Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, or simply Lorde, is probably the most interesting female pop singer to grace the genre since the American power duo of Gaga/Perry in 2008. Lorde burst onto the music scene in mid 2013 with her international megahit, “Royals”, originally released on Love Club EP (which she self-released on Sound Cloud) and produced by Joel Little. “Royals” skyrocketed to the number one spot on the US Billboard Hot 100, and thrived there for nine consecutive weeks before going six times platinum.
I don’t usually get pop songs stuck in my head for more than a few days, but “Royals” itched at my mind for several weeks- a feat usually only accomplished by great rock music. I didn’t really begin to understand what Lorde was all about until I started watching her live performances online. Her stage presence has a kind of primal rawness that I’ve never seen from a pop star. She almost never opens her eyes when she sings, as if too overcome by her own music. She doesn’t really dance, instead succumbing to seizure-like moments while clawing the air as if exorcising some kind of demon from within (probably the same demon plaguing Anthony Keidis). She contorts violently in sync with the heavy kicks that pervade most of her music, as if constantly being electrocuted. Her live performance is perpetually strained and frustrated. She comes off as erotic, pissed off, and fascinating all at the same time.
Complimenting her enigmatic stage presence, and far more importantly, is her brilliant songwriting ability. Throughout “Royals”, Lorde smartly transitions between two narrators: a naïve child lusting for the glitz and glamour of fame, and a cynical realist who accepts her mundanely average lot in life. The song establishes itself with a pretty basic tribal-sounding beat. While technically simple, the sound of the drums/snaps is grandiose (just the perfect amount of reverb)- and in keeping with the song’s title. Lorde begins by singing,
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies. I immediately think to myself, what the hell kind of sixteen year-old girl thinks like that?! Normally cutting your teeth is a phrase reserved for street hustlers or battle-hardened war vets, not teeny boppers watching Romcoms. Brilliant lyric.
No postcode envy – I wanted to believe Lorde was referencing some deep existential observation on culture or something (Post-Code Envy?), but then I realized that’s just what people outside the U.S. call zipcodes…whatever, cool lyric nonetheless!
Then the hip hop pre-chorus kicks in with the hi-hats on the sixteenths as Lorde starts name dropping brands and imagery associated with the rich. Our naïve narrator takes us into the chorus as she abruptly snaps out of her silly daydreaming with the lyric; we’re not caught up in your love affair, and we’ll never be royals.
It is in the chorus that Lorde reveals her true lyrical genius. This new narrator guides us through a bittersweet catharsis in which she accepts her mediocre place in the world.
It don’t run in our blood. That kinda luxe just ain’t for us, we crave a different kind of buzz – Whether intentional or not, some clever wordplay with the use of poor grammar, perhaps a blue collar reference? The narrator begins to wake up and realize that what she really needs is what she already has- friends, family, spirituality, meaningful interpersonal relationships. Life’s simplest, though sometimes most elusive pleasures.
Let me be your ruler. You can call me Queen Bee. And baby we’ll rule, and we’ll live that fantasy – The new narrator reaches full maturity as she redefines her new worldview. Instead of allowing herself to get depressed over unattainable dreams, she optimistically decides to take ownership, or should I say Lordeship, over her lame reality.
My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this, we didn’t come from money.
This reinvented and reinvigorated narrator takes us into the second verse, confidently accepting her new kingdom of ordinary reality. The music subtly builds with a really lovely vocal harmony and a cool reverse-synth line on the “and” of the beat. The song’s drum ‘n bass minimalism is fantastic, and reminiscent of the Bristol sound of the early Nineties. The song ends with a brief relapse into daydreaming with the pre-chorus, but we wake up, realizing once again that “we’ll never be royals”.
I highly recommend watching the music video in order to fully understand the genius of the song. Directed by Joel Kefali, it’s a bizarrely simple montage of an ordinary middle class white dude doing ordinary middle class white dude things (minus a boxing match in the living room). Sure it’s boring, but that’s exactly the kind of kingdom being referenced in the song.
Lorde’s universal message crosses all boundaries- if we cannot rule the world, we can always rule ourselves (echoing the genius of her Tears for Fears forebears). When our vain, shallow quests for fame and fortune fail, we can at least be rulers of our own domains, no matter how uninteresting they are. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Royals” is secretly an indictment of our own narcissistic tendencies as a culture. Perhaps Lorde is just making fun of all of us who elate in our disposable social media empires of food pictures, buzzfeed shares, and status updates at the gym.
It’s utterly mind-blowing Lorde wrote this when she was sixteen. She is clearly wise beyond her years. She’s a complicated chick and it shows. Unlike her contemporaries such as Iggy Izaelea or Charlie XCX, Lorde processes her newfound fame in a far more intellectual and cynical way rather than merely celebrating it. With the exception of maybe Aerosmith’s “Eat the Rich”, Lorde’s “Royals” is the most intriguing and powerful slam of not only the rich and famous, but of us all.