Originally recorded with songwriter Joel Little, who was also invited up into the Grammy spotlight to receive the plaudits, the legend of “Royals” has it that Lorde herself penned the lyrics in less than half an hour and then Little teased it into a slinky, all-conquering pop masterpiece. “We made the song originally just to give away for free,” was how Little put it humbly while onstage.
From those whimsical beginnings, though — a quick sketch of an idea that was thrown out into the unruly cyber wilderness just to see what would happen — “Royals” bloomed into not just a phenomenon but a cherished sign of the times.
Buoyed by her playful lilt, which comes across like an antipodean Lily Allen, Lorde sing-skats her way through modern pop-culture references filtered through a rap lexicon; the production is stripped down as if intended to be a more melodic and radio-friendly version of a trap beat. (Naturally, the song has been appropriated as remix fodder by a litany of rappers, topped by the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Rick Ross.)
What charms most about “Royals” is its endearingly youthful perspective. Those fabled 30 minutes of writing are like a teenager’s tweets about the out-of-reach name-brand world around her. In some respects the song shares a bond with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ $50-for-a-T-shirt fulmination “Thrift Shop.” (The artwork for the original Love Club EP that “Royals” was released as part of has Lorde sporting a repurposed outfit that could have been nabbed from the “Thrift Shop” video.) Crucially, Lorde sings how “my friends and I, we’ve cracked the code.” She is talking to her closest circle; the message has now spread around the world to be embraced by her whole generation.
Lorde has claimed a pop-culture calling card with “Royals,” but standing onstage at the Grammys she appeared more like a 17-year-old wallflower than someone craving the spotlight. Stooping constantly as she addressed the microphone, she came across as bashful and genuinely nervous. “I probably wouldn’t be here if Joel wasn’t here,” she confessed, almost apologetically. But beyond the coy demeanor, tonight Lorde will be deservedly celebrating — and likely enjoying a Cadillac cab home.