Pop Professor: Lorde's "Royals" - Best of 2013 Week

By Jordan Reisman

Photo courtesy of Kirk Stauffer.

If a historian 1,000 years from now were to read and believe everything she saw about the Millennial Generation, she would assume we were a self-absorbed, entitled and ungrateful generation just based on text alone. However, the alternative voices and especially, the voices that are of the generation being talked about, provide a fairer testimony.

We are growing up in a confusing time where the futures promised to us are proving to be a distant dream, a hazy fantasy. We all feel slightly if not overtly lied to by our parents, teachers and our heroes who, in trying to secure a comfortable adulthood, made it less possible to achieve. We’ve all been looking for the “voice of a generation” and have put fleeting trust in figures like Lena Dunham and hesitantly, Miley Cyrus, to do so.

With the tail end of Millenials cropping up and making their voices heard, I believe that, unknowingly, Lorde wrote the Millenial Anthem of the year with “Royals”.

“Royals” is a simple song. Like, really simple. It features no tempo or key changes, Lorde’s voice never reaches any Mariah Carey pitches and there are no guest cameos by Jay-Z to be found. What the song lacks in flash it makes up for with its hard-hitting lyrics.

The 16-year-old New Zealander tells us in the first verse that she has “never seen a diamond in the flesh,” that she cuts her teeth on wedding rings in the movies, and “I’m not proud of my address.” Lorde is setting the scene for a disconnect between what she’s seen in the movies and her own life. It’s as if the luxuries seen in movies as the “simple pleasures” in life have always been dangled in front of her (and really our) heads.

It’s the pre-chorus that widens the gap between the lackluster of Lorde’s life and the life she sees in the movies and hears about in songs. The imagery these lines offer is astounding, describing what “every song’s like.”

Here’s a comprehensive list: “gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room, jet planes, islands…” you get the picture. These are objects and behaviors glorified by the rock stars and celebutantes of yesteryear but Lorde is the new guard. She knows better than to believe that kind of lifestyle is even in the realm of possibility.

These days, to be taken seriously you have to exhibit some form of realism. There’s so many ways to see through someone’s BS because so many outlets are watching your every move. A one-dimensional persona isn’t good enough anymore. Lorde’s way of achieving either realism or a more colloquial “realness” is just to be honest with herself and her listeners that she’ll never be a “Royal.” She doesn’t see it advantageous to lie to everyone about a life she doesn’t live. You know what? She’s cool with this.

“My friends and I—we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come for money.”

As much as Lorde exhibits pride over her underdog status (taking the train, counting single dollars, resistance of glorified luxuries), she shows just as much ambivalence with her station in life, too. That reflects the paradigm of uncertainty that Millenials have been faced with. Yes, we’re proud of being Redditors and leveling the playing field of both the music and film industries, but we’ve been handed an enormous amount of troubles (unfriendly climate change, balooning national debt, an impending peak oil crisis, take your pick) and often feel short-changed when thinking about the future.

The strange part is, this notion is only really exemplified in only a few lines of the song but they speak volumes when stacked up against the rest. At the end of each chorus Lorde simply sings, “Let me live that fantasy.”

If she was really so proud to live a life free of material wealth, why would she need to live a fantasy at all? The reason we dream is to try and grasp a reality that isn’t our own. Why would Lorde dream of being “queen bee” if she was so secure in her rank as middle-class New Zealander? After all, she’s not exactly stoked on her “torn-up town.” We can now kind of see why she wrote this song in the first place. The answer is transcendence, and music provides that option.

The video for “Royals” seems much more like a short film than music video, indicative of the way the modern landscape is shifting as mediums are blending into one another. Lorde is only shown singing in the video in a few shots, the rest follow a few male teens as they find ways to entertain themselves in a sterile environment, not completely unlike Gummo. Most eye-catching are the long shots of the suburban sprawl they live in, as the camera moves away from it indicating an escape from the cookie cutter houses.

Though Lorde is not featured as the protagonist of the video, it harkens back to the running theme of her song: pride in the face of a bleak future. The boys in the video are just doing what they can to keep themselves above water: amateur boxing, making their own fun waiting for a train, and shaving their heads. They know they’ll never be royalty but they can still try to be in their own minds.

Lorde left this statement on her YouTube page which sums up everything I’m trying to say:

“A lot of people think teenagers live in this world like ‘Skins’ every weekend or whatever, but truth is, half the time we aren’t doing anything cooler than playing with lighters, or waiting at some shitty stop. That’s why this had to be real.”