Don’t You Think That It’s Boring how People* Analyze Pop Stars?
*This is a reference to Lorde’s song Tennis Court
What’s in a Lineage?
Lineage denotes a linking that is not necessarily of our choosing. Being linked to something biologically and socially doesn’t necessarily add up to the intentions that typically go on with most of our day to day existence. So when claiming someone has a certain ideological lineage it can especially get tricky. In this case it is when the individual in question and the things they believe and individuals and beliefs of the past intertwine in some interesting and important ways. But do these interstices really make for a clear cut case for a “lineage” being continued?
This question is especially interesting within the context of Thaddeus Russell’s article “The Progressive Lineage of Mackelmore’s And Lorde’s Attacks on the Pleasures of the Poor”.
The first thing you should do is notice the wording. Both Lorde and Mackelmore are attacking the pleasures of the poor. They aren’t giving light-hearted ridicule or self-indulging to any extent. Nor does it sound very likely that they have anything else but bad intentions in mind. When you see the word “attack” in the context of how someone approaches a subject you are thinking about hammers and nails, us and them and so on.
And so it goes with Thaddeus’ article. On the whole I agree with Thaddeus that the left (if we can include progressives in this category that is) are largely anti-consumerist. For example, because I run a site against work I am often looking for articles by people about work who are talking about how it sucks. And often for these people it goes back to the issues of money, how the poor spend their money, materialism, consumerism and more. There are exceptions but they seem to be outliers most of the time.
Given this I can definitely where Thaddeus is coming from. Unlike many of the commenters on Reason I think this is a worthwhile article not only to write but it is on a topic and in such a way that should be kept on being done. So kudos to Thaddeus for that.
But his examples in this particular article, Lorde and Mackelmore seem to fall short of a good case.
Due to relative interest in one figure as opposed to the other I will chiefly focus on Lorde in this article and leave Mackelmore for others to defend if they so choose.
It should be noted that as a fan of Lorde and her music I am biased but I am using that bias here to hopefully dig more into what is actually going on with Lorde then I think Thaddeus figured out.
“Royals” as a Single
My case at its simplest and least complex is just a look at “Royals” as a single and nothing more. There is no context of the larger album to look at. Nothing to notice about its commonality and thematic tones and settings. And certainly no lyrical similarities and overarching messages to send to the listener.
Because both Thaddeus and I detest the left’s inatuation for being Ventriloquists for the Powerless or more generally speaking for others when there is little evidence they actually feel that way, let’s take a host of interviews, quotes, analysis and more to see what we can find.
The first thing to note is in a biography from FasterLouder.com which calls itself “definitive”.
In it, the author Duncan Grieve interviews Lorde and at one point she says:
“I mean, I was 15 when I wrote that song,” says Ella, a little sadly. “I wasn’t thinking about anyone’s cultural aspirations. I was being a bit silly. I don’t know. I can understand [the response] now, and it’s probably not my place to even comment on it. It’s just one of those kind of uncomfortable grey areas.”
Her age is certainly a factor. As Lorde says herself the transition from 15 to 17 was momentous and much has changed for her in those two years. But why would Lorde have been considering those cultural factors when that wasn’t what she was writing about?
Thaddeus is correct that Lorde’s inspiration came from hip-hop and thus the aspirations (or infatuations) of many African-Americans. One point keeping in mind though is that a lot of the hip-hope Lorde listens to (like Kayne and Drake for example) are people who are already rich and who are relishing their wealth as status and not as a consumer good.
But even so, what were Lorde’s intentions? According to Lorde herself the song is meant to be “lighthearted” and taken as a “humorous” jab at a lot of the normality that we take for granted within the hip-hop genre and its display of wealth being the way to figure out whether you are actually worth something or not.
But at the same time Lorde is making these light-hearted jabs and remarks Lorde continues to listen to hip-hop and adore it. She has spoken well of everyone from Kayne West (and has also covered his song, “Can’t Handle My Liquor” as well as used his song “Dark Fantasy” as an inspiration for her song “Bravado”), Nicki Minaj and Kendrik Lamar. She speaks of wanting to work with Kayne and in a recent Reddit Ask me Anything thread highlighted a video of Minaj talking about double standards in agressiveness with relation to the sexes. So even if Lorde sees problems with hip-hop as it stands she clearly still has a big vested interest in it.
It is also helpful to note that “Royals” isn’t all about hip-hop music even if a lot of it is aimed there. The main chorus names “gold teeth”, “diamonds on your dimepiece” and other things commonly associated with modern hip-hop. But it also talks about tigers on a gold leash, trashing hotel rooms, private jets and so on. So the song isn’ just a critique of hip-hop but of the larger cultural obsession with power, status and commodities.
And that’s a key word right there: obsession. Notice how in “Royals” Lorde says “we aren’t caught up in your love affair“? To me this signifies an emphasis on the unhealthy obsession some people have with commodities not with an interest in it per se’.
Another important line to suggest that Lorde isn’t in any meaningful sense “attacking” the interests of people who want commodities is her line, “we’re driving cadillacs in our dreams”.
This is right in the middle of the chorus and could potentially signal a few things.
One of these being that just dreaming about wealth is good enough for Lorde and the other people she is talking about (more on that in a bit). It could be that even though she isn’t obsessed with it in the ways she thinks others are she still wants it or desires it somewhere deep down in her heart (more on this later as well). Or perhaps it’s something else altogether. Either way this is an important line that I think puts a dent in Thaddeus’ argument.
What is also worth noting is that Lorde herself says the song was not meant to be anti-consumerist. And we can argue about whether her intentions in the end change the consequences of the song or what you get out of it. But in the end her intentions about the song matter and to speak for her and insinuate that this was her message anyways at this point could be a show of ventriloquism on anyone’s part.
It’s true she thinks some things in modern hip-hop are “some bullshit” and she felt she needed to say it. But that doesn’t mean her saying it only means that her song could be construed as an attack. And look at Lorde herself. Does it look like she’s against buying things? Lorde is very much into fashion as a personal pastime and I doubt you would see her scolding others for doing much the same. Again, it seems to come down to obsessions and over-exuberance rather than a clear cut matter of principle. Hence why Lorde herself admitted in retrospect that this is a “grey area”.
Another grey area is what the song in the end means by itself. Some will say it screams of a privileged white girl from a foreign country talking up her ass about cultural matters she doesn’t understand. Others will say it is a cry against US imperalism. Still others will say it’ perpetuating or not perpetuating racism, whatever else it may mean. Most have adopted it as an anti-consumerist song and as Thaddeus points out the New York Times believes the song to be a “deeper” song and given the title of their article on Lorde a class conscious one to boot!
So which is correct? In the end I have a few solid conclusions about Lorde though I don’t claim that it’s the final word by any means or that my interpretation couldn’t be off.
But as a single I believe Lorde’s song is: Not racist, not about US imperalism, not about consumerism and not about bashing the poor for wanting the riches the upper class has.
To me, the song represents a cold distance. A distance between how some people view the world and how others actually live it. Lorde speaks of growing up in a postcode she isn’t proud of in a rough neighborhood. The video of “Royals” is notably mundane. It’s just boys fighting and talking and laughing and being themselves. Lorde does nothing but sit around and appear in the music video every once in a while (which is intentional) and all and all there’s no grand story to tell. It’s just life and it’s just life from a point of view that has a realistic take on the division between fantasies and lived realities.
Which means Lorde isn’t telling us to stop consuming, she’s telling us to stop fantasizing, obsessing and distancing ourselves from reality. Instead we should recognize our current conditions and ask ourselves that if we want more (“we drive cadillacs in our dreams”) at what cost do we do it? Obsessions have their cost and they have their price and taking away the mundane and “boring” parts of life or ignoring them can’t make them any better.
Thankfully Lorde put the record straight and I believe we’re all the better for it.
Royals as a Song in “Pure Heroine”
So far I’ve only countered within the context Thaddeus used. And to that extent I don’t think it’s enough because in my opinion treating Royals as just a single with no overlapping message with the other songs on Lorde’s album “Pure Heroine” is a big mistake.
First, who is the “we” and “everyone” in Royals that Lorde is talking about? Thaddeus may be tempted to say that Lorde is just speaking for the dis-privileged but as I’ve pointed out, Lorde wrote this when she was 15 and was certainly not wealthy at the time. She had no real money coming in from her deal with Universal at least none that I am aware of.
So at least, within the context of the song she is speaking from a dis-privileged position as it is. But this point hardly counts for much when you realize it’s fairly easy to see who she means when she says “we”. Who does she feature in the Royals video? Is it everyday people in New Zealand? Does she try to speak for the working class of New Zealand or try to focus on them in even the slightest? No, not in the least.
The only people Lorde seems to be concerned with are a few young boys who are fighting each other, riding buses and having a good time just being themselves. But who are these boys?
“this song means a hell of a lot to me, and to others, and i guess what i tried to do is make something you could understand. 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. and i’m at that particular train station every week. those boys are my friends. callum’s wearing a sweater that used to belong to me.”
Though even if you hadn’t read this or hadn’t listened to the rest of the album it seems obvious due to some of the lyrics:
And I’m not proud of my address,
In a torn-up town, no postcode envy
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 from money.
These lyrics in particular highlighting not only who may be in the video but also what the larger environment is. Other songs in the album also reference “my boys”,
From Tennis Court:
And my boys trip me up with their heads again, loving them
Now bring my boys in
Their skin in craters like the moon
Another thing notable about all three of these songs that feature Lorde’s friends in the lyrics is that all three of them are also the singles she chosen. Not to mention the music video for Royals and Team both focus on boys Lorde’s age. In the latter case I don’t know if they are actually her friends but in Royals she has made it clear that they in fact are. In Tennis Court she is the sole focus of the video after scrapping an earlier and as of now unreleased or recovered version of it.
This makes sense when we see that her influences are the things that immediately and heavily impact her.
As far as place or location which is something not many pop artists typically concern themelves Royals makes it clear Lorde is discussing New Zealand or somewhere in it. She isn’t discussing macro situations or the situation in the poor neighborhoods of the US. She is talking about how distant her reality is from what people talk about in songs sometimes. Given that she holds a fairly solid grounding and position to say what she does.
Other songs like, “400 Lux”, “Team”, and “White Teeth Teens” all reveal tiny bits of the people, popular ideas and so on that make up Lorde’s place. That she isn’t talking about America for the most part and even the stuff on pop culture, hip hop and obsessions with material goods are spoken of as if she is more so puzzled and baffled than upset. Lorde isn’t class conscious she is suburb conscious.
And finally, what is Lorde’s actual relation to materials and products?
Given her interest in fashion as I’ve mentioned earlier I don’t think she’s actually anti-consumerist. Then again she says says as recently as a few months ago that the only “ridiculous” thing she has bought is a queen size bed. And Lorde has consistently noted the irony that Royals has made her money, given her plenty of royalties and now affords her the privilege to buy the things she mocks.
But I think her basic idea of commodities come from her song Tennis Court:
Because I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killin’ it
Never not chasing a million things I want
And I am only as young as the minute is full of it
Getting pumped up on the little bright things I bought
But I know they’ll never own me
Lorde celebrates hedonistic impulses and buying products, but just not letting her become obsessed or be “owned” by them. What being “owned” by them actually means is never explained but I think we can probably assume Lorde is fine with the poor buying stuff to their heart’s content. So long as they recognize the reality of the situation versus the fantasy of others.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly to Thaddeus the lines about “being queen” are ones that I interpret as another lighthearted jab against traditional notions of power and status. That would make sense why she frames it as a “fantasy” and talks about it in Royals. Trying to claim that this is somehow a real desire on her part in line with historical progressive paternalismm (which is a real thing) seems like grasping at straws to me.
As she says in Tennis Court:
Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear
Everything’s cool when we’re all in line for the throne
But I know it’s not forever
Her constant denigration of status and power in society makes it unlikely she has any interest in being a queen or even sees much value in it.
And she even says in White Teeth Teens:
I’ll let you in on something big
I am not a white teeth teen
I tried to join but never did
The way they are, the way they seem is something else, it’s in the blood
Their molars blinking like the lights, in the underpass where we all sit
Lorde doesn’t consider herself a part of any group that is better than others. She feels so distant from people who view themselves like that so as to think that they are biologically something else entirely compared to her. Sure, maybe in the past she tried to get in but it certainly hasn’t proved successful and in the end she doesn’t see to want to be involved anyways.
One of her single, Team is all about an outsider’s perspective of the cliques and social power that goes on within society and the strangeness of it all. Not the uniqueness of it or the glamour or the ways in which it may help someone. She doesn’t think it is pretty or important, she mostly sees it as an outsider: perplexing, disorientating and not inviting.
Her song “Glory and Gore” is a really harsh look at how the life of people who are “queens” live. They are constantly desperate for attention (“Dropping glasses just to hear them break”), fighting each other (“we’re the gladiators”) and not really in control of anything the whole time (“We let our battles choose us”).
But hey maybe after getting one million sales Lorde doesn’t need to have any interest in commanding.
The people have already chosen.