by SAMUEL HARRIS
Singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor, known by her stage name Lorde, was in the news recently for her purchase of a flash house on a flash street in a flash suburb in Auckland.
Unlike most of her peers, she goes into home-ownership unburdened by the mortgage yoke — and good on her. The song that made her the squillions she used to buy a sweet renovated old villa in the madhouse that is the Auckland property market is called Royals, released as a single in June 2013 and on the album Pure Heroine later the same year. The song went gangbusters around the globe and was the impetus for YelichO’Connor to be swept suddenly up into the heady and surreal world of the music industry. Her success put her, she said, in an environment of “flat-voiced, narroweyed, champagneish rooms” of which she was very leery — at the tender age of 16.
Three years later the song’s sound is still fresh and its lyrics still pungent. Royals is a critique of pop culture’s obsession with image and materialism. “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom/. . . 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.”
Expensive jewellery, vodka, watches, cars, drugs, champagne and more: the typical trappings of the hip hop lifestyle that Lorde and her friends watched on their screens, a lifestyle that she knew was an unrealistic one but which was nevertheless offered as a life to be aspired to.
Lorde has said, of the song’s genesis, “I was definitely poking fun at a lot of things that people take to be normal”. (The irony, of course, is that all of that glitz could now in fact be normal for Yelich-O’Connor, if she chose.)
The music is minimalist, its lack of superfluity reflecting the lyrics’ distaste of excess. A muffled bass drum and skittering cymbal lope quietly alongside a simple bassline while finger snaps carry the rhythm in the foreground. Over this slight instrumentation are Lorde’s layered vocals, her voice bold, muscular and controlled. Her writing displays a strong poetic sense and a wiry and knowing turn of phrase.
“We’ll never be royals/ It don’t run in our blood/ That kind of lux[ury] just ain’t for us/ We crave a different kind of buzz,” she sings, evoking both the resignation of the realist and the wide-eyed dreaming of the idealist.
She skewers the daydreaming that many people — young and old — often go in for in spite of themselves. One day I might be rich, or beautiful, or famous and then I’ll be happy: Lorde tells us what we hopefully already know, that this is all fantasy, it just ain’t for us and never will be, and that’s OK. Most of us come to this realisation early in life,
but it’s always good to be reminded of it.
“Life is great, without a care/ We aren’t caught up in your love affair”, sings Lorde at the close of the song: perhaps this Lent Royals can be a spur for us to examine our own love affairs, hopes, dreams, ambitions and aspirations and purge them of any unrealistic and unhealthy elements.
It could also be a push to do what we can to help the young people in our lives, who are themselves just at the beginning of sorting out what to hope for, what to love, what to have faith in, to sort their fantastical dreams from the attainable ones and then confidently go about making them come true.
Although our lives aren’t bejewelled with chunky watches, expensive champagne and pet tigers, although blue blood doesn’t run in our veins, we are yet born into royalty — the kingship of Christ — and we can help each other live our lives with an enthusiastically and genuinely regal dignity.
This is the third of a regular column on music by Samuel Harris. Samuel has the brief to write on any music that he considers to be of significance, but reading it through a Christian/Catholic lens. — Editor