Welcome to Answering Machine, a new weekly column where Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman (@michaelroffman) will voice his opinion on the latest top headlines, which might include new music, various controversies, and publicized conflicts. He’s likened this to a Town Hall discussion of sorts, so please feel free to voice your own two cents below.
Last week, there were a lot of firsts for New Zealand singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a.k.a Lorde. She released her debut album, Pure Heroine, to critical and commercial acclaim. She made an impressive American live television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She surrounded said appearance with equally impressive debut NYC performances at Webster Hall and Warsaw. And most importantly, after becoming the first woman in 17 years to top Billboard’s Alternative Songs Chart, she then became the youngest singer in 26 years to top Billboard’s Hot 100. Yet amidst all that hoopla, she’s been accused of being racist.
On Thursday, October 3rd, Feministing.com blogger Veronica Bayetti Flores published a scathing commentary titled, “Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist,” in which she took offense to the song’s lyrics, specifically its hook: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom… But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.” Here’s a sample of her reasoning:
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.
Flores then lambasts The New York Times and other “white liberal critics” for not picking up on the “racial implications,” and for embracing the song instead like the 130,000 other listeners that bought Pure Heroine last week.
What’s startling about Flores’ op-editorial is how so much of her argument relies on her supposed clairvoyance. All throughout, she’s shocked and appalled that “many people listened to this track, and saw no problem with it at all,” as if her particular insight here should be a given. But, why? Most of her callous statements aren’t even supported. She starts out by writing “in fact, it is deeply racist,” only to support said “fact” with blanket statements (“Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs“) and weightless assumptions (“I’m gonna take a guess: racism”). At one point, she even argues that there are others accountable here outside of Lorde, simply because “mad people signed off on this.” It’s no surprise then that she prefaces many of her statements with white flags like “Now I’m a music lover,” “I deeply love music videos,” and “ I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity,” as if all of these qualities make for any sort of authority on anything.
To play Devil’s advocate, Flores could have had a point. There’s something to be said about Lorde using buzzwords like “gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs,” but racism isn’t one of them. Instead, Lorde’s chorus lampoons the sensationalized glories and obsessions of the rich and the famous celebrities today, which happen to predominately include hip-hop and pop stars. It’s telling of her argument that Flores would single out those words, but gloss over the just-as-buzzy other phrases like “ball gowns,” “trippin’ in the bathroom,” “trashin’ the hotel room,” “Jet planes,” “islands,” and “tigers on a gold leash.” When all put together, it’s a big portrait of everything you find on MTV: ludicrous episodes of Cribs, irritable scenes of My Sweet 16, recaps of every EDM festival imaginable, and, well, Scarface. That’s hardly fair game to toss around the R word. And if anyone’s confused as to why hip-hop and pop stars are being singled out, it’s probably because they’re the only ones in the industry actually able to live that lifestyle. ICYMI: Rock stars are a thing of the past.
Really, the main gripe I have with Flores’ piece is that it’s part of a bigger problem at hand. It seems like so many participants in new media these days have been looking up to the fictional accusations of Joseph McCarthy rather than the factual backbone of, say, Edward Murrow. Our culture is so indebted to seeking out one another, reaching for the torches and pitchforks before taking a seat in the thinking chair. At times, we’re even over-thinking things by creating bold headlines on italicized stories, stuff that’s almost always taken out of context. And for what? Link-baiting? A warped sense of self-righteousness? This isn’t helping, people.
I read a bunch of comments on Flores’ piece, but this one stood out most for me. Hopefully it will for you, too.
Racism is serious stuff, very serious. So plucking a couple of lyrics from a song and painting a person you’ve never met as a racist by virtue a song they have written is equal parts alarming and saddening. This isn’t even unintentionally racist. Do you judge your books by a couple of paragraphs too? I get we live in the internet age, I get we are all free to speak our minds. But please do some research before you do.