Full Fucking Joy: A Popfeminist Analysis of Lorde’s 2017 VMAs Performance

Amanda Yuan

This summer during the 2017 Video Music Awards, pop singer Lorde was expected to perform the hit single “Homemade Dynamite” from her latest album Melodrama. Melodrama’s release had been a huge success, and the world was excited to see Lorde’s return. However, she opted not to sing due to an illness and performed an interpretive dance instead of a traditional performance. The internet exploded; many tweeted their thoughts. Opinions ranged from confused to enraged, all due to an awkward dance. Later, Lorde responded on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, stating that the reason she thought people were offended by her performance was because “It’s sort of embarrassing to watch someone experience intense joy. Way more than pain… And I think that’s why people find what I do quite disconcerting.” She went on to say that she couldn’t believe that people were so angry over her merely dancing with “full fucking joy” (Maron and Lorde). Lorde’s awkward dancing can in some way be seen as a disruption of what is considered the norm in popular culture and traditional standards of femininity. Her willingness to be genuine and silly in her glee made audiences uncomfortable, eschewing pop music performance expectations of sex and spectacle. In particular, female pop stars seem to fill certain archetypes, either exuding sex or embodying purity, and Lorde refused to do either to please her audience.

Lorde has always been an incredibly unique performer and has puzzled the public for years. She is a notoriously “bad” dancer, but in a very different way than Taylor Swift. A Vox article described Lorde’s dancing as “a spastic style of dance that frequently looks like the marriage between a dark magician and a seizure” (Abad-Santos). She has often spoken up about her dancing and her choice to be fully immersed in her performances. Lorde has also seemed to largely escape the trap of being reductively labeled and stereotyped, which happens frequently to young female pop stars. Furthermore, Lorde has a long history of supporting intersectional feminism. This summer, during a segment on 60 Minutes, she stated that feminism wasn’t about her, but was in fact about “trying to fight for better conditions of all women, whether that be trans women, or women of color, or women in professions that typically don’t get a lot of respect.” Lorde’s authenticity and reputation as a feminist celebrity inform her infamous VMAs performance.

Lorde’s performance was truly something out of the ordinary. It was completely unbridled, vulnerable, and unfiltered, and somehow looked both choreographed and improvised. The performance was a complete departure from most popular music performances and seemed to serve herself rather than the audience. It was evident that she was completely engrossed in her performance and dancing full out. Aside from the choreography itself, the aesthetics of her performance were also far from typical. Her outfit choice was outside the realm of what would be considered a “normal” outfit for a popstar. It almost looked as if she wanted it to be intentionally confusing. Lorde wore a pair of gray jogger-style sweatpants, Adidas Superstars, and a poofy silver lamé tutu dress. She didn’t utilize a big fancy set or many flashy props. Everything about Lorde’s performance at the VMAs was out of line with what has been established as “typical” for the pop industry, but typical for her public persona so far.

As much as the internet loves Lorde for her awkward authenticity and relatability, many seemed to have incredibly strong negative reactions to her VMAs dance. News sites from Vanity Fair to Buzzfeed published similar posts dedicated to angry tweets and memes made in response to her performance (Abad-Santos n. pag.). Opinions were varied but overwhelmingly negative, and many thought the performance was weird, uncomfortable, awkward, or even infuriating. Some took to Twitter to express their outrage. On Twitter, user @Lombuckski said “#VMAs #Lorde ? Lol .. fucking kill me thank god i didn’t watch 5 minutes of that useless garbage these moon bats call art.” The volume of Twitter users who were offended by Lorde’s performance reveals the expectations of pop stars by the public and proof of Lorde’s defiance of these traditional structures.

When examined more closely, Lorde’s VMAs performance is not simply an awkwardly choreographed piece, but a feminist act executed in protest of the pop music industry and how it shapes the perception of women. Her embrace of silliness and awkwardness is reminiscent of certain famed popfeminist groups who use silly and awkward dancing in their music videos and live performances. This type of dancing is purposeful, not conventionally attractive, or comfortable to watch, as its purpose is not necessarily to appease the audience. The fact that Lorde would engage in this type of dancing as a traditional pop music star at one of the biggest awards ceremonies of the year is disruptive and serves to subvert certain patriarchal structures of the pop music industry through her refusal to perform for the sole purpose of making the audience happy. So why exactly was Lorde’s expression of her true happiness so disconcerting to viewers? According to Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, certain forms of happiness are viewed as less worthy because they do not involve the accumulation of points, creating a line that can be followed, and silliness is a prime example (220). Lorde’s dancing was not some stock pop performance, replete with pyrotechnics and perfectly polished choreography. It was silly, imperfect, and real. Ahmed points out that the word silliness has its roots in a word that originally meant “blessed, happy, or blissful,” but has since evolved over time to become a word that holds a more negative connotation. Silliness is seen as having no conventional uses, and so it is devalued. However, it still serves to be an incredibly important factor in provoking disruptions of norms. This concept of silliness is further explored by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics (2016). The authors argue that because Ahemd defines silliness as an ability to be happy in inappropriate ways, “silliness is a counterpart of joy, just as ‘inappropriateness’ is a facet of awkwardness” (Smith Prei and Stehle 84). Furthermore, they go on to say that joyful silliness and awkward inappropriateness are integral to popfeminist activism (Smith-Prei and Stehle 84). Lorde’s silliness confounded most people and shattered whatever expectations they had about the grandiose performance they wanted out of her. In addition, the statement Lorde made in response to the backlash completely embraced the awkwardness of the dance and highlighted it. According to Awkward Politics, “exploiting, using, and keeping with the awkward – instead of smoothing it over or explaining it away – is a mode of politics,” further supporting the idea that Lorde’s performance was a sort of political statement aimed at scrutinizing the institutions within popular media and music (Smith-Prei and Stehle 12). Lorde could have easily explained it all away and made excuses by citing her illness, but instead she owned the dance and was very deliberate and intentional about the emotion behind her performance. With her willingness to embrace silliness and awkwardness, Lorde’s performance becomes a popfeminist act which rejects norms of pop culture and music.

Another way in which Lorde has proven this performance to be a disruptive feminist act is through Sara Ahmed’s concept of willful disobedience. In Awkward Politics, the authors explain this theory in relation to German rapper Lady Bitch Ray, saying that she uses the supposedly “smooth surface of pop consumption as a starting point for her interventions,” and that her deliberate exposure of flaws in the industry is an example of Ahmed’s concept of willfulness, in which being willful is to be a problem and to reject norms of societal expectations (Smith-Prei and Stehle 95-97). Though incredibly dissimilar from Lady Bitch Ray in many ways, Lorde used the medium of pop consumption to convey a powerful, disruptive statement with her dancing. Lorde was absolutely aware of the general expectations of the structure of pop music, and she chose to willfully defy these expectations in favor of something that was more challenging and disruptive. Smith-Prei and Stehle explain how awkwardness and clumsiness can make a body a willful object, stating that clumsiness can be “how a subject experiences itself: as being ‘in the way’ of what is ‘on the way,’ as being in the way of itself as well as others” (98). Lorde used her body as a willful object because her body’s awkwardness and clumsiness can cause discomfort and is a symbol of how she experiences herself. Furthermore, Smith-Prei and Stehle argue that willfulness is a sort of disturbance that comes from somebody not fitting in and sticking out, creating awkwardness (98). Lorde and her dance stuck out very clearly amongst dozens of storied performers, and it created a bumpiness that was intentional and disruptive. Through willful disobedience, it becomes easy to see Lorde’s dance as a purposeful rejection of norms and expectations set by the public an the pop industry.

Lorde is unquestionably a groundbreaking figure when it comes to standards in pop culture and the music industry, and her performance at the 2017 VMAs only further serves to prove this. Not only was her dancing a true display of the joyful silliness that is so emblematic of modern popfeminist activism, it was also a disruptive act that serves to reject popular culture and mainstream ideas of what it means to be a woman. She performed this for herself and her own joy, as opposed to catering to the comfort and tastes of her audience even though she understands what is expected from her. This performance can then also be seen as an act of willful disobedience, in which Lorde upsets the structure and tradition of live pop music performances. Through theories of awkwardness, silliness, and willful disobedience explored by Sara Ahmed and the book Awkward Politics by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle, Lorde’s actions, when viewed with a popfeminist lens, become provocations of the standards set by the popular music industry and defy the restrictions shaped by pop culture that are too often placed on women.

Works Cited

Abad-Santos, Alex. “VMA 2017: Lorde Had the Flu. She Performed Anyway.” Vox, 27 Aug. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/8/27/16212692/mtv-vma-2017-lorde-performance-flu.

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.

Bardo, Ram (Lombuckski). “#VMAs #Lorde ? Lol .. fucking kill me thank god i didn’t watch 5 minutes of that useless garbage these moon bats call art”. 29 Aug 2017, 01:24 UTC. Tweet

GLNTime (gln11time). “@NZStuff #Lorde’s performance at #VMAs was not artistic. At best self-indulgent. Mostly childish & unskilled; perha… https://t.co/MNEnednpIq”. 01 Sep 2017, 03:41 UTC. Tweet

Logan, Lara, and Lorde. “60 Minutes with Lorde.” 60 Minutes, CBS, New York, New York, 18 June 2017.

Lorde, and Marc Maron. “Episode 844-Lorde.” WTF With Marc Maron, WTF, 7 Sept. 2017, www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-844-lorde?rq=lorde.

Nazim, Hafeezah. “Lorde Explains Why Feminism Is ‘Not About Her.’” Nylon, 23 June 2017, nylon.com/articles/lorde-60-minutes-feminism.

Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

Amanda Yuan is a sophomore at Stanford University studying Theatre and Performance Studies and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She enjoys making music and exploring Asian American activism through theatre in her free time.

Leave a Comment