had children, and I woke up and was just this potential writer, not this actual writer. I was like a blinking cursor of potential—at least I thought I was. At least I hoped I might be. The rest of my story is boring. One day I just did it and much of that was under the specter of my age, which was coming for me.
And then a few years later I turned 37, and by the time I read the tweets about Alice Munro I realized it was far, far too late for me to churn out a book before October, at which point I turned 38. Late October, but still.
I teach an essay class sometimes, and often students who come to it are in their 40s. They tend to write some variation on why it took them so long to get to writing, a thing they’d wanted to do in the first place. They write essays that are really apologies, and the last part of these essays inevitably tries to gather their dignity with some sort of line to the effect of: It’s not like you have anything to say before 40 anyway.
If only that were true. Then I wouldn’t have to contend with how bad it feels to realize that I’m not a prodigy, just a regular person. Like my students, I’m just someone who feels her way and hopes I’m not wasting my time. If I was given any sort of gift of creativity, if it was evident when I was young, it didn’t manifest until I was older, and that might mean that not only am I not gifted, but that I’m some sort of poser. But it’s also true that that there isn’t any amount of preternatural giftedness that can make it so that you don’t have to work really, really hard to pursue a job of any artistic contribution—a job you have to do so well and so often to be taken seriously at all. I think of all the access the younger women of today have that I didn’t have at that age: Internet, digital video, YouTube. Then I realize I’m making the same excuses as my students.
Instead, what is more accurate is this: For those who are like me, called late bloomers, I suppose, thoughts swirled around in our heads, looking for ways out as we hemmed and waited and hawed and considered and planned. We didn’t act. Maybe because we couldn’t, maybe because we were scared—which is the same as we couldn’t. Eventually they all came out in a blur and we were either successful or we weren’t. One thing we had to live with—one thing I have to live with—is the fact that when it comes down to it, I have less time to do what I love, whereas the precocious among us have more. That is my one real regret, under all this jealousy and un-Restalyned bitter frown-line disgust.
The Lorde song is everywhere. It’s in my spinning classes and on my radio. My six-year old son somehow learned it, either at school or at a friend’s house. Recently, I was driving down Sunset Boulevard, the oldest young person in sight, singing along to it. The song ended and the D.J. on the radio—I still listen to radio—said, “Happy birthday to Lorde, who turned 17 today.” And I smiled an ugly smile and thought: Good. It’s coming for you, too.
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