Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants! Let’s start with an announcement.
That’s right, you heard it here first. Tell your nearest tight-pansted, black rimmed glasses totting 20something to pack up their fixed gear bike, gluten free/vegan cook book, Vampire Weekend vinyl, and go home; their services as the vanguards of “cool” new music are no longer necessary. They’re popular, now. It might feel shocking or sad, but remind them of the good times, we’ll always have The Moon & Antarctica, right?
Ok, in all fairness, the “hipster/indie is dead” argument rolls around every seven to ten years, but few things make the argument sound as convincing as the fact that “Royals” is currently America’s number one song. Just listen to it: if this song had been released in any other year between 2008 and now, the best it’d get is a slow-week Pitchfork “Best New Track” feature praising the “smart pop instincts and precocious songwriting”, and maybe some lower placing on year-end lists before disappearing into the buzz-o-sphere ether.
I’m not saying I’m unhappy with how things turned out.
We’re watching the start of Lorde’s career unfold now, so there isn’t much in the way of background, other than the fact that she’s 16 (OhGodwhatamIdoingwithmylife), and from New Zealand. Despite the look and sound of “Royals”–which we’ll get to in a bit–she isn’t a self-starter with a laptop and beat maker, but a major-label signee with a designated producer (Joel Little). That’s really about it, beside the fact that I think of someone very specific when I think of a “teenage royal lord”.
Ok, getting to “Royals”. This song is about as minimal as you can get and still have a hit. The beat consists of a skittering 808 drum, fingersnaps, background bass synth, and Lorde’s vocals. It’s the kind of minimalism that makes “Started From the Bottom” sound downright overstuffed by comparison. The more obscure Name That Influence here is electropop dup and 2012 critic darlings Purity Ring, as “Royals” could pass for a Shines outtake, minus the weird.
I still haven’t quite got my head around this being the biggest song in America. I mean, yes, on a closer listen, it makes sense; underneath the Noah “40” Shebib reverb and smoothed-out Purity Ring beat, “Royals” is a for-the-masses pop song at its core, but it gets there through playing to what’s typically considered indie music. We’ve had indie acts chart high before, but Lorde’s the first case where indie-pop is purely an aesthetic choice, never a business one.
In this way, she’s also comparable to another “Royals” influence: Lana Del Rey. Both have a more refined and opulent moniker that adds a bit of mystery, and basically the same “one breakout song launches an album” backstory, but for “Royals”, the most prominent comparison is the layered/self-backing vocals. Pound for pound, Lorde’s the superior singer–her voice has a great balance of talent and training, and her knack for melody is stellar, but where she really shines is the vocal embellishments. She’s frequently backed by herself, and the four part harmony at the end of each chorus is to die for.
Lana was also apparently part of the inspiration for the lyrics to “Royals”. And here’s where I lose track of what the song’s saying. Make no mistake about it, they’re a great set of lyrics–Lorde plays with the dissonance between listening to songs about “Gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom” or “Like Cristal, Maybatch, diamonds on your time piece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold lease” at parties while scratching a few bucks together to get your broke ass home. It covers the same “Richness is bullshit” territory that “Thrift Shop” did, except with actual songwriting.
Where Lorde loses me is in her explanation. She says that the song’s inspired by listening to Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne and Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die. Her thought process, in her words, was that “I can get absorbed in Kanye’s world, but a part of me is always like, ‘This is kind of bullshit’—all the crazy extravagances he’s talking about. And I started listening to a lot more top-40 music, and realized a lot of the stuff isn’t very relatable to anyone’s lives.”
I want to make sure I get this straight. She wrote a luxury takedown because she thought that Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lana Del Rey weren’t very relatable. She’s railing because an admitted pop culture pastiche, the guy whose last record included a song literally called “I Am a God”, and the one entertainer who could credibly buy Scrooge McDuck aren’t something to relate to?
I can’t speak for Lorde or the rest of y’all, but I didn’t listen to “N**gas in Paris” because I, too, know how to not give a shit about fifty grand. Hell, Watch the Throne only worked because if anybody knew how make being mind-shatteringly wealthy believable and fun, it would be Jay-Z and Kanye West.
So, even if Lorde lost me at her inspiration, there’s still no denying that “Royals” is one of the best chart toppers this year. Even if it strictly speaking isn’t different, there’s nothing that sounds exactly like it, and Lorde’s vocals are wonderful. It’s interesting to see where such a fully formed artist will go next, but hopefully she outgrows the Holden Caulfield “phonies are bullshit” streak.