Pop culture is in the middle of a several-years-long witch moment — an only occasionally ironic, girl-power-inflected, “we nostalgically watch Hocus Pocus” witchcraft moment.
Lana Del Rey is casting binding spells on Donald Trump, Tumblr teens are curating witch-vibe aesthetics, and Broad City has embraced witches as a symbol of female power. It’s a moment that is, as Mikaella Clements wrote at the Establishment, “tied up in intersectional feminism, in a desire to reclaim power, and to laugh as [one] does so.”
And every pop cultural aesthetic needs a celebrity avatar, somebody to perform the aesthetic and thus embody all of the contradictions and fantasies and anxieties the aesthetic creates. For the pinup aesthetic of the ’50s, and its attendant obsession with sex and virginity and innocence, that was Marilyn Monroe. For the witch aesthetic, it’s New Zealand pop star Lorde, whose sophomore album Melodrama is up for Album of the Year at this Sunday’s Grammys.
Lorde’s career arc parallels the rise of the witch aesthetic
Lorde emerged into the pop cultural consciousness in mid-2013, releasing her smash single “Royals” and debut album Pure Heroine right around the time the witch aesthetic was getting off the ground. The ’90s revival had brought interest in The Craft and Buffy back with it. Witches were more popular than Congress. Think piece after think piece emerged about the sudden and enormous presence of witchery. And when Lorde arrived, she was immediately lumped into the trend.
There was the penchant for dark, tentlike dresses and dark lipstick that had Vanity Fair dubbing her “the Queen of Darkness.” (“Sometimes I'll go for a goth-witch vibe,” she admitted to Teen Vogue.) There was the way she moved her hands onstage, like she was casting a spell. There was the time she briefly rebranded Taylor Swift’s girl squad as a “witch’s coven” in an interview, while posing with her arms outstretched in a dead tree, staring into the camera with the face of someone who is preparing to do some very dark magic. (Cosmo dubbed it “a look that can only be described as ‘goth teen witch princess.’”)
Lorde drifted out of sight a bit after her 2014 Grammy wins for “Royals,” but she moved back into the spotlight as she released her sophomore album, Melodrama, and again as she prepped for the Grammys. In the time she was gone, the witch aesthetic only grew more ubiquitous — and Lorde’s witch vibes have only grown more polished. She now looks, Jonah Weiner wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “like an extremely chic witch ready for a night of haunting.”
We are in a pop cultural moment that loves witches, and Lorde is the witch we need.
The witch aesthetic is a response to the aesthetic of weaponized femininity
The witch aesthetic emerged as a simultaneous evolution from and backlash against the aesthetic of weaponized femininity that rose to prominence in the late aughts and early teens. One parody video would famously sum up the weaponized femininity aesthetic as, “You want the wings of your eyeliner to be so sharp they could kill a man, allowing it to drain his blood so you may use it to summon the goddess Athena.”
More seriously, a Tumblr user called it “girl shit that cuts,” and elaborated with examples: “vicious maidens vicious in their maidenhood, vicious mothers vicious in their motherhood, vicious seductresses vicious in their seduction, women who make the tenets of their aggressive conspicuous femininity cruel.”
The idea of weaponized femininity is that girls can take all the things the patriarchy throws at them — all the limitations and boundaries inscribed on their bodies and their ways of being, all the things the patriarchy uses to hurt women and girls — and turn them into things that hurt other people. It’s Emily Thorne on Revenge tossing her perfectly curled hair before she crosses out another face with her red Sharpie. It’s Peggy Carter knocking someone out with poisoned lipstick. It’s a power fantasy.
It’s also an inherently limited power fantasy. Critics fretted over its problems: Weaponized femininity is aggressive, but it also works within the boundaries of the patriarchy instead of trying to destroy it; the aesthetic is both high femme and fairly white as a default, and that’s exclusive.
Helpfully suggested by the ’90s revival, the witch aesthetic emerged as both a corrective and the next logical step forward for weaponized femininity. The witch aesthetic is, like weaponized femininity, a power fantasy for women: If you are a witch in a fairy tale, you have more power than anyone else in the story; certainly more power than the princess does. And like weaponized femininity, there’s an undercurrent of anger to the witch aesthetic: You don’t declare yourself a witch if you don’t think the world has screwed you over a little bit.
But as Clements notes in her fantastic history of the Tumblr witch, the driving motivation of the witch aesthetic isn’t to enact violence so much as it is to recognize how ridiculous the world is. She writes:
Formed seething and seeping from a swamp of ways to tackle a world that seems skewed against you, the Tumblr witch is resolutely unfriendly and intractable. She’s something to meld to when the only guides are moving up and out. She offers new ways to burrow in and down.
And I like her nastiness, her paranoia, her bitter laughter. “Take a bath and moisturize well,” the self-care guide soothes us. The Tumblr witch howls: “Mercury is in retrograde, lock your doors and don’t go out!!!”
Witch aesthetics also have more flexibility than weaponized femininity does. You don’t need to go high femme to get witch vibes. You don’t even really need to go goth: Almost any aesthetic can be turned into a witch aesthetic if you try hard enough. Clements quotes a Tumblr witch and Etsy shop owner on what she thinks of when she thinks of witch vibes:
Goth witches in black maxi dresses and capes, Wiccan girls in flowy boho looks with handfuls of rings and jarred herbs . . . sea witches with mermaid hair and tattered shipwreck looks, prairie witches in calico dresses magicking tumbleweeds across the dirt, pink-haired mall witches in anime buns and belly shirts.
Witch aesthetic is less a specific wardrobe than it is an attitude, an expression of female power that doesn’t depend on the male gaze to do its work.
The witch aesthetic lets girls proclaim that they and their performances of femininity — whatever form those performances take — are powerful, and a little angry, and that they are laughing about it. And they can do it with whatever kinds of clothes they’re already interested in.
The witch aesthetic is a power fantasy, and Lorde knows how to wield that power
Lorde’s witch aesthetic is specifically goth witch, all black clothes and dark lipstick and wild hair; you wouldn’t be surprised to see her in a cape. It insists on its witchiness in a way the aesthetics of Lorde’s pop star cohorts rarely do: Taylor Swift, certainly, would never call her girl squad a witch’s coven in an interview.
That’s because the power fantasy Taylor Swift is working with isn’t a witch fantasy. Swift in her “Blank Space” video — tapping her red nails together as her hapless boyfriend chokes and cooing, “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” — is performing weaponized femininity.
Lorde smearing her lipstick across her face and writhing her way out of a white tent as she performs “Yellow Flicker Beat,” snarling, “I got my fingers laced together and I made a little prison and I’m locking up everyone who ever laid a finger on me,” is performing witch aesthetics.
Lorde’s witchiness gives her a specific kind of girl power vibe. It lets her laugh off criticism about ways in which she fails to live up to traditional standards of femininity. Her dancing isn’t sexy or pretty — it’s witchy, and she’s cool with that. “i totally know i look like gollum when i perform, so it's cool,” she told Reddit breezily.
Her aesthetic can be anarchic, and it frees her to focus on specific images rather than prettiness. Her clothes don’t have to be immaculate, her hair can be shaggy, her lyrics can be angry, and she’s not sacrificing any power when she makes those choices. When she performed on Saturday Night Live in March 2017, she was shrouded in what looked like an oversize antique lace nightgown, with matching headdress, because she wanted to look like a moth, she said. (Moth witch vibes.) She got rave reviews.
Lorde is the celebrity avatar of the witch aesthetic, and as such, she stands for the fantasy it represents: of female power without objectification, of the freedom to be angry, of ironic detachment from the rest of the world.
It’s the fantasy of finding an escape hatch from the things the world demands of women — the enforced prettiness and sweetness and sexual availability — and turning the rejection of those tropes into power. That’s the power fantasy at the bottom of the witch aesthetic, and that’s the power fantasy that Lorde embodies.
Update: This article has been edited to include Melodrama’s Grammy nominations.