In August 2011, the average unemployed person had been looking for work for more than 10 months, housing prices were abysmal, and construction was down 28 percent from its pre-recession peak. Even sales of basic appliances like ovens and stoves had fallen to their lowest level since 1992. Meanwhile, amid the economic malaise, Jay-Z and Kanye West released Watch the Throne, a gold-encased album replete with references to brand names such as Maybach and Hermès.
Of course, Jay-Z and Kanye weren’t the only ones blinging out while everyone else was paring down. The cover of Drake’s Take Care album featured him crying over gold goblets, and Pitbull released a song titled Give Me Everything. Two years later, however, the non-Maybach drivers of America may finally have a song that’s a more accurate reflection of their daily lives. And it’s written by a 16-year-old girl from New Zealand.
Lorde, the stage name for Ella Yelich-O’Connor, wrote Royals as a direct counter to Watch the Throne and all the other money-flaunting songs that have flooded the airwaves in recent years. “Every song’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, / jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash,” she observes. She then goes on to explain that she lives in a dinky little town and the only Cadillacs she drives are in her dreams. Macklemore and Lewis may have parodied pop and hip-hop’s greediness with last year’s Thrift Shop, but Lorde is unabashedly calling the artists out.
“I started listening to a lot of rap like Nicki Minaj and Drake, as well as pop singers like Lana Del Rey. They all sing about such opulence, stuff that just didn’t relate to me—or anyone that I knew,” she recently told Interview magazine. “How are we listening to this? It’s completely irrelevant.”
Royals was released in March but didn’t top the Billboard Hot 100 until this week, when it booted Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball from the top spot. On a superficial level, this made sense: Like Cyrus, Lorde is young and pretty and clearly likes to get her groove on. But the song’s video features a sullen-looking teenager wandering aimlessly through his dreary life, which is the exact opposite of everything Miley Cyrus is doing right now.
Lorde’s chart-topping success doesn’t guarantee that pop’s gilded era is over, but it is a refreshing change of pace. Or, as she says in another song, “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air. So there.”