Upon hearing her name announced at the Grammy nominations concert last month, 24-year-old Mary Lambert went into what she calls an emotional coma. “You hear about having an out-of-body experience, but this was an out-of-heart experience,” says the singer-songwriter about her Grammy nod for Same Love, a hit about marriage equality she co-wrote and recorded with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. “I was totally frozen until I bumped into Melissa Etheridge backstage,” she says. “Then we started fan-girling all over each other and I held her hands and cried on her!” Etheridge, asked to present at the event, put the moment in broader perspective when she stepped off the stage. “That song is now part of our history,” she said. “It marks this year as the year of the underdog.”
She may well be right. Sure, the Grammy nominations list has the usual contenders: Jay Z (who has nine nominations), Justin Timberlake (who has seven) and Katy Perry (two). But with acts such as England’s folksy Ed Sheeran (nominated for best new artist) and 47-year-old jazz singer Maysa Leak—whose nomination came after recording 10 albums over a 22-year career—this year’s Grammys teem with long shots. No one is more emblematic of that than 17-year-old New Zealander Lorde (real name Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor).
Although many off-the-beaten-track bands have struck Grammy gold in previous years (see Arcade Fire’s album of the year win in 2011), by and large, when it comes to female solo artists, the big wins tend to go to performers whose work isn’t nearly as experimental. In fact, most who have dominated multiple categories—Lorde is up for four—in the past five years are more aligned with Britney Spears’s body of work than, say, Björk’s (who, incidentally, has never won a Grammy despite having been nominated 13 times).
Lorde at this year’s Grammys can be compared to Stephen King’s telekinetic teenage protagonist in his novel Carrie. Like the powerful outsider who gets invited to senior prom under dubious circumstances, Lorde may find her beyond-her-years abilities have placed her in an odd predicament. In the past three years, Grammy queens who have won in her categories have been beacons of pop convention (Adele), media darlings (Taylor Swift) or sensation magnets (Lady Gaga).
By contrast, Lorde currently stands as the oddest girl in the school of pop. Although she’s been deemed “the voice of her generation” by a number of critics (she maintains this is a “stressful and misleading” statement), her popularity comes from the fact that she doesn’t want to necessarily be a popular girl. Like her anti-party anthem Royals (nominated for song of the year), her recent single, Team, calls for a moratorium on the hands-in-the-air, Cristal-by-the-case social aspirations heard on the charts. Other tracks on her debut disc, Pure Heroine—nominated for best pop vocal album—showcase her conflicted view of pop music.
“I wrote my song Tennis Court after having had a glimpse into the music industry, and I was just thinking about how superficial people can be and how we put up all these fronts,” she says in an interview, noting that being on the outside has given her an edge. “It seems it’s never cool to get too enthusiastic about anything as a singer, but I’m quite outspoken. I can’t help but say what I feel, and it can get me into trouble.”
Lorde’s anti-establishment MO is shared by some of her fellow nominees, including Macklemore, whose platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated album The Heist contains songs that confront the hysteria of consumption with tracks like Thrift Shop, about shopping at Goodwill, and the Nike-bashing Wing$. That both have struck a chord suggests there is an appetite among audiences for the message.
“In a similar way, Same Love says a lot more about society than it does about music trends,” Lambert says. “It has mobilized a lot of people—particularly outside of metropolitan areas—and it’s an anthem for allies of the gay community. A moment like this has proven that music can be a political force again. In that way, Same Love is the darkest horse in the race.”