It started with a free EP posted to SoundCloud almost a year ago — the meteoric and surprising rise of the #1 song in the country.
Penned by a mysterious teenage musician in a mysterious land, the free jam, nestled among four others, has since been played 5 million times. It's a jam that now plays in every bodega in every city around the country, a jam that has been covered by the likes of Selena Gomez, a jam that has inspired a massive Internet battle about its lyrical content. Its content runs counter to all the trappings of pop stardom. The jam in question, of course, is Royals, and the no-longer mysterious teenage musician is Lorde.
"Royals," currently sitting pretty at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the second week in a row, is a song that has made history — not only is Lorde (a.k.a. Ella Yelich-O'Connor from Zealand) the youngest solo artist to top the chart since Tiffany and "Could've Been" in 1988, "Royals" now holds the record for the longest reign on the Alternative Songs chart by a lead female, usurping Alanis Morissette and her 1995 hit, "You Oughta Know." All this achieved by a young woman who still considers herself "just a disgusting person."
So what is it about this song — an anti-consumerist anthem in a sea of love songs — that's striking a chord with America? What is it about this 16-year-old musician whose MO is "Pop music doesn't have to be stupid" that is placing her at the top of the poppiest of charts? Well, according to experts in the biz, it's her songwriting that's really shining through. That's right, Lorde didn't pen the tunes off of her debut LP Pure Heroine with "a bunch of 40-year-olds around a table," she told MTV News. She wrote them herself, along with master producer Joel Little.
"Lots of fans with a soul love that the artist who has created the song that they love is actually speaking from their heart and from their mind, and not just the creation of the best songwriters and beat crafters that money can buy," Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde told MTV News. "I think when you combine that with the reality that Lorde is a 16-year-old, it becomes a fairly staggering achievement. Lorde is a preternatural songwriter."
One listen to "Royals" proves that. Another listen to her entire, expertly drafted, debut record cements that. "It's rare that you find that kind of songwriting talent. Period," Werde said.
And it's even more rare that that kind of talent has a chance to break through in such a short period of time. Just take a look at the songs and artists that Lorde has usurped: Katy Perry's "Roar," which Perry heralded with an attention-grabbing campaign in which she shucked off her "California Gurls" image and puttered around the country in a gold-plated truck; and Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," which dropped in what has undeniably become "The Year of Miley."
What is it about "Royals" that has muffled Perry's "Roar" and withstood the power of Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball"? Songwriter and American Idol star Jared Cotter credits Lorde's relatablity with her surprising success. "I think her biggest strength is her connection with young people," he told MTV News. "She knows exactly what to say because since she is young herself she's able to put in words what they are feeling."
Lorde herself has said as much in the past, telling MTV News, "I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it's like to be a young person."
That connection with her peers shines through in "Royals," as she sings about having "never seen a diamond in the flesh" and she and her friends counting their "dollars on the train to the party." Like most teens — save, perhaps, the Rich Kids Of Instagram — Lorde is not awash in all the trappings of luxury, and although she might sometimes daydream of having them, she's not buying into that illusion of happiness.
"She is speaking on just being who she is, and not being something she isn't," Daniel Omelio — a.k.a. Robopop, author of chart-topping jams by Gym Class Heroes and Maroon 5 told MTV News. "Fans can digest it very easily, and can relate to living the 'non-Royals' lifestyle, and just being who they are, and for that to be all good. All the while expressing a level of 'cool' in doing so."
She Defies Genre
In the same way Lorde says "pop doesn't have to be stupid," she believes that "alternative music doesn't have to be boring; you can mesh the two together and make something cool," she told us.
In her case, this meshing of the two is a kind of critique. She uses the guise and sound of pop music to take aim at the materialism that it represents, all without decrying the catchiness of the genre.
"Lyrically ['Royals' is] sort of a response to everything that's on pop radio," Werde said. "It lets people sort of get in touch with their conscience a little bit, while at the same time doing it with an undeniable hook and melody. We all feel a little bit like, 'Yeah, you know what, I don't need Gucci and Prada all the time and I don't these giant brands or to drive the right car. I've been singing along to this stuff for so long that I don't even realize I'm doing it.' And Lorde just comes along and pricks that bubble just a tiny bit. Maybe we all needed that."
She calls out hip-hop (Cristal, Maybach), pop (Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash) and rock (trashin' the hotel room) all in equal measure. Those themes also run through jams like "White Teeth Teens" (veneers, anyone?) and several other tracks on Pure Heroine.
Lorde's derision toward the world she now inhabits gives Werde pause when it comes to her future in scene, however. "Given her age and given what we've seen from her already in terms of her public comments about those matters, I'd be less concerned with what she wants to do musically and more concerned with: Does she want the life of a pop star?" Werde said. "Because there have been artists over the years who say, 'I don't need this anymore.' Or 'This isn't really for me.'"
She's In Good Company
Cotter likens Lorde's songwriting abilities to the likes of Bjork, MIA and Lana Del Rey. Sam Hollander — who has written or produced for artists like Train, One Direction and Neon Trees — thinks she's a "mash-up of Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch and an 808 kick," asserting that her music feels "homegrown.... Reminds me of the first Soulja Boy record in that way."
Robopop adds Pink and Macklemore to the fray of comparisons — the latter an apt parallel, as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have also made Billboard chart history with similarly anti-consumerist jam "Thrift Shop," which is the longest-running #1 rap song in the history of Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
"Lorde is following the same trend as Macklemore did in my opinion," Robopop said. "Someone who storms onto the pop scene with a fresh sound, a real message, and a swagger of non-insecurity/non-conformity in their artistry that a large number of young music lovers relate to."
Will The Hits Keep Coming?
The music world is littered with one-hit wonders — for every "I Want To Hold Your Hand" there's a "Tubthumping," after all. So the question now is: Will Lorde be able to sustain this momentum with another #1 hit? And if so, which song will it be?
Werde, for one, seems confident in her abilities and the strength of her debut record. "The album itself is just really strong. Beginning to end." The other experts interviewed, on the whole, agreed.
And the next #1 smash? It was a unanimous vote for similarly ornery-yet-catchy jam "Team" which is currently worming its way into the Hot 100. "I think 'Team' and one or two other songs on that album have the potential to be massive, massive hits," Werde said.
Like "Royals," "Team" takes aim at the world of unattainable glamor portrayed in pop songs, with a chorus that crows, "We live in cities you'll never see on screen/ Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things/ Livin' in ruins of a palace within my dreams/ And you know we're on each other's team" and the standout line that will make all the pop-weary folk go "finally!": "I'm kind of over gettin' told to throw my hands up in the air/ So there."
A jam that doesn't care whether you rock out to it or not? Well, that's just about offbeat enough to work.
"Things that go against the grain are winning these days in music," Robopop said. "It's super exciting to see how far we have come in music, and to think where will be next year at this time."