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Review: Lorde tends to her flock at the Fonda Theatre

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At the first sign of the song's finger-snap beat, the glowing smartphones in the crowd flickered to life, held aloft to record a performance of what might be 2013’s unlikeliest hit: “Royals,” by the 16-year-old New Zealand-based singer-songwriter known as Lorde.

A rigorously stripped-down bit of electronic blues -- basically a voice, a bass line and that minimal drum pattern -- “Royals” presents itself in both sound and words as a renunciation of the ambition and glamour enshrined at the top of the pop charts.

“Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom / Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room,” Lorde sings, then adds with the sanctimony of a brainy teenager, “We don’t care.”

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Yet the top of the charts is where “Royals” now lives -- at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, to be precise, just behind Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The song has racked up nearly 30 million plays on YouTube and an additional 20 million on Spotify. And it’s been name-checked by famous fans that include Elton John and Lena Dunham.

So there was Lorde -- born Ella Yelich-O'Connor -- on Tuesday night at the Fonda Theatre, kicking off a brief North American tour with a sold-out show in the heart of Hollywood.

The goal, of course, was to drum up more interest in the singer before the release next week of her major-label debut, “Pure Heroine.” (She’s scheduled to play the Belasco Theater in downtown L.A. on Wednesday.)

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But for a capacity crowd filled with scenesters and early adopters, the show also served as Lorde’s chance to provide proof of life: evidence that the striking young woman in the “Royals” video -- in which Lorde looks directly into the camera as she admits, with some satisfaction, “I’m not proud of my address” -- is capable of delivering the same effect onstage.

On a basic level, she succeeded. Backed by a drummer and a keyboardist, she sang well, made dramatic faces and wore a flowing black dress with fishnet sleeves. The hour-long concert was a coherent demonstration of the stark electro-goth aesthetic she’s been developing since a  manager took her on after reportedly seeing a clip of her performance at a talent show.

“A World Alone” was tender but propulsive, and “Royals” appealingly pugnacious. And at the end of “Ribs,” about how “it feels so scary getting old,” Lorde added a few lines from Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor,” from his “Yeezus” album -- a savvy hat-tip to another artist with a flair for emotional brutality.

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Beyond that, though, Tuesday’s show didn’t do much to deepen our understanding of who Lorde is --  how she came to write these songs, for instance, or what drives her apparent disgust with fame.

She’s spoken in interviews about her longing for the kind of old-school pop-star mystique that scarcely exists in the age of social media. And trying to restore some of that is a worthy endeavor; part of why “Royals” works is because it seems unknowable at a time when oversharing rules.

But the other reason the song works is that, with its strong message and catchy presentation, it isn’t all that different from its chart neighbors “Wrecking Ball” or “Roar.” Makeovers and make-unders are both processes, yet Lorde at the Fonda seemed unwilling (or unable) to give her fans a window into hers.

Perhaps it’s simply too early in her just-unfolding career. One problem with the way music flourishes on the Internet is that it leads us to expect fully formed ideas from artists who -- unlike lifers such as Perry and Cyrus -- haven’t been allowed the time to develop them. We see a bloodstain and we want the entire crime scene, even when one hasn’t been marked off yet.

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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