Lorde seems to be obsessed with teeth. This probably isn’t most people’s first reaction when they hear the New Zealand singer’s new single, “Green Light,” but it’s an important observation, I think, and, in retrospect, it makes sense: It tells us lots about her feelings on stardom and status.
On the new track, Lorde coos, acidly, about a former love: “All those rumors, they have big teeth / Hope they bite you.” But the singer’s oral fixation goes beyond the one lyric. Indeed, Lorde has an established pattern of talking teeth. Of the 10 songs on Pure Heroine, the debut album that catapulted her to mega-celebrity rank back in 2013, four mention teeth: “400 Lux,” “Royals,” “Team,” and, most obviously, “White Teeth Teens.”
Unless we dismiss all these teeth as coincidence, which would be ill-advised and rash, we must ask: Why nestle this motif through so many songs? How can teeth be that important?
Lorde is hardly the first thinker to question our hang-ups over teeth and class, especially in America. Sarah Smarsh has written about the “psychological hell” many people experience for “having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country,” at least in part as a result of being priced out of dental care, and, over at Slate, June Thomas, who hails from England’s industrial north, has reflected on Americans’ teeth obsession in the context of our larger dentistry crisis. Likewise, on his 2013 track “Crooked Smile,” J. Cole highlights the pressures he faced to fix his “twisted grill” once he started making enough money to do so.
In the universe of Lorde’s music, status — or, rather, a lack of status — is an animating force. More than mere takedowns of privilege, these songs affirm the nobility of people who aren’t wealthy, but who are rich in other ways. “We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen / Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things,” Lorde sings on “Team,” referring to her friends. “And you know we’re on each other’s team.” She’s the down-market kid who wins on merit, plus her friends are cooler than yours, even if they’re not camera-ready. Again, you can read class in teeth — those things that, literally, put inequality on the tips of our tongues, marking clearly who can and can’t afford that perfect Hollywood smile. Earlier on “Team,” Lorde summons an image of gloss and glamor: “Call all the ladies out / They’re in their finery.” And she follows with: “A hundred jewels on throats / A hundred jewels between teeth,” lines suggesting an extravagance that many can only see through aspiration or even envy.
There’s a similar juxtaposition of teeth and jewelry on her mega-hit track “Royals,” on which Lorde sings: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” The only luxury she knows is what’s been projected to her, and Lorde’s point (of course) isn’t that affluence is undesirable. Pure Heroine has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its release, and Lorde could now probably afford orthodontia for her whole squad. At times, she appears to love the fantasy of fortune. On “400 Lux,” she sings about “dreams of clean teeth”; on “Royals,” the dreams have turned to driving Cadillacs; and on “White Teeth Teens,” she confesses: “I’ll let you in on something big / I am not a white-teeth teen / I tried to join but never did.” In other words, you can’t blame Hollywood; problems don’t arise from the fantasy alone, not really. The problem is when that fantasy muddies our grip on reality, makes us “[dance] around the lies we tell,” as she says on “Team.” Lorde keeps pushing back against our gilded visions of prosperity, and our often fruitless quests for its symbols. (Think Beyoncé’s 2013 song “Pretty Hurts” and its blistering lines about fixing teeth, plastic smiles, and fake façades, three motifs she weaves into an anthem about empowerment and the forces that threaten it.)
Lorde’s upcoming album, Melodrama, is sure to be different from its predecessor in various ways. But we already know from its lead song that it, too, mentions teeth. They’re still there because they represent what’s in so much of Lorde’s music: an unease bubbling around systems of privilege and power, in personal relationships and in broader cultural circles. Lots of people write songs about squad-envy and the complicated joys of materialism — but few do so with more bite.