Lorde’s “Ribs”: Exploring the Tragedy of Youth

This week, while watching Lorde’s Coachella performance, I was reminded of her stunning debut album, Pure Heroine. The album, which came out at the end of 2013, just as I turned 16, will forever remain as one of my favorites. Each song feels like a special puzzle piece. As these pieces fall into place, we uncover the beautiful story that is being told. A story that paints the picture of Lorde’s youth, and the nostalgia that shrouds it. Her sophomore album, Melodrama, is set for a June release. So, for old times sake, I decided to revisit her debut.

Songs like “Buzzcut Season”, and “Team”, always stood out to me. Rather than dwell on the glamour of youth, they gave raw accounts of childhood truths. Yet, it was always the song “Ribs” that fascinated and inspired me. When I was 16, I never quite understood the meaning of it, or why I loved it so much. That’s the thing about childhood; we don’t know why we feel things, but we know there’s always a reason. Listening to “Ribs” with fresh ears, I finally understand why the song has resonated with me for so many years. It captures perfectly the fear associated with growing up.

In today’s society, youth behaves as currency. Your achievements seem more impressive the younger you are. It is deeply embedded in the narcissistic hive-mind created by social media. Youth is portrayed as the purest form of beauty, and the most valuable. It culminates in a fear of growing old, because we are led to believe that as we age, our value as individuals diminishes. I think this is most prominent among young people. When we are young, all we want is be treated as an adult and respected. However, once society begins to look at us as adults, we retreat back into the comforts of our youth in fear. “Ribs” captures this painful moment in life in beautiful nostalgia.

If you haven’t listened to “Ribs” yet, I suggest you listen here!

The song opens with several soft voices that gain momentum as they approach the first verse. In a way, she is already evoking a sense of nostalgia in the listener. The melody appears hopeful, soothing, and victorious. Just as the medley of choir voices reaches its climax, it fades away and we are completely at the command of Lorde’s voice. Before any words are spoken, we are immediately gripped by the emotion and theme of the song, bitter nostalgia. As the verse begins, we are immediately pulled into the world of Lorde’s memory. No line runs into the next. Each is independent and important. Each is a memory that she wants us to examine. Each is meticulously chosen.

The drink you spilt all over me
‘Lover’s Spit’ left on repeat
My mom and dad let me stay home
It drives you crazy, getting old

In the first verse, she appears to be talking to someone, or about someone. No one is named, however she highlights her parents. Parents are often a symbol of early childhood. Yet, she tells us that “[they] let me stay home”, meaning she must have some independence from them. In this way, she disconnects them from her childhood, and brings them forward into her adulthood, giving them new meaning. She is informative, and reflective in her tone. Reflection is an ongoing theme in the song. We are never told when exactly the present is, but we understand that everything described is in the past. The last line appears pointed. We understand that she is not talking about herself, because she has already highlighted a person in the opening line. Perhaps she is talking to one of her peers, experiencing youth at the same pace as her. Her voice, as she sings the first verse, is slow, and optimistic, as if she is singing with a smile on her face. It sounds as if she is remembering each moment as she speaks.

The sense of calamity in the verse is suspended in the pre-chorus, as loud crashes accompany her voice.

We can talk it so good
We can make it so divine
We can talk it good
How you wish it would be all the time

She speaks collectively here, inviting the listener to join her in her examination. It is clear that she is speaking of youth. However, she trades her sense of optimism for a sudden realization. It’s almost as if she is desperately trying to identify with her youth in her memories. She describes these memories and experiences as  “divine” and how we “wish it would be all the time”. She is describing how nostalgia can romanticize these moments lost in your memory. She is trying to preserve them with a beauty fabricated by a longing for the past.

The most fascinating thing about this song is the way in which each verse acts as the next chorus. Therefore, after this sense of realization, Lorde revisits the memories she has already presented to us, and casts them in a different light. In the chorus, the words gain new meaning as she rushes through the lyrics, almost in a state of panic. Through repetition, Lorde stunningly evokes a sense of fear at the realization that childhood is over. The anxiety associated with growing up is reflected in the pace at which she speaks. The sense of awareness is deeply bittersweet. Nostalgia appears at once both the protagonist and the antagonist of the song.

The second verse reflects the sadness portrayed in the chorus. She sings softly once again, however, the lyrics are far more pessimistic.

This dream isn’t feeling sweet
We’re reeling through the midnight streets
And I’ve never felt more alone
It feels so scary, getting old

Unlike the first, the second verse is personal. She is recounting her own reaction to the understanding that youth is coming to an end. She calls it a “dream”, and the entire verse explores a sense of hopelessness. The most poignant line of the song, and my personal favorite; “And I’ve never felt more alone” is perhaps the most relatable. The transition from childhood to adulthood is incredibly lonely. However, this loneliness is important, and vital in becoming a stronger person.

Repetition is a key feature of the song. We hear the pre-chorus once again, however, now with a deeper understanding of Lorde’s nostalgia.

The chorus, a repetition of the second verse, is possibly the most heartbreaking moment of the song. Likewise, it is its turning point, as focus moves from Lorde’s experiences to our own. We hear the words “It feels so scary, getting old” for a second, and third, time. At this point, we are no longer an observer of Lorde’s memories, we are reflecting on our own. At the beginning of the song, we are under the control of her voice, yet during the second chorus, the voice acts as a guide as we explore our own childhoods.

During the bridge of the song, it is clear that all optimism has faded, and grief has taken its place.

I want ’em back (I want ’em back)
The minds we had (the minds we had)
How all the thoughts (how all the thoughts)
Moved ’round our heads (moved ’round our heads)
I want ’em back (I want ’em back)
The minds we had (the minds we had)
It’s not enough to feel the lack
I want ’em back, I want ’em back, I want ’em

Lorde’s fascination and anguish about the past has come to the full front. She exclaims her longing for her past “thoughts” and the “minds we had”. She is unsatisfied with “the lack” , and longs to return to her childhood.

The final chorus breaks the pattern of the past two, as we have not heard it before.

You’re the only friend I need
Sharing beds like little kids
Laughing ’til our ribs get tough
But that will never be enough

Her grief has transitioned into a sentimentality. She recounts a specific memory, with a specific unnamed person. In the outro, she evokes the relatable experience of “laughing ’til our ribs get tough” that we all associate with childhood. The song ends with a deeply unsatisfying thought, that all this “will never be enough”. She has finally come to terms with the passing of her childhood, and the fact that you often must leave your comforts behind in order to move forward. The way the song fades away mirrors the beginning. However although the opening medley invited us into this world, the final melody acts as a send-off, beckoning us towards adulthood.

Ribs” is deeply bittersweet song. It resonated with me when I was 16, and it is still very special to me. It captures the raw emotion that everyone can relate to as they approach adulthood. It beautifully describes the tragedy of youth, fabricated by your own nostalgia.

Anyway, that’s what’s been on my mind lately. Hope you’re having a great day, and an even better week.

Thanks for reading!


Image does not belong to be. Property of the New York Times. All rights reserved. No copyright infringement intended.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/magazine/the-return-of-lorde.html

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