Wealth, Race, and Masculinity in “Royals,” by Lorde

Its music video is spare; minimalist; monochromatic; almost anemic. It is a teen drama unfolding obscurely, from the depths of emptiness at the heart of faceless suburbia. Grounded by a solemn, pounding drumbeat that feels as inexorable and imposing as a beating heart, the song itself is repetitive and catchy, like good pop music should be. Layered vocal tracks and pulsing bass lift the arrangement beyond the realm of the ordinary, and it is no wonder the song Royals is such a hit. The song holds the longest reign at No. 1 on the billboard charts for alternative songs, by a female artist.  But there is something more going on. Why is every face you see in this video white? What is with those lyrics, so openly critiquing popular hip-hop? What… exactly… is happening here?

… every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

From the first line of Royals, Lorde sets up her song as a commentary on wealth and its pursuit. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she sings, as she transfixes the camera, and the viewer, with a sweet, venomous and icily subversive blue-eyed glare. Such sweet irony that she speaks of jewelry “in the flesh” as though diamonds were organic, and wedding rings were something to cut your teeth on. As though “ice” could buy success. As though jet planes, islands or tigers on a gold leash could fill an empty, twin-sized bed. As though alcohol, like Grey Goose or Cristal, or a lifestyle of ‘trashing the hotel room,’ were telling of a glamorous and luxurious life well-lived.

As early as the first verse, Lorde rattles off a list of black celebrity cultural touchstones in the music industry. Gold teeth, Cadillacs, Maybach… these bring to mind a kind of wealth and luxury that are decidedly.. not-white. These are phrases and references that bring to mind  Lil’ Wayne, the Dirty South rap movement, Rick Ross, Mike Tyson in “The Hangover…” in other words, mainstream, primarily straight black male, hip-hop culture. A culture that is loud, expressive, aggressive and colorful…. even, at times, intentionally boastful about violence and often unapologetically misogynist, sexist, and homophobic.

Lorde, a 16-year old musical artist from New Zealand, skyrocketed to international fame and renown in late 2013 on the basis of a hit song that directly calls to account the very same hip-hop culture that produced Kanye West, who in his most recent album Yeezus, rapped lyrics as enlightening as “When a real nigga hold you down you supposed to drown” and “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” and Rick Ross, founder of the Maybach Music Group, who last year withdrew  lyrics celebrating rape and apologized publicly for them. Royals, since it came onto the scene, has since been remixed multiple times, including at least one instance with Rick Ross as a featured guest, and has received four nominations for Grammy awards, including for “Song of the Year” for Royals, and “Record of the Year” and “Best Vocal Pop Album” for Pure Heroine, her debut offering. 

The song has received its share of criticism, including being labeled racist by prominent blogger Bayetti Veronica Flores on the website Feministing. Flores’ criticism of the song comes with the context of the difficult history of U.S. race relations, knowledge of which may not necessarily be a safe presumption for a young musician from New Zealand. But Flores’ most basic issue with Royals is that it is directly and openly hostile to hip-hop culture, and more specifically, to black cultural tropes. And that is accurate. What is more, anyone who has traveled can tell you that American pop culture crosses international boundaries, and any discussion of a song at this level of popularity can’t be limited only to its influence or airplay in the U.S., particularly since Lorde herself hails from overseas. If Royals is racist here, it is racist everywhere.

But dismissing the song as simply racist does not touch the full depth of the song. I would argue that Royals, and its companion music video, when taken together, represent a broad critique of the mainstream and primarily American culture of wealth acquisition, masculinity, and their interconnected relationship with issues of racial identity.

The video is a series of images of young white men… thin, muscular, with short brown, red, and blonde hair, white T-shirts and shorts, standing, boxing, and relaxing in an empty, unadorned suburban home, with pale tan curtains and stark geometric lines. The young men are seen eating cereal, boxing in their living room, staring hopelessly at the ceiling of a basketball court, submerged underwater in a swimming pool, and in one powerful image, laughing and bleeding from the mouth. They have the bodies of athletes, probably swimmers, and their imperfections are on display for the world to see: acne, tufts of shaved brown hair falling to the floor when they shave, a close up of an adolescent Adam’s apple. While the song itself openly rejects tropes of black culture and proclaims proudly that “We’ll never be royals,” the video methodically constructs a stripped-down image of white masculinity.

And throughout it all, we are shown the eyes and voice of Lorde, an unmistakable smile hovering behind her unreadable eyes. She blinks her heavily mascara’d eyes, adjusts her mess of curly hair, visually daring you to question her. She strikes an unreadable, but unmistakably subversive, intelligent demeanor.

The song, to my mind, is less about deconstructing expectations and dreams of people identifying themselves as part of a particular race, than it is about deconstructing  expectations and dreams of everyone. We all, white or black, male or female, dream about diamonds, fancy cars, parties, and the intrinsic feeling of royalty and privilege that we associate with wealth and material success. To say the song is all about race, is to miss the point entirely. The song is about wealth, pop culture, and the difficult relationship that average, hardworking people have with the constant media barrage of decadence and material excess.

Mainstream pop music has pretty recently released a number of songs asserting and rejoicing in the trappings of youth, “We Are Young,” by Janelle Monae, being a prime example of this. For the most part, these songs celebrate the enjoyment and glory of a life of wealth and excess, partying and drinking and knowing that, after all, You Only Live Once. But Royals has a distinctly different agenda.With this song, Lorde is making the case for a new kind of love, “a different kind of buzz,” a kind of youthful ethos where money, wealth, and alcohol are secondary. The young men in the video of Royals are not in it for the money. Their television displays only static. In their alienation from the decadent pulse of mainstream American culture, these young men display a grounding and motivation that come from within, from each other, and not from the diamonds and dollar bills that characterize material success.

Towards the end of the video, there is a shot of one of the young men riding on the train. His head leaning against the cold window, the man, who is hardly an adult, watches out the window as the world passes by him. The image visually mirrors a scene toward the end of the movie “Crash,” from 2004 (nearly ten years ago). The film, an extended meditation on race relations in urban Los Angeles, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Towards the end, the character played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges leaned his head against the window of a bus, public transportation he had sworn he would never use, because, to his mind, the system of public transportation is part and parcel of instutionalized racism in urban America.

Screenshot pulled from the video for Royals, by Lorde, released in 2013 by Universal Music.

Screenshot pulled from the video for Royals, by Lorde, released in 2013 by Universal Music.

In both scenes, lost young men, both presumably from backgrounds of poverty, find themselves on the periphery of mainstream society. The cold glass of the bus window symbolically separates them from a cold exterior world, a world of rough black pavement, cold steel automobiles, and the grinding pursuit of wealth. Houses and buldings pass them by in a blur, and they wonder what it means to come of age, and accept the mantle of an adult male in a capitalistic, wealth-driven society. What does it mean to be successful? Can money bring us happiness? What is this “love” thing everyone keeps talking about? Am I going to be ok? Who do I want to be? What kind of a person am I? What sort of future do I want to create for my children? These are universally difficult questions, for adults of every race, and to my mind, every gender.

This is a song about the pursuit of happiness. This is a song about finding meaning in a media-drenched world whose songs and movies reflect an idealized worldview that doesn’t necessarily match with bitter reality. This is a song about learning who we are, and learning to feel comfortable being ourselves. This is a song about coming of age.

I couldn’t speak to whether Lorde could be considered a feminist, and I couldn’t say whether Royals is, in fact, racist. But I think that Lorde, at the tender age of 16, has produced  a piece of art that effectively challenges and questions the importance we place on wealth in Western society. I think the song, and the video, are attempting to critique the pulse and tenor of modern pop music. And, in my personal opinion, I think the song and artist deserve every bit of renown they have received.

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