For the past six years, Brenna Stevens has begun her birthday the same way: sobbing in the shower at midnight while listening to “Ribs” by Lorde. She first established the tradition when she turned 20 and suddenly found herself unraveling with anxiety about the future. “This dream isn’t feeling sweet, we’re reeling through the midnight streets,” Lorde repeats with increasing urgency throughout the song. “And I’ve never felt more alone, it feels so scary getting old.” This teenage existentialism, also apparent on the smash hit “Royals,” positioned 16-year-old Lorde as a wise-beyond-her-years spokesperson for the Tumblr generation after she released her debut album, Pure Heroine, on September 27, 2013.
But what came across as wistful wisdom to patronizing adults translated as prophecy to those whose coming-of-age experience mirrored Lorde’s own, in one form or another. “It’s not so hyper specific that I’m like, ‘I only get this when I’m 16 years old.’ Every year it comes back, and it feels that same way. I’m going through the world, and I’m experiencing life, and I don’t know what’s coming next,” Stevens, 26, tells Rolling Stone. “It felt like that album in particular, and that song in particular, had taken a deeper root in who I was as a person.”
Lorde detailed her adolescent disenchantment with the illusion of time — a finite resource often presented to young people as an endless luxury — with striking emotional resonance on “Ribs.” Over the past decade, the deep cut has taken root among a generation of listeners acutely aware of the quickening pace at which their youth is accelerating. Endless trend cycles online and incessant reminders of their own mortality, not to mention the impermanence of the present, instilled in them a sense of nostalgia for moments that had yet to pass for fear they would slip away too quickly. And, somehow, Lorde saw it coming.
“It’s really about losing your innocence and realizing you’re getting older, and the sweetness of youth is leaving you and you’re just getting a glimpse at how the world actually is,” explains Sarah Gerardi, 25, who first encountered “Ribs” towards the end of her time in high school. “The normalization of mass shootings, all of us losing our ability to go to school and see our friends in person, and the constant exposure to social media. Kids are growing up so fast because they feel like they have to. You feel like bad things are happening everywhere all of the time and you think ‘Oh my gosh, I just wish I felt like I did when I was a kid.’”
As a 16-year-old living in the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, Lorde was familiar with a slightly sweeter version of this coming-of-age melancholy. Each night on the Pure Heroine tour, she introduced “Ribs” with a story about the pivotal moment that inspired it. Once, while her parents were away, she had thrown a house party. Late in the night, while laying in bed next to her best friend, it dawned on her that this teenage rite of passage came with a sacrifice. “Once you do something that feels grown up, it’s really hard to come back,” she explained one night. “When you’ve only ever been a kid, the thought of having to be an adult is really terrifying. I still feel the fear of having to grow up. I still feel like I’m running from that feeling.”
In the early 2010s, Tumblr functioned as a haven for teenagers searching for a similar sense of escapism. “A lot of aesthetic/grunge Tumblr at the time felt like a way of coping with the bleakness of reality as we outgrew childish ignorance,” says Ty Marsh, 23, recalling the profiles that popularized the soft-grunge aesthetic of 2013 and 2014. “They’d reblog things like pictures of oil stains on asphalt, a sad face spray painted on a cracked concrete wall, a stone-faced girl dressed in all black. It was mundane and looked a little depressing, but it made me look for beauty in what I thought at the time was a doomed reality. That’s what Tumblr and the angst-filled tone of Lorde’s music feels like to me — making art out of the ugliness.”
In 2023, Tumblr holds next to none of the social currency it once did. Now, when Marsh sees an oil stain in a parking lot, their first thought is “This would’ve gone crazy on Tumblr.” Their second thought is that that oil will somehow end up in the ocean, adding to “the nearly unavoidable climate disaster our world is approaching.” But even now, a search for “Ribs by Lorde” on the site still yields the same grainy, soft-grunge images overlaid with those same lyrics about getting old.
Before Instagram and TikTok, the teenagers behind those accounts were the influencers carefully curating a coming-of-age experience they could pass off as being casually effortless. The people in the photos were usually white, and skinny, but their faces were often obscured. Their denim jacket-clad backs would be turned towards the camera, or the image would only capture their ripped tights under pleated American Apparel skirts and the knee-high socks sticking out of their Doc Martens. The ability to project onto a mystery was crucial to maintaining the illusion.
While artists like Marina and the Diamonds and Lana Del Rey established hyper-specific visual aesthetics to accompany their music, many other figures in alternative and indie pop’s royal court opted for minimalism. Lorde didn’t appear on the cover of Pure Heroine; nor did the 1975, the Neighbourhood, or Arctic Monkeys appear in the album artwork of their own faceless, black and white records that year. “We’ve become more visual people with social media at our fingertips, and this need for content creation, but when [“Ribs”] was originally released, I almost think the lack of visuals aided it,” says Jared Burton, 30.
Because “Ribs” was never released as an official single (save for when it was selected for the iTunes free Single of the Week promotion), there was never an accompanying music video to craft its visual identity. “People were left with their creativity and this need to interact with the song because it did resonate so strongly,” Burton continues. “What does this song mean to you without any visual representation? It’s not just like, ‘It feels so scary getting old.’ It’s also, ‘You’re the only friend I need.’ It brings in these different aspects of what growing up is.”
For Stevens, before “Ribs” looked like the water running down the shower drain during her yearly birthday cry, it looked like suburbia. “We would go drive to sit in parking lots,” she remembers. “We would have that deep melancholy about teenage things, about leaving this town and having a different life.” And for 19-year-old Caitlin McCauley, it looked like her childhood bedroom on the night of her high school graduation, when she sat on the floor and sobbed about the future catching up to her too quickly. “I think part of the reason this song feels like a gut punch is all the repetition,” she explains. “‘I want ‘em back, I want ‘em back, the minds we had.’ I feel each lyric so deeply and the repetition emphasizes the yearning of things I miss so much.”
Gerardi was confronted with a more visceral vision on first listen. “It felt like a dark prophecy about losing touch with my childhood best friend. That no matter how much we shared in common and the memories we had, eventually it wouldn’t be enough,” she recalls. “I was transitioning out of the phase of having sleepovers with my best friend and driving wherever we wanted and doing whatever we wanted. And suddenly the world seemed very big, and very open, and I had very little direction in it.” As much as she related to the record as a teenager entering college, losing the early years of her twenties to the pandemic was even more devastating. “When I was starting to ramp up into adulthood, suddenly the world stopped,” Gerardi adds. “I could feel myself changing and had no idea how to express it, and I wanted freedom and to feel young and had nowhere to go.”
In December 2019, less than six months before the pandemic began, “Ribs” reached a milestone of 100 million Spotify streams. Within three years, that number increased by 300 million. In August 2023, a month before the tenth anniversary of its release, the song surpassed 500 million streams, 100 million of which were racked up in the last nine months. It’s the singer’s fourth most played song, behind the Pure Heroine singles “Team” and “Royals” and the Melodrama single “Green Light.” On every tour she’s performed since 2013, Lorde has led thousands in chanting: “You’re the only friend I need/Sharing beds like little kids/And laughing till our ribs get tough/But that will never be enough.” And for a brief moment, it is.
“I don’t know if she really had the foresight to know what this song was going to become,” Burton adds. “I think it was just a smart way to express a common fear that we all share of this uncertainty of the future.” The surge can be attributed, at least in part, to the audience of teenagers who found comfort in the song in 2020 and in the permanently altered years of their youth that followed. Discovering new music through sped-up edits on TikTok in 2023 is the equivalent of having a song come across your Tumblr dashboard in 2013. Some may have missed its run on Tumblr, but the use of various snippets from “Ribs” across more than 800,000 videos on TikTok is evidence that its crushing resonance has prevailed.
“These are my emotions, and now I’ve put them in this package and I’m giving them to someone else, and as that person inhabits them, I’m kind of removed in some way,” Lorde told Rookie in 2014 about the anxiety she experienced around releasing Pure Heroine. “Once they’re out there, they’re not just mine anymore. They’re no longer super private. They become other people’s, in a way, as they break them down and give them their own meanings.” At 26, she has largely moved on from her teenage existentialism. When she released “Stoned at the Nail Salon” as a single from her third album Solar Power in 2021, it contained the lyric: “All the music you loved at 16, you’ll grow out of.”
Meanwhile, this song she wrote as a slightly neurotic teenager, passing time by counting the individual grains of sand slipping into the bottom of the hourglass symbolizing her youth, has found an ever-expanding audience. “It felt like a song I could close my eyes to and that I could swim in. I would play it with my headphones on full blast a lot in high school because it surrounded me,” Chase Bristol, 25, remembers about their early encounter with Joel Little’s atmospheric production on “Ribs.” They were 15 years old then, and a decade later, they still go through phases of placing the record in their regular rotation, adding: “It’s like a good friend I’m always excited to see.”
That familiarity provides the most comfort. It also rests at the core of Stevens’ birthday tradition. “I can change my location and I can get some new interests, or meet new people, but I’m always going to be who I was at 16,” she says. “In many ways, as a teen, I found that to be very frightening and very intimidating, like I don’t want to be this person forever. And now that I’m older, it’s so comforting to know that I’ve always been there for myself.”
And Lorde has been there, too. A few years ago, while “Ribs” blasted over the sound of her shower, Stevens noticed a strange physical discomfort that accompanied her yearly emotional cleanse. “I ended up dislocating my rib,” she remembers. “I went to the doctor on my birthday after having already cried to the song and she told me that. I was like, ‘Dammit, this woman is just taking over my life.’”
From Rolling Stone US