1. Lorde – “Royals”
“Royals” is a defining song of 2013: It’s divisive and consumerist-critical, an electro-pop lollipop that’s incited a recent wave of backlash and criticism for racial undertones. Sounds like a snapshot of this year, right?
The sparse production and click-snap beat provided by her recording partner and producer Joel Little leave plenty of room for euphonious harmonies and smug, self-deprecating lyrics. Imbued with lines like “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams” and “I’m in love with being queen,” the song was actually penned by the teenager herself (née Ella Yelich O’Connor), and her perspective feels like the next logical step for a mind steeped in the pop culture of the new millennium. Sure, Lorde is no blue blood, but her ascent to the pop throne feels inevitable despite the naysayers.
In the Age of the Internet, backlash against rising artists is unavoidable; it’s really just a question of when the bubble of praise will burst into stinging, soapy drops of criticism. “Royals” broke the record for the longest number one song by a woman on the Alternative Songs chart and ruled that spot for nine weeks — not bad for a 16-year-old Kiwi. That’s why the sudden turn on New Zealand’s darling little pop star is not really a surprise; she’s a teen queen with a celestial voice who’s been side-eyeing her senior pop stars with a razor tongue that rarely misses the mark. Still, no amount of blogger bemoaning can deny that “Royals” is a chameleon of an international pop hit, managing to decry its own status while mimicking the competition.
Because that’s exactly what the song does. It uses tropes borrowed from hip-hop and pilfered from pop while simultaneously bagging on them in favor of suburban reality. Critics target this as racist, in that the signifiers lifted from rap are heavily associated with black culture, while Lorde is white as Wonder Bread and benefiting from bashing hip-hop motifs. In some ways, though, she’s addressing a feeling most safe suburban hip-hop listeners have felt: Why am I drawn to music that details an experience so much different from my own? This is certainly not a challenge that’s relegated to hip-hop, but abounds relentlessly in our culture — the raging gap between the 1% and the rest of us lowly commoners. Pop stars have long sung about their wealth and power; getting lost in all the power has been a cornerstone in major radio hits for years. So, Ella’s anti-luxury narrative comes off as refreshing more than bitching, even if her newly signed royalties contract will give her a princess-sized allowance.
To the carefully attuned ear, it comes through loud and clear that Lorde bears no ill will toward hip-hop and is deeply influenced by the genre. Are we so prone to play the race card that a few pointed critiques of the lavish lifestyle don’t bear some mulling over? The overpowering focus on money, luxury, and wealth is part of what many would argue leads to an ebb in the quality of art a generation produces, regardless of genre, medium, or platform. Either way, writing a chart-topping hit that cribs from other chart-topping hits while kinda hating on them? How millennial. I personally can’t wait to see Lorde in a Cadillac with a tiger on a gold leash in the passenger seat — ironically, of course. After all, the beauty of pop music is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Lorde doesn’t either. –Caitlin White