The Ironic Popularity of Lorde and “Royals”

In this day and age, it’s hardly a rare occasion when a 16 year old singer impresses a few talent show judges and gets 15 minutes (or, more accurately 2 minutes and 30 seconds) of fame and a couple million Youtube views. New Zealand-born Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, who goes (thankfully, with that name) by the stage name Lorde, is making herself a special case. Despite having just turned 17 on November 7th, her debut album Pure Heroine went double platinum in her home country of New Zealand, platinum in Australia, and Gold in the UK. This success came on the back of her single Royals which has gone triple platinum in NZ, quadruple platinum in Canada, and platinum in the US (certifications are based on the population of the country- US platinum certification= 1,000,000 units). These numbers are flat out RIDICULOUS.

Here’s the kicker- these records Lorde is selling by the millions are not bubblegum pop or hip-hop or country. They’re different. Really different- unlike just about anything we’ve ever heard. Her music is just as much Etta James as it is Kanye West. Never in a million years would I have thought my fingers would willingly type those words in succession. She has an undeniably incredible voice and her songs are catchy in a strange, alternative sense; she, however is not my musical cup of tea- it’s just not the kind of thing I can really get into. So why am I even writing this? There was no point to asking that question, I put it in the title. Her uber-platinum single, Royals, is an explicitly anti-pop anthem. Don’t believe me? Go read the lyrics- she’s unabashedly shitting on the decadence that seems omnipresent in today’s popular music. Royals is repeatedly slapping you upside the head, asking you “Why do you buy that crap?” It, like, no other song in recent memory, got to number 1 on the charts by calling out numbers 2 through 100. Think of it like an art-pop version of Kendrick Lamar’s Control verse with a trillion layered vocal tracks.  So why is it popular? What can Lorde do next? Here’s a couple thoughts addressing one or both or none of those questions.

(I feel it is important to note this before going on- the story of how a insanely obscure 16 year-old Kiwi singer got any type of mainstream exposure is best told here. If you’re too lazy, it basically says Sean Parker-of Napster, Facebook, and now Spotify fame- put her on his Spotify playlist and it took off from there. Somewhere in the world, Thom Yorke is screaming at a computer screen. Even though she kinda dances like him.)

Theory #1: Lorde is the flavor of the month and she’s kinda screwed

This theory would dictate Royals is popular because the monkeys only hear the “gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom…” in the bridge and eat up like all the other mindless crap that is pop music. The song has sold well over a million units-I simply refuse to believe every single one of those people understand it and agree with its message. Royals simply soars over the heads of the drooling masses. Lorde has (or, at least, seems to have) enough artistic integrity to not make something that sounds identical to Pure Heroine; she seems genuinely devoted to the idea of evolving as an artist. Unfortunately for her, consumers don’t like their musicians to progress- they want to hear the same thing over and over again (see Swift, Taylor). Her sales will suffer and she’ll never come close to the success and exposure Royals brought her. In short, she’ll be Gotye 2.0, an indie singer who fell off the planet after a few weeks of owning the charts.

The popularity of Royals also puts Lorde in an undesirable position in terms of songwriting. Now that she’s super rich and super famous, she can’t make songs about how she’s never desired being rich and famous. Anything she writes even vaguely representing Royals is going to make her look like a massive hypocrite. I mean, it’s not like shes gonna be able to make an album about this guy breaking her heart.

Theory #2: Lorde is the Antidote

Maybe, just maybe, my skepticism is misplaced. Probably not, but maybe. It’s possible that at least a decent amount of people who bought the song really do understand and appreciate what Lorde is trying to say. Maybe people are finally sick of formulaic and repetitive pop music and are going to be more appreciative of artists truly dedicated to their craft (there is a 0% chance this one is true).

Calling Lorde “the antidote” is, obviously, an exaggeration, but a long and lucrative career for her would mean a lot for the future of pop music. She got where she is on raw talent and creativity, not because of image or the backing from the Disney machine. I don’t want to call her the anti-pop queen just yet. Adele is the reigning anti-pop queen. Right now, Lorde is like an anti-pop duchess. She’s got a chance to be just as big as Her Majesty.

Theory #3: Lorde is the Honey Badger


Does this even need a caption?

She doesn’t give a shit. She came here to write songs and kick ass. Lorde has been famous for like, what? A couple months? She’s already gone at the throats of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus (sort of), Selena Gomez (who responded, but is intellectually ill-suited for a war of words with Lorde), Taylor Swift, David Guetta, and some other rappers, I think. She went out to lunch with Rolling Stone’s Jonah Weiner (his name is weiner LOL) and ordered “fish tacos, motherfucker” instead of some kind of fancy truffle dish. She performed Friday night at the Grammy Nominations Concert and, while she sung well, she seemed profoundly disinterested in being there, walking briskly off the stage, head down, the second the song ended.

Whatever her commercial future holds, it means nothing to her. Read the Rolling Stone interview I just mentioned. How many shits does this girl give? Zero. She gives zero shits. In criticizing how unrelatable her contemporary musicians are, Lorde has turned herself into the most relatable- and the most kick-ass name is pop music.

That’s probably, to at least some extent, why she’s blown up beyond the initial chart success of Royals. Some celebrities poorly play the humility card; Lorde seems genuinely unassuming, confused, and altogether uncomfortable with the exposure she’s getting. She’s very humble, but is still willing to stick a middle finger in your face if need be. Lorde is a pop-star with boundless vocal talent, legitimate songwriting chops, and a “I’ll say what I do and want” attitude. She’s the rarest kind of pop-star- the kind we can pay attention to and not feel like we’re enabling a problem.

Oh, and go the read #30-26 of the album countdown here.