In 2013, plenty of folks tried to change pop’s Status quo. Kanye railed against it, Miley grinded up on it, Katy infused it with empowerment and Gaga bedazzled it. But only Lorde dared to puncture it.
She did so, of course, with “Royals,” the rare pop hit with the balls to bite the hand that feeds. It attacked both lyrically — its pre-chorus is little more than a tsk-tsking list of the genre’s excesses (Cristal, Maybachs, diamonds on a timepiece, etc.) — and sonically, with Joel Little’s amniotic atmospheres standing in stark contrast to most of the year’s booming, big-box pop. But above all, thematically: Lorde asserts that none of the ephemera is necessary, and rather than succumb to the fantasy, she and her crew are determined to make their own magic. “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us,” she sings. “We crave a different kind of buzz”
It’s an interesting statement, considering recent studies show children in the U.S. and the U.K. now consider “fame” and “popularity” to be more desirable values than “self-acceptance” or “spiritualism,” and rank occupations like “pop star” ahead of “teacher” or “doctor.” None of that is particularly surprising, given the current era of instant celebrity, but it sure is depressing … which is why the success of a song like “Royals” — nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — is both puzzling and inspiring. By rising in opposition, it gives us hope that perhaps the kids really are all right.
Will “Royals” change the world? Probably not. But its appeal — it was just named MTV’s Song of the Year — certainly suggests that something is afloat. Like back-to-basics hits “Blurred Lines,” “Locked out of Heaven” and “Get Lucky,” the song eschewed almost all of 2013’s pop trappings, in favor of a streamlined groove and an emphasis on voice (and oh, what a voice it is). Despite its hip-hop and electro leanings, “Royals” is, at its heart, a very traditional tune, perhaps signifying a doubling-back to a simpler time in pop music … or, at the very least, a retreat from the blaring, hard-charging hybrid that has dominated the charts in recent times, a brand of pop juiced-up on performance-enhancing EDM.
The last time there was a moment like this? You’d have to go back more than 20 years, to Nirvana’s breakout in 1991. The comparison isn’t nearly as blasphemous (or far-fetched) as you might think. Like Nirvana, Lorde idolizes underground artists, and her breakout came only after the tentative exposure earned by the others of her ilk. Logic would dictate, then, that record labels are already lining up to replicate her success, searching for “the next Lorde,” in the form of New Zealand pop duos and similarly somber 14-year-olds from Montreal.
In short, the ripples of “Royals” will undoubtedly be felt for the foreseeable future, which, in a way, makes the song her ““Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But that’s not the only similarity the two tracks share. Like Nirvana’s outsider anthem, “Royals” managed to resonate with the masses, and dared to declare it wanted no part of the existing state of affairs. “I feel stupid, and contagious,” Kurt Cobain yowled. “We’ll never be Royals,” Lorde coldly coos. Different approaches, but similar sentiments.
When Nevermind overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the #1 album in the country, it was regarded as a seismic shift in popular culture, a changing of the guard. It’s still too early to tell how we’ll come to view “Royals” knocking “Wrecking Ball” out of the #1 spot on the Hot 100, but you can see where we’re going here. And why. For the first time in a long while, the underdogs won.
To the casual observer, of course, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would become Nirvana’s signature song, and its crossover success turned Cobain into an unwilling icon. It’s difficult not to see the same thing happening with “Royals,” though the difference could be this: Lorde isn’t shying away from the spotlight. She took Justin Bieber to task for not providing “a real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.” Scolded Selena Gomez for failing to uphold the tenants of feminism. Declared “Pop music doesn’t have to be stupid.” If there’s a banner, she’s willing to wave it, unapologetically so .
Is “Royals” a blip on a radar, or the beginning of something bigger? Can Lorde keep carrying the mantle for her brand of pop, and bring others along with her? Will she bring about genuine change? 2014 will undoubtedly begin to answer some of those questions … especially considering she’s already got a second single, “Team,” rapidly climbing the charts. Where she goes from there, we’ll just have to wait and see. Though, maybe — just maybe — we’re witnessing the dawning of a new era, and in the coming years will give us less Kim Kardashians and more Daria Morgendorffers. We can dream, can’t we?