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'Royals' Gave Lorde Her First Moment And Became A Rallying Cry

The dark pop star's arrival marked Gen Z's debut in the pop-culture spotlight

Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2013 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.

Lorde’s breakout hit relies on a thud. Critics raved about the finger snaps that course through “Royals,” the delicate crackle over skittering instrumental, but it’s the downbeat that propels the track — an insistent, deadening thwack. The track stays anchored in your headphones. It demands your attention. “Royals” bludgeons you, more than any other song that shimmied its way to the top of pop radio in the 2010s. When the song slammed into the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013, it dethroned “Wrecking Ball,” at a time when Miley Cyrus churned out elegies to glossy, sweat-sheened parties and winks at dancing with molly. Ke$ha dunked herself in glitter and sang about dying young. Fun, the once-ubiquitous band that included Lorde’s future producer Jack Antonoff, howled at anthemsToni-i-i-i-ight, we are young.  And then there was Lorde, who knew that those who are actually mired in youth don’t walk around announcing it, and who seemed to beam in from New Zealand and scowl at the neon baubles of American excess.

Or at least, that’s how many listeners perceived her at the time. Lorde’s absence of exuberance struck some observers as cool and detached, a statement in itself. When she started to perform in the States, critics noted the way even her stage design seemed deliberately muted, drenched in darkness. She wore all black and sang without flashy backdrops — just her ragged voice, twitching limbs, and husky incantations. She dribbles out each syllable in “Royals,” her cadence slushing around a snarl — gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom. “Royals” was a repudiation, then a rallying cry. Bill de Blasio used it as a campaign theme. The song soundtracked a Samsung commercial. But at the Grammys, before she won both Song of the Year and Best Solo Pop performance for “Royals,” Lorde, then a teenager, performed the track like she was possessed. Her hands flinched around the mic. She whispered the chorus through thick purple lipstick, stopping every few minutes to smile at herself.

That’s what snaps into focus about Lorde, 10 years later: the sense that she’s letting you into a private joke. Lorde’s rise represented the first time a Gen-Z pop star wedged her way into the mainstream, and she offered intimacy to an audience skilled in detecting bullshit. Her young fans knew the gap between curation and reality, authenticity and artifice — but Lorde was raw and writhing, and spoke in specifics. The chorus of “Royals” sounds like tags on an explore page, the glut of endless scroll: Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece. She tunneled into an emotion so intense it could seem almost like apathy. But the swell of feelings flooded Lorde’s first album, Pure Heroine. My friends and I, we’ve cracked the code, she hummed in “Royals.” Lorde brought a bold assurance, a sense that Gen Z was doing something right, after all.

“This kind of weird girl that’s wearing all black, that’s kind of awkward — she had this persona people gravitated to,” said Maleek Munroe, a journalism major at Mercy College in New York State. He was in sixth grade when “Royals” came out, a moment that he says “changed my entire life” — for the first time, he said, he heard music that represented what it was like to grow up with the constant glow of a phone, the particular aches of an adolescence he could see himself in. “It was so different,” he said about “Royals.” “It wasn’t like, I have all this money and I’m partying — this was my real-world situation.”

“Teenagers are more complex than people think,” Lorde told The New York Times in 2013 in the months after Pure Heroine debuted. “I’m trying to make something people my age will care about, trying to keep my peers feeling like I’m doing something for them or representing them in some way,” she said. Maybe to get ahead of being branded as a generational icon, she charged at the term, offering herself up as a spokesperson for Gen Z. What’s stunning, maybe, is how she both accepted and bucked against that branding.

Lorde singing into a microphone onstage at in September in Seattle

Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Lorde in 2013

She was a teenager who sounded bored of the burden of youth. “When you're my age in particular, every year feels like a massive change,” she told The Guardian. “The difference between 15 and 17 is colossal for everyone." It feels so scary getting old, she moaned in “Ribs,” but what was the alternative  — a gauzy world, suctioned like a snow globe, jackknifed on a school bus, smelling like orange juice, waiting for whatever came next? She decried the way the uber celebrities of the time — Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez — depicted youth. When Tavi Gevinson, another self-stated model of Gen Z ambition and ambivalence, interviewed Lorde for Rookie Mag in 2014, Gevinson noted that the first comment on one of Lorde’s YouTube videos was that the singer was “like that awkward-ass girl in the back of your class lol.” Listeners may have associated Lorde’s most ominous song, “Biting Down,” with something darker — drugs, blackouts — but she told Gevinson it was about “small moments of intensity that help you understand something greater, whether that be intense pain or shock or even being super cold or something.” Small moments of intensity — the most apt way to describe being a teenager, the undercurrent rushing through all her songs.

“She wasn’t trying to tap into anything,” said Daniel Bernas, a 21-year-old Lorde fan and marketing student at St. Louis University, who listened to “Royals” in middle school on a CD he borrowed from the local library. “She just knew — she knew what we were all experiencing, she knew the streamlined sadness and melancholia that came with being part of Gen Z. It was a completely different sound.”

When she first released “Royals,” Lorde was signed to Universal, but had released an EP for free on Soundcloud. The label urged her not to do that, she told Spin, but she was 15 at the time, thinking about how she consumed music — she’d never had a credit card, and the people she most wanted to listen to likely didn’t, either. She just wanted people to hear her.

When Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum asked members of Gen Z to build a digital time capsule in 2020, of course a Pure Heroine vinyl landed there. Lorde’s sound has trickled down, too — you don’t get the unnerving, unfurling rush of Billie Eilish’s “Xanny” without Lorde’s sharp observations of teenage self-destruction. You don’t get Ariana Grande’s coos about anxiety over sparse, shifting beats on “Breathin,” or Olivia Rodrigo’s hyper-specific ballads, or Lil Peep’s odes to suburban angst. It’s not even the specific geography of the suburbs that animated Lorde’s earlier music; it’s the mental map she creates of them, the curdled cookie-cutter outlines of lives she was so eager to abandon.

She told Gevinson that she was inspired by The Virgin Suicides and the dull throb of suburbia. The video for “Royals” opens and ends with streets — blank swaths of road, like a thick throat, flagged by cookie-cutter houses that seem to multiply as the camera pans out. Lorde wrote soundtracks for all that congealed waiting and wanting that comes when you’re 16. The video flickered between an unmade bed; a simple potted plant; a screen clogged with static under drab, beige curtains; a teenager flopped on the couch, foot dangling off one edge, shrouded in headphones. She looked straight at the camera with thin strips of winged eyeliner and elaborate curls. That was what made her so bewitching: She dared you to look away.

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