Let’s talk about pop music. Top 40 hits are rarely our focus here at Type In Stereo, and yet sometimes a song will come under the inscrutable magnifying glass of the public eye that is just too compelling for us to ignore. Lorde’s ‘Royals’ is just such a song.
If you’re not already sick of ‘Royals,’ which is currently being played everywhere, you likely will be soon. But that doesn’t negate the song’s quality. ‘Royals’ is sparse and bare and its spartan construction lends weight to each and every note in the song. A lesser song could not have survived under such structural conditions. That ‘Royals’ is able to function – and function so well – while using so little is a testament to the song’s focus: its rock solid melodic line and the otherworldly voice of Lorde herself. (Obligatory age alert: she’s only 16!) Lorde is an enormous vocal talent with a rich, deep delivery that is pure and graceful and entirely her own. While they’re not similar when viewed/heard side by side, there is something about Lorde’s vocal characteristics that reminds me of Rufus Wainwright’s beautiful timbre, only with obvious differences in gender and vibrato usage.
One of the more striking aspects, then, of ‘Royals’ is that beyond Lorde’s voice there’s not much else going on. And by that I don’t mean that there’s not much else good going on, I mean that there’s not much else going on at all. For all intents and purposes there are only three instruments on display in ‘Royals’: Lorde’s voice (in its lead and backing iterations), a slow and simple bass line, and some lightly programmed drum/percussive work. And that’s about it. This is an interesting distillation of the elements of modern pop music.
With the rise of hip-hop (and its bass-heavy derivatives) and the fall of rock (and its treble-heavy derivatives) in the popular sphere, Lorde has isolated exactly the elements that the masses of today seem to want. Vocals are presented first and foremost in the mix and arrangement, which is not terribly surprising given that melody has been the driving force in just about all popular music since the 1950s or so. The predominance of bass and programmed drums in ‘Royals’ makes a lot of sense too when considered side by side with other pop music of the current era: between the rise of hip-hop and the mutant ascendancy of dubstep, bass is everywhere (and has been for a while). What particularly interests me is the utter lack of guitar or any other treble voice. And yet this absence makes sense. If vocals are the crux of ‘Royals’ – and, being nearly omnipresent in the song, they clearly are – then where would a guitar’s voice even fit? Lorde’s vocals are so full and rich, her harmonies so sweeping and complete, that there’s no room left in the treble register for anything else. A guitar would only clutter up the space. And modern pop – the pop music of the digital age – is very much concerned with clarity. (Sorry, vinyl jockeys.)
Adding to the musical allure of ‘Royals’ are its harshly mocking lyrics, which the media was quick to read deeply into once Lorde turned down an offer to tour with Katy Perry. In the song that has made her famous, Lorde tears down the materialistic nature of the modern pop star. Which is to say that she tears, none too gently, into the existence of most all of her contemporaries. It’s a brave choice and a truly fantastic one. The lyrics to ‘Royals’ aren’t genre-bending or world-changing, though they are clever and well constructed; so well constructed, in fact, that I think it likely that, upon first listen, a lot of casual fans might have thought that Lorde was praising “Crystal, Maybach, [and] diamonds on your time piece” since that’s what pop stars in the present do. Pop stars tell us about the wonderful things they own that the rest of us can’t imagine. Lorde is, of course, saying the opposite. When it comes to the modern ardor for material things, Lorde’s “not caught up in your love affair.” This statement, like the song it’s plucked from, is bold and impressive. And at only 16 years old, here’s hoping that Lorde is just getting started.
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