You don’t have to choose an orthodoxy to make pop political.
As I write this, Lorde’s “Royals” is fresh off of a nine-consecutive-week stretch atop the Billboard Hot 100, quadruple RIAA-platinum certification, a trio of Grammy nominations, and a strong showing on music critics’ “Best of 2013” lists. In the everybody-has-a-platform era, there’s going to be a lot of chatter when a song as multi-faceted, distinctive, and damnably catchy as this one reaches that level of ubiquity.
As much as any chart-topper in recent memory, it’s clear that the breakout single by 17-year-old New Zealand native Ella Yelich-O’Connor means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Many of these meanings seem to be in direct conflict with each other—a phenomenon that has only become more apparent as the song has transitioned from cultish sleeper hit to global pop smash. It’s a self-deprecating portrait of lighthearted teenage suburban ennui, it’s an anthem of self-assertion, it’s a critique of materialism in hip-hop, it’s a defense of the same, it’s a pregame song, it’s a party staple, it’s a comedown track, it’s escapism, it’s realism, it’s calculated, it’s “authentic.”
This is what makes pop music exciting: a song can have certain core, universal qualities that appeal to a range of listeners, and also a meaning that is almost endlessly malleable, allowing it to fold and contort itself into people’s lives in myriad ways. For this reason, pop is an invaluable social barometer. When a song sparks a debate like “Royals” has, it becomes clear that we’re not hashing out our feelings about a particular song so much as our definitions of “problematic” art and our divergent ways of reckoning with it.
The conversation about art’s politics—where we discuss what is acceptable and what is damaging and how to grapple with the latter—is essential. But—as we’ve seen with “Royals” and countless other politically complicated pieces of pop culture—online participants on all sides of this conversation often display a certain dismissiveness towards interpretations that don’t align with their own, or towards the art itself when it doesn’t match their political ideals. This promotes a view of art in which moral ambiguity is seen as a failing, and problematizing art is tantamount to rejecting it.
Critical engagement with the culture that surrounds you does not have to be synonymous with disengaging from it, or even liking it any less. Disengaging with anything problematic holds art to an unrealistic and uninteresting standard of moral perfection. A nuanced critical eye, on the other hand, prepares you for moral ambiguity, contradiction, and imperfection, and if you’re prepared for that, you won’t inevitably be let down. Liking imperfect things is the only way to engage with, and fully inhabit, our imperfect reality.
In the midst of Lorde’s November chart reign, Brandon Soderberg wrote a characteristically well-reasoned but (also characteristically) rather cynical piece for Spin on the unexpected course the song has charted through the wilds of commercial radio. After becoming the first female in 17 years to top Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, Lorde crossed over to the Hot 100 and, eventually, to the playlists of urban rap and R&B stations. This final crossover was initially ushered in by a Weeknd remix and a Rick Ross verse, but “Royals” soon appeared on these stations in its original form. When radio stations that cater to black listeners embraced “Royals,” Soderberg argues, they made yet another concession to the industry’s current whitewashing of pop music.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is neither shocking nor new. The profiting of white artists and industry professionals off of black musical forms is not only the literal origin story of American popular music; it’s also a story that has repeated itself countless times throughout our music’s history. This is, indeed, a dismayingly white moment in pop—Soderberg notes that it was not unusual, 10 years ago, for the top 10 slots on the Hot 100 to be occupied entirely by black artists, while recently only Drake and Jay-Z have cracked that threshold. But where he loses the big picture, I think, is in implicating Lorde herself in a US-specific, industry trend, accusing her of “invad[ing] rap and R&B playlists while simultaneously lecturing black artists.” Her music may be a part of this trend, but any structural issue of this kind can’t be summed up by an examination of a single artist.
Ultimately, Soderberg tosses “Royals” into the wastebin of his derision, right alongside another Billboard chart-topper: Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” The comparison is common and irresistible: both are songs by white artists that use the rap lexicon while addressing the issue of conspicuous consumption in pop and rap, and they both rose to prominence in that slow-burn, internet-fueled manner that’s become a common path to chart success.
But there are countless shades of difference between the two. Is it possible that these songs are problematic in different ways, and to different degrees? Or are there only two types of songs: “racist” ones and “not racist” ones? Is it sensible, or even possible, to attempt to locate the “meaning” of a song solely in what we hear on the record—the lyrics and music? Or are interviews with the artist just as important? How about the music video? Or how it’s received and discussed, and which radio stations play it, and who listens to it, and what they say about it? If you subscribe to the structuralist idea that meaning emerges out of a diffuse network of actions and interpretations, a cultural text can be problematic in a way that has almost nothing to do with any choice made by its creator.
Soderberg locates the meaning of “Royals” in the song alone, ignoring its extratextual surroundings, and locates blame for its racially problematic message solely in its creator, ignoring her social context, the structures of the music industry, and the listeners that have assigned it with their own interpretations. If meaning and blame are so diffuse, what can we do when we find something problematic? Who can we hold accountable?
Let’s start with the actual controversial lyrics of “Royals” (a necessary entry point, even if a text doesn’t have a monopoly on meaning), the ones Soderberg is referring to when he accuses Lorde of “lecturing”:
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair
Many of these references are undoubtedly rap signifiers. Even if Lana Del Rey or Ke$ha touch on some of the same subject matter, they do so within a pop paradigm completely permeated by the language of rap. This is the musical landscape that Lorde was born into. Trying to sort these into “white” and “black” signifiers of wealth, as some commentators have, is a dicey game—as I mentioned before, the whole popular music idiom is founded on black music, and white and black signifiers have influenced each other for as long as the American musical melting pot has existed.
In “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore addresses consumerism in rap in a less direct and much clumsier fashion. For the most part, the song is innocent enough, chest-puffing about feeling fresh in his thrift shop duds, dropping in a few forgivably corny punchlines. It’s when he begins to get self-righteous about choosing to shop at a thrift shop that he gets into trouble—if you can’t afford to shop elsewhere, visiting the thrift shop isn’t a fun, quirky, morally superior alternative. It’s just shopping.
Lorde may gesture toward some of the same problematic ideas, but she certainly never goes so far as to say it’s “some ignorant bitch shit” to spend $50 on a Gucci t-shirt. The videos for these songs elevates this contrast: the artfully spare video for “Royals” zeroes in on the song’s “growing up a working-class teenager” theme, whereas the mishmash of a video for “Thrift Shop,” which plays with racial imagery in a not-entirely-thoughtful way, only heightens the song’s aura of cultural-appropriation ickiness.
If we are to continue trying to construct meaning by intuiting artistic intent, Lorde’s interviews on this subject are the next best place to look. Here’s an excerpt of an interview with NY Mag’s Kat Stoeffel that I’ve seen used by the commentariat as evidence of Lorde’s condescension:
People seem excited by the criticism of conspicuous consumption in “Royals.” What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
I’ve always listened to a lot of rap. It’s all, look at this car that cost me so much money, look at this Champagne. It’s super fun. It’s also some bullshit. When I was going out with my friends, we would raid someone’s freezer at her parents’ house because we didn’t have enough money to get dinner. So it seems really strange that we’re playing A$AP Rocky. I experienced this disconnect. Everyone knows it’s B.S., but someone has to write about it. There’s typically been a lot of interest in that aspect of the song, but my all my friends are kinda like, “yeah.” They thought it was less profound.
Pretty loaded question, right? For one, it takes as a given that the aim of “Royals” is to criticize conspicuous consumption. And who are the people who “seem excited” by this critique? Could it be the predominantly white cultural elites who make up NY Mag’s reader base, comfortably critiquing an oppressed minority’s consumption habits from a position of economic and cultural power?
Here’s an excerpt of the transcript of a radio interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish, where the same question, asked differently, provokes a less didactic, more sympathetic response:
CORNISH: So talk about the imagery in that first verse, because there’s a lot going on there.
LORDE: (Laughing) Basically, I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40. I did get a little ridiculous on it but, you know, the sentiment’s there.
CORNISH: And how did you come up with the idea for the song? Is this your music, hip-hop and these other kind of genres where you see this imagery?
LORDE: Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve always loved hip-hop. But as a fan of hip-hop, I always had to kind of suspend disbelief because obviously, like, I don’t have a Bentley, you know, so…
LORDE: Like there’s a distance between that and the life I have with my friends, going to parties and, you know, getting public transport and doing the things that every other teenager does really.
Here, Lorde sounds humble and self-deprecating, whereas in the first interview she came off self-righteous. This contrast illuminates just how much context influences meaning—even when that meaning is mediated through the words of the artist herself.
Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote two pieces about “Royals” for Feministing—a somewhat blunt one after the New York Times posted a boneheaded review by Jon Pareles of Lorde’s live show, and a rather more nuanced one after her first piece went viral. In his NY Times article, Pareles first wastes our time splashing around in the piss-tainted kiddie pool of authenticity gamesmanship, writing that “[‘Royals’ is] insisting that pop listeners don’t have to settle for clichés,” as he compares Lorde favorably to Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. More importantly, in its blind conflation of consumerism with rap, Pareles’ article manifests the actual structural racism that has buoyed Lorde’s reputation among certain white listeners. “Lorde,” Pareles writes, “is singing about class consciousness and conspicuous consumption: the gap between pop-culture fantasies of Cadillacs and diamonds and the reality of being someone who ‘didn’t come from money.’ It’s a thoughtful, calmly insubordinate song.” It’s this sort of high-fives-all-around reaction to a white singer “insubordinating” signifiers based on black music that Flores rightfully calls out in her writing.
It’s likely that, writing “Royals” as a 16-year-old living in Auckland, Lorde didn’t have a particularly nuanced perspective on race relations in the US. How much do you or I know about the relations between whites and Maoris in New Zealand? She couldn’t be expected to understand how rap that celebrates wealth is also about the reality of being someone who “didn’t come from money”—how that celebration is often a “fuck you” to a racist, oppressive economic system. How the status symbols that Pareles, Stoeffel, and others seem eager to categorize as “materialistic” (“diamonds on your timepiece”) are not the indulgences of people who don’t know any better, but rather the exact signifiers of authenticity and security that society has told them it will accept. And, perhaps most importantly, Lorde may not understand that it is, overwhelmingly, white men in the music industry making decisions about which rap records to produce and distribute in order to maximize sales to a largely white consumer base. In light of this, I feel much more willing to forgive Lorde than I do the Times.
I like the idea that, in almost any piece of halfway-decent art, there’s an ambiguity of intention that invites you to take it both ways, or mold it to jive with your own personal experience. Or, even better, to slightly (or radically, in the case of great art) reshape your perspective. This malleability is, as I mentioned earlier, what allows pop to act as a dynamic, living force in our culture, a site of identification and self-discovery, rather than as an instruction manual. (For the record, Macklemore excels at neither ambiguity nor subtlety, which is one reason I find his art less compelling than Lorde’s.)
In her excellent review of Lorde’s Pure Heroine for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz writes:
“Royals” walks the line between rebelling against and reveling in the trappings of power, luxury, and excess of contemporary pop…[it] doesn’t critique hip-hop culture so much as express a disconnect that many of the people who love it feel when listening to songs about luxury culture. Lorde achieves a tricky balancing act of exposing irony and even hypocrisy without coming off as preachy or moralistic, simply because—thanks to Pure Heroine‘s constant use of the royal “we”—she’s usually implicating herself in the very contradictions she’s exposing.
I think there’s an argument to be made for that interpretation, but making that argument would run counter to my intention: all I feel entitled to do is tell you my reading of the song, which lies somewhere between Zoladz’s angle and Flores’ problematizing interpretation. I have no interest in putting that forth as the “correct” reading, nor in dismissing the opinion of anyone who takes away something different.
When we’re examining pop through the socio-political magnifying glass, it’s essential that we remain accepting of perceived meanings that don’t align with ours, and that we stay attuned to the intricate, elusive character of structural issues. Because I worry that a lot of the writing of this type that we see online is deaf to ambiguity—not only to the aforementioned aesthetic ambiguity that, in my eyes, is so crucial to the experience of good art, but also to the complex and ambiguous nature of “blame” when it comes to structural problems. It seems easy to fall into the Gawker mode of drone-strike-style internet activism that boils down to a game of “Look At This Fucking Racist.” Since anointing themselves the internet’s Defenders of Propriety, Gawker’s M.O. has been to target, say, the egregiously racist comments of an obscure Arkansas state congressman, and shame that person back deeper into the obscurity from whence Gawker unearthed them, granting readers and re-posters a sort of “get out of complicity free” card—the easy digital equivalent of buying indulgences.
Though they’re very far from the worst offenders on this front, I see both Soderberg and Flores gravitating towards this mode in their writing about “Royals.” The appeal is understandable; locating the problem of racism in a small, reprehensible group of ignorant hatemongers makes a gigantic societal problem feel a little more concrete, a little less impossible to fix, a little less present in one’s own thinking. (Not to mention, a headline like “Racism Continues To Exist” doesn’t exactly bait the clicks the way “Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist” does.)
Ultimately, I see dismissiveness at the end of this road, toward interpretations that don’t match your own, or toward people who don’t share your political perspective. It becomes a pissing contest of who can more successfully, authentically, perform their political sensitivity. And this undesirable result raises some questions—about the efficacy, for example, of referring to “racists” as a categorically different type of person. (We all fall somewhere on the racism spectrum, don’t we? Where’s the cutoff?)
I’m doubly wary of the natural outgrowth of this black-and-white way of thinking about art: the tendency to make declarative statements about what art is “responsible” for, as Flores does in her piece. There’s that perennial question: should art incite change, or should it attempt to “accurately” reflect reality? This may sound fatalistic, but I believe it only ever can reflect reality; it is a part of that reality, as are the people who make it. Those people have views that you may or may not find problematic, and the art they make is going to reflect those views.
I’m uncomfortable with the notion that art “should” represent and reinforce values other than the ones the artists have, not only because that seems impossible, but because it indicates a desire for a world in which no art exists with a viewpoint that clashes with your own. What kind of non-reflection of our reality would it be if everybody’s iTunes libraries contained only artists with flawless politics? Of course, art doesn’t just reflect; it reinforces. But as long as structural problems exist in the world, they will, and should, exist in art, to bring to light important conversations like the one that has coalesced around “Royals.”
“It is the way it is because that’s the way it is” is a self-reinforcing and ultimately defeatist line of thinking. It seems to indicate a disbelief in the idea that we possess any agency in shaping a less oppressive value system. But I believe in my own agency, or rather the illusory feeling of it (lol), because otherwise, I’m metaphysically fucked. How else am I going to get out of bed in the morning, let alone write long essays of cultural criticism? So I also believe in a middle ground between apathetic defeatism and a black-and-white mindset that makes rules about what art “should” be doing and how to engage with and discuss it.
I think this approach rests on a tone that prioritizes acceptance and forgiveness over dogmatism when addressing individuals, and saves its condemnation for oppressive power structures. With an emphasis on inclusion, we can hold each other—as well as media outlets and the music industry’s gatekeepers—collectively responsible for dismantling those power structures. It is imperative that everyone feel empowered and encouraged to voice their criticism of something they feel is problematic. But to do so in a way that invalidates others, who exist in different social contexts, for perceiving a meaning that clashes with your own jeopardizes that spirit of inclusion.
Importantly, finding something problematic doesn’t mean having to “force” yourself to dislike it. Try to shoehorn everything you encounter into categories of “okay to like” and “not okay to like” and you’ll end up sounding like one of the clueless CNN hosts that The Daily Show brilliantly lampooned in their “Good Thing or Bad Thing?” bit. Our taste is a product of our social context, not the manifestation of some mystical, immutable individuality, which means that we can consciously alter our tastes, but not that we have to. Humans are contradictory. We have contradictory feelings and opinions all the time, and we can love art that contradicts our values without compromising those values.
Allowing ourselves this pleasure doesn’t mean labeling the art that provides it a “guilty pleasure,” which seems to imply embracing the aspects you like and pretending the parts you don’t aren’t there, or don’t matter. I’d prefer to like whatever I want—unguiltily—if it speaks to some part of me, and still make sure I think critically about its socio-political implications. If you like something, aren’t you more likely to engage with its problems more passionately? I certainly wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have a desire to untangle my own mixed feelings about “Royals.” Problematizing things doesn’t mean liking them less, or liking fewer things. Like more things, engage open-mindedly with as many things as possible, and problematize them all! And still love them and sing along with them and dance to them and give yourself over to them completely in that moment but let that little problematizer-voice keep whispering in your ear—it’s a weird and cool and complex feeling!
I recognize that it’s not “fun” to be reminded of a bad thing when hearing a song you previously liked in an uncomplicated way. But ultimately, having that critical relationship with the culture you engage with is not only necessary but also more fulfilling—I’ve been periodically listening to “Royals” while working on this piece to check in on my feelings about it, and I still love it. Decoupling “problematizing” from “disliking” makes the critical eye a much more appealing lens through which to view culture.
I have this half-formed notion about how we like things against the chaos and meaninglessness and suffering of the universe. Maybe, right? Basically, I’d like to think that the act of “liking” (even when it doesn’t go so far as “loving”) has a little more cosmic significance than a simple choice of thumbs-up versus thumbs-down. I do know that when I dance with my friends—which is the most love-centric context in which I engage with culture—it feels good to dance (and love the song we’re dancing to, not to mention each other) against loneliness, heartache, anxiety, weariness, responsibility, or just the next morning’s hangover, the arrival of the subsequent work week. To like, fuck it, to love art despite its problems, against its problems, to honor what’s valuable about it, to sympathize with its perspective, its triumphs and failings, is to love a person despite their problems, because that art was made by a person, or people. We all know people are varied, contradictory, maddening, and fundamentally imperfect—let’s allow our art to be the same.
Header Photo courtesy of Metro Mag.