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Why I Don’t Like Lorde’s “Royals”

August 26, 2013

For past few months, I’ve been hearing a song on SiriusXM’s The Spectrum that has bothered me from Day 1.  It’s called “Royals”, performed and co-written by Lorde.  I thought I would use this blog post to explore why I’m not a fan of it.

Lorde, the stage name of Ella Yelich O’Connor, is a 16-year-old singer-songwriter from New Zealand, specializing in minimalist electronic music.  Her debut EP, The Love Club, was released in March 2013, and her first studio album is due on September 30.  I’ve heard rumblings that she could be the next big thing.  Two of her songs have topped the chart in New Zealand, and “Royals” currently sits at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Before scrutinizing “Royals”, I wanted to get a better understanding of Lorde’s artistic output as whole.  I listened to the rest of The Love Club EP, as well her most recent single, “Tennis Court”, and the digital equivalent of its B-side, “Swingin’ Party”.

From hearing all seven tracks, I can safely say that Lorde is not my cup of tea.  I can see how people might like the slow, spacious, electronic arrangements, but I find them a bit dull.  On top of that, the lyrics aren’t all that great, though there are a handful of lines that stand out on “Bravado” and “Tennis Court”.

But while I might not like Lorde’s music, I don’t hate it either.  It’s just not my style.  So if her music as a whole doesn’t bother me, what’s my problem with “Royals”?  It boils down to muddled messaging.

So What’s “Royals” About?

Initially, I interpreted “Royals” as a critique of cultural products which promote a lifestyle.  This comes across clearest in the prechorus, in which the speaker describes the lyrics of contemporary popular music:

But every song’s like, “Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom,

Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room.”

We don’t care: we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.

But everybody’s like, “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece,

Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.”

We don’t care: we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

The prechorus is structured as a rejection of the materialism which dominates popular music and, by extension, society.  The verses, meanwhile, demonstrate that the lifestyle presented in popular music does not match reality.  The speaker has “never seen a diamond in the flesh” and lives in a town without a famous postal code.  When she goes out with her friends, they count their money; it is an object to them.

Further, the chorus suggests that the speaker, in fact, likes that her life doesn’t resemble the image presented in popular music.  She admits she and her friends will “never be royals,” but she spins her unglamorous life as a positive: “That kind of lux just ain’t for us / We crave a different kind of buzz.”  She positions herself as a “ruler” and “queen bee”, implying she is above pop culture’s materialists.

Okay, so “Royals” appears to have solid anti-materialist message.  That’s a message which should appeal to me.  Unfortunately, other considerations make the message less clear.  I want to highlight two considerations which affect my reading: the structure of “Royals”, and the song’s place in Lorde’s oeuvre.

Structural Issues

“Royals” uses a fairly conventional song structure: verse 1 – prechorus – chorus – verse 2 – prechorus – chorus – bridge – chorus.  However, not all the components are equally weighted in the song.  Discounting the “ohs” in the bridge, “Royals” consists of 48 lines.  Combined, the two verses and the bridge account for just 12 lines.  This means a full 3/4 of the lyrics are the repeated sections.

The dominance of the hook in “Royals” presents a problem for the anti-materialist message.  Instead of zeroing in on the speaker’s actual life, the song focuses on the materialism of mainstream music…which effectively reinforces that same materialism.  Dwelling on the vices has the side effect of making them seem like virtues.  One might get the impression that the song is reveling in materialism, not criticizing it.

Not helping matters is that, from my point of view, the prechorus is by far the catchiest part of the song.  The most memorable thing about “Royals” is its listing of fancy alcohol, nice cars, and debauchery.  And if not for the qualifier, “But every song’s like,” I would have hard time distinguishing Lorde’s song from something like Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night”.

As for the chorus proper, I think the metaphors Lorde chooses undermine the thesis.  Take the phrase “queen bee”, which the speaker wishes to be called.  While “queen bee” implies social capital as opposed to material capital, using a regal-derived term conflicts with her not being a “royal”.  That the images are so close makes it difficult to pin down what exactly the speaker desires, and it makes the anti-materialist message all the harder to see.

Of course, this assumes that the message actually is an anti-materialist one.

How “Royals” Fits in with Lorde’s Oeuvre

I had taken note of the structural problems in “Royals” before acquainting myself with Lorde’s work as a whole.  Finally listening to The Love Club EP and the “Tennis Court” single caused me to reevaluate my interpretation of “Royals”, to the song’s detriment.

There is a loose theme that runs through Lorde’s discography, but it’s not anti-materialism.  In fact, the speakers in some of her other songs appear to embrace the values which “Royals” rejects.  “Million Dollar Bills” opens with the lines, “There is nothing I want but money and time / Million dollar bills and a tick, tick, tick, tick.”  Or take these lyrics from “Tennis Court”: “Never not chasing a million things I want … Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought.”

Instead of anti-materialism, the running theme in Lorde’s music is individualism.  The emphasis on being different comes up in multiple ways.  Sometimes it’s about separating herself from others, as in “The Love Club” (“I’m in a clique but I want out”).  Other times, a resolved tone suggests it.  This occurs in “Bravado” (“I can take it from here / I’ll find my own bravado”) and “Swingin’ Party” (“If being wrong’s a crime, I’m serving forever”).

So Lorde is not particularly anti-materialist, but in “Royals”, she uses an anti-materialist stance to express individuality.  Contrasting the speaker’s mundane life with the images presented in popular music is way to demonstrate that the speaker is different, that she is an individual.  In the context of Lorde’s discography, the message of “Royals” is not, “Screw materialism.”  It’s, “I’m different.”

I could salvage an anti-materialist reading by claiming that Lorde is being ironic in songs like “Million Dollar Bills”.  I’m not sure that’s true, though.  Granted, Lorde’s music does have an ironic streak to it, and it seems intentional.  Her songs constantly mention parties–hell, one is called “Swingin’ Party”–but only “Million Dollar Bills” has a pulse.  They’re slow and occasionally morose.  No one is going to mistake “Swingin’ Party” for Louis Prima.

But this ironic streak doesn’t extend to her lyrics.  There’s nothing which demands I interpret them beyond face value.  And even there were, her arrangements are too uniform.  The music can’t clue me into which songs are sincere and which are put-ons.  The closest thing to irony is a sense of detachment.  In both “Royals” and “Tennis Court”, the speakers reiterate that they don’t care about something.  In the latter, she even claims her indifference is “a new art form”.

That detachment is, I think, what bothers me about “Royals”.  Lorde doesn’t seem invested in the song’s anti-materialism.  Mind, I don’t need her to believe in it.  She could be be playing a character, and be invested in that character, and I’d be fine.  But because the artist is totally detached from the message, the song rings false.

To be clear, I don’t think “Royals” is a bad song, per se.  I’m more annoyed at the overplay than anything else.  I chose to talk about “Royals” because I felt it was a song I could sink my teeth into.  And the fact I felt I could talk about suggests it has some artistic merit regardless of my thoughts.  But that doesn’t mean “Royals” isn’t a frustrating song regardless, and I’ll be happy when it’s phased from radio playlists.

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One Comment
  1. Dillon permalink

    “The most memorable thing about “Royals” is its listing of fancy alcohol, nice cars, and debauchery.”
    So? Most people who listen to it don’t get it. That’s true of a lot of smart pop songs. A very small percentage of people I’ve seen dancing to gangnam style understand that it’s a satire.

    Or take these lyrics from “Tennis Court”: “Never not chasing a million things I want … Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought.”
    Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought
    But I know they’ll never own me
    The very next line from tennis court establishes the same sort of anti-materialism from royals.

    And anyway, I don’t see how songs contradicting a bit is necessarily a valid criticism of the artist. It’s certainly not a valid criticism of individual songs, due to the death of the author. She always cites short stories as one of her main inspirations; who’s to say each of her songs is not a distinct character? Writers don’t have to agree with their characters. I don’t think that’s what was meant because they definitely sound like they’re coming from the same person to me. They’re quite consistent.

    “As for the chorus proper, I think the metaphors Lorde chooses undermine the thesis. Take the phrase “queen bee”, which the speaker wishes to be called. While “queen bee” implies social capital as opposed to material capital, using a regal-derived term conflicts with her not being a “royal”. That the images are so close makes it difficult to pin down what exactly the speaker desires, and it makes the anti-materialist message all the harder to see.”
    As for the songs contradicting themselves: it’s called paradox. She wants to be queen but yet she doesn’t. She wants to play the part of queen bee, to live the fantasy, but she will never really be queen bee because it’s not in her blood. In other words, she’ll go be a pop star, and that’ll be fun, but she’s not going to let it rule her. In tennis court, she wants to fly away from her life with her friends but yet she doesn’t. She has ambitions but she’s afraid.

    “The music can’t clue me into which songs are sincere and which are put-ons.”
    The songs all have put-on and sincere components.

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