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By now, you've maybe heard of Lorde? She's 16, she's from New Zealand, and her smash hit song "Royals" made her the youngest person to have the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 26 years. Also, some people on the Internet think her song is totally and crazy-racially racist.
Yes, people actually think this.
Let's review: "Royals" is a song about the difference between the way pop culture portrays youth culture—absurd levels of fame, being rich and having expensive things—and the way youth culture actually exists (not so rich, not so famous, not so many expensive things).
The chorus goes:
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
And we'll never be royals (royals)
It don't run in our blood
That kind of luxe just ain't for us
We crave a different kind of buzz
Let me be your ruler, you can call me Queen Bee
And baby I'll rule (I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule)
Let me live that fantasy
The song's been praised as a refreshing bucketful of cold water on the traditionally superficial spectrum of pop music, which yes, includes rap. But does the song hate rap? Even more, is it racist?
Far be it for anyone to say who can or can't (or who needs to and who doesn't need to) be offended by anything. But sometimes, that offense can seem a little, uh, ginned up.
The most notorious instance of this as it relates to Lorde was written by Feministing.com's Veronica Bayetti Flores, who—in a post titled Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist—writes:
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.
Even worse is that these ideas are being taken seriously and picked up by supposedly legitimate news outlets like CNN, who ran a piece titled Is Lorde's 'Royals,' the Top Song on the Billboard Hot 100, Racist?
Yes. CNN. Who clearly doesn't fly by Betteridge's Law of Headlines (ahem).
While this writer loves a good trolling as much as the next pageview-smoking editor, let's take a quick look the various ways Feministing.com and anybody taking this argument seriously are totally and completely out of their depth:
1. Lorde isn't "shit[ting]" on anyone, of any race. In this argument, the writer's conflating the lyrics "we don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair" with "shitting" on someone of a certain race. That's like telling someone that if they don't care about mobsters, living in New Jersey, and having friends named Big Paulie, not only are you definitely talking about Jersey Shore and The Sopranos, but that you obviously are shitting on the whole of Italian-American culture, too. It's an absurd thing to argue. Furthermore, to say Lorde is "shitting" on hip-hop and then to talk about hip-hop as an explicitly and exclusively African-American culture is a classically racist thing to say in and of itself. It's like a Republican congressman alluding to African-American youth culture when talking about trying to rid the "streets" of these "thugs." Not everyone on the street is a thug, and not every "thug" is of any race in particular.
2. Lorde isn't even talking about hip-hop exclusively. We're not gonna sit here and say the song has nothing to do with rap culture. Of course it does. But Flores noting "Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs" is an intellectually dishonest argument, as in, it excludes mention of the entire part of the chorus about "blood stains, ballrooms, trashing the hotel room." Anything from Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night" to "California Girls" to Miley's "We Can't Stop" to Taylor Swift's songs about...anything...are about being young and partying and getting wasted and often, doing it in a spectactularly rich fashion. Lorde's talking about the idea of superficiality, which is nearly everywhere on pop radio whether you're listening to Top 40 or rap-format. It's timeless in pop music, which is why Lorde's anecdote to it works so well on the radio.
3. Lorde is talking about the inordinately wealthy, rap or no rap. "Royals" is about the difference in between those who have wealth, and those who don't. But, as Flores asks: "Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East?" We—meaning Lorde—are critiquing that wealth. But Flores is only focusing on the parts of the song that "relate" to rap. And again, this is Flores basically saying that rappers and golf or polo matches or living on Central Park East a.k.a. Fifth Avenue are mutually exclusive. They're not. But let's assume the song is only about rappers for a second. Jay Z—the rapper Flores quotes at the end of her piece—is a hypercapitalist if there ever was one. Jay was part of the fiscal mechanism in New York City real estate that displaced a bunch of middle class families to build a stadium. Jay is collecting art, spending absurd amounts of money to build a private collection. Jay's taking an island vacation to a place where the lower class is embattled and oppressed by their government. And—because we can't say this loudly enough—JAY Z IS A CLIENT OF GOLDMAN SACHS PRIVATE WEALTH MANAGEMENT. When Flores asks why we're not taking hits at banks, or golf, or polo, or Central Park East, she forgets that those are the same people who Lorde has, in her words, "shit on."
Unless, as Flores puts it, "we all know who she's thinking when she talks about" golf and polo matches and Central Park East. Not white people! Of course not! Flores—when fighting the good fight against racism—would never be such a troll as to not look inward at the construction of her own argument to make sure there's nothing inherently racist in it.
Of course, we could always defer to Lorde's ideas about rap, and "Royals":
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.
But if you're Flores, that disconnect—that inability to relate to something—is only a feeling worthy of making art about if you're of a single race, let alone something you can be allowed to talk about without being accused of racism. To which there's only one proper response: