Listen to this song by precocious Kiwi singer-songwriter Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, better known by pop radio fans as Lorde. It’s “Royals”, her smash single as taken from 2013’s Pure Heroine, her debut full-length record. “Royals” released in the summer of 2013 as the forerunner to the album.
When “Royals” hit the airwaves, it defied the very rigid format of commercial radio on a number of fronts; it was not traditionally arranged to the exact specifications of a hit song in 2013, and it enjoyed radio play on pure pop stations as well as alternative stations. It remains to be a singular musical statement that stands out among the great sea of commercial pop music that continues to play things safe when it comes to the way the music is made, how it’s presented, and even its subject matter.
To that last point, this song reveals itself to be something of a generational anthem that calls the assumptions of pop culture into question directly. But it isn’t as simple as being a song about rejecting the lust for fame and riches. This song is more complex than that and not without its cultural trip hazards, either.
At least a fraction of the impact this song is down to the fact that it was written by a then-fifteen year old high school girl. In it, she comments eruditely about the forces that are constantly vying for her attention through media; the promise of lavish lifestyles put forward by the movies, social media, and by pop music too. Her conclusions in this song certainly uncover the lie that teens will buy anything unquestioningly as long as it’s packaged in the right way. This makes it a song of defiance, and one about identity, too. For some critics of this song however, it also came off as being disdainful of black culture with it’s perceived disparaging references some of the symbols of black cultural aesthetics. These criticisms are important to consider seriously so as to to get to the heart of why “Royals” is so powerful.
In many quarters, “Royals” is something of a millennial anthem for those who seek to cast off unchecked and self-indulgent consumerism. It comes from the perspective of one who is grounded in her sense of self, recognizing that what is portrayed in pop songs and movies does not actually reflect her life in any meaningful way. It is, ultimately, a song about being realistic and honest, and being happy with the results of what one finds to be valuable in one’s own context. This level of candour is what made the song stand out at the time of its release, among other obvious musical traits. It removed a certain cultural veil from the packaged aspirations aimed at teenagers growing up in this era of reality TV, Instagram rich kids, and promises of instant fame and fortune. However, I don’t think this song is supposed to be a judgmental statement to be applied across the board. I think that would miss the point the song makes about the uniqueness of experience from one person to another.
To this point, I don’t think that “Royals” is broadly anti-consumerist or culturally inflammatory at all. The references to gold teeth and Cristal, those being codified elements of black culture, are among the sticking points where critics are concerned. But here, they are to be understood this same specific context of lived experience. Black people in many parts of the world are a part of a social system that impedes their access to wealth directly because of their race. So, when a black artist writes songs that show The Man that they can more than afford gold teeth, diamond timepieces, and bottles of Cristal and Grey Goose, this isn’t necessarily crass materialism. It’s often an important way to express social defiance, which is as important now as it’s ever been. But that context simply doesn’t apply to a young white woman living in Oceania in the way that fellow Antipodean Iggy Azalea would have us believe with her song “Fancy” that would appear a year later. So, those perceived criticisms don’t apply here in this song.
This is the most important idea at the heart of this song; knowing how to balance the power of cultural myths as they spring from the social context of others with what’s real and valuable in one’s own real life while always understanding the difference. Maybe that still means gold teeth and Cristal. Sometimes though, it’s as simple as counting dollars on the train to the party and being fine with that. Either way, this song is about knowing oneself and finding one’s place in the world on one’s own terms, whatever world one is seeking to make for oneself.
Lorde is an active singer and songwriter today. You can learn more about her at lorde.co.nz.
Right now, Lorde has a new single, “Green Light”, which is the first to come from her next album to follow up Pure Heroine. You can see the video right here.