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lorde and the myth of the female wunderkind

'Prodigy' can be a heavy title to bear, especially in industries that often assign value to women according to their age. While former teen sensations like Lorde and Tavi Gevinson have navigated adult careers with success, being a preteen talent in the...

by Erica Euse
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14 August 2016, 7:39am

still from lorde's "green light"

Lorde was only 12 years old when she landed her first deal with Universal Records. The curly haired preteen had caught the eye of the studio following her middle school's talent show, for which she crooned Duffy's song "Warwick Avenue." After uploading a video of her performance and other covers on YouTube for viewers around the world to see, it wasn't long before the New Zealand native was deemed the next pop prodigy.

The term "prodigy" comes from the Latin word prodigium (meaning sign or omen) and has been used since the 15th century to describe children who have extraordinary abilities that transcend their age. Historically, prodigies have been especially common in music with artists from Mozart to Michael Jackson making their mark on culture before puberty. But the label has also been applied to kids in the realms of math, science, and writing, like in the case of journalist Joyce Maynard in the 1970s, who was writing for magazines like Seventeen before her 16th birthday, and more recently Tavi Gevinson, the editor who first captivated the internet with her quirky fashion sensibilities and blog The Style Rookie at just 12 years old in 2008.

Popular culture's fascination with young talent is nothing new, but the phenomenon has been bolstered by the rise of social media. These days it's almost impossible to go on Facebook without coming across a viral video of a toddler pounding away on the piano or wailing a Whitney Houston ballad. Lorde's early cover of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" from 2009 has been viewed over one million times to date. Unfortunately, being a child wunderkind can come with a cost, especially in the age of the internet, when talented children are exposed to a vast audience that predecessors like Shirley Temple certainly didn't share.

"If I were a parent I would not want my child publicized at a young age as a prodigy for the same reason that I don't think the label is a good thing," Dr. Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, explained to me over email. "This label makes the child think she has to live up to greatness. It puts implicit pressure on the child to stick to the area in which they are a prodigy even if they don't want to - to become great."

Steve Harvey's show, Little Big Shots, which debuted in 2016 and features the "world's most incredible kids" from a six-year-old choir conductor to a 12-year-old harpist is the perfect example of how the prodigy obsession has reached new levels.

In the same year Lorde landed her first record deal, Teen Vogue deemed Gevinson "the luckiest 13-year-old on the planet." At the time she was already reviewing the latest designer collections for magazines like Harper's Bazaar and was featured on the cover of the Pop and Love magazines. It wasn't long after that that the fresh-faced teen was being profiled by the New York Times and traveling around the country on her own book tour. The new media darling had been declared a fashion wunderkind before completing middle school.

The release of "Royals" in 2012 quickly earned Lorde international fame. By the age of 16, the singer was already invited to perform on stage at the Grammys, where her debut album Pure Heroine won her four nominations. In 2014, she joined her friend Gevinson on Time's list of the "25 Most Influential Teens" and posed on the cover of Billboard for the feature story "Lorde: Evolution of a Prodigy."

It was clear that the media was enamored with the young talent, but carrying around the "prodigy" label came with its challenges. Some viewed the young women as merely novelties because of their age. Lorde was especially overwhelmed with the thought of growing up and how the public would value her art once she became an adult.

"Since I started making music, a lot was made of how old I was and it made me think about, 'What happens when I'm 25? Will people still like what I'm doing? Is it still important if I'm not this hyper-youthful being?'" Lorde said in an interview with Elle in 2014. "It's stupid. I know I'm being silly. But I can't help it. It's just one of those things. I'll get over it."

In industries like entertainment and fashion, which are known for tying a woman's value to their youth, it can be especially hard to navigate growing up. Dr. Winner also suspects "being a female prodigy in a traditional male domain might lead to more teasing and social disapproval."

Before they even graduated high school, Gevinson and Lorde decided to take a break from the spotlight to focus on their personal lives. Lorde needed time to come to terms with becoming an adult, while Gevinson wanted to focus more on being a teenager.

The reality is that not many child prodigies will actually succeed. Unlike Lorde and Gevinson, many eventually become bored with their area of expertise, and only a few will actually go on to become adult "geniuses," Dr. Winner explained in The New York Times.

The reason most prodigies will fail is that they are often celebrated for doing something that has already been done, such as mastering that viral Whitney Houston cover. But to be truly innovative in a field, they must have "a rebellious spirit and the type of mind that can see new things," something the average pre-teen doesn't usually possess.

Gevinson is one of the few who has been able to reinvent herself. Over the past few years we've seen her star in movies and hit Broadway plays all while still running her online magazine Rookie. And with Lorde's second studio album, Melodrama, set to drop in June, she has made it clear that she is finally ready to transition to adulthood.

"Writing Pure Heroine was my way of enshrining our teenage glory, putting it up in lights forever so that part of me never dies, and this record-well, this one is about what comes next," she wrote in a lengthy Facebook post on the eve of her 20th birthday in November.

Already we've seen a new wave of talented kids like 13-year-old singer and America's Got Talent winner Grace Vanderwaal and 9-year-old painter Aelita Andre being deemed the the next prodigies. But the label may be doing more harm than good, even if these young talents do go on to be successful.

Despite finally embracing the next chapter of her life, Lorde's new single "Green Light" suggests that she hasn't fully escaped the pressure of being a wunderkind. In the piano ballad, she sings, "The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy until all of the tricks don't work anymore and then they're bored of me."

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Text Erica Euse
Still from "Green Light" by Lorde via YouTube