Lorde, Royals, and New Zealanders interpretations of American culture

Back in October 2013 as the US music market was being saturated with Royals air play two articles by Veronica Bayetti Flores on the website Feministing appeared about Royals being racist. You can read the original article here and its follow up here.

I do not intend this post to be a counter argument, or restorative, as far as I’m concerned Flores is entitled to her opinion from her own cultural perspective. Although I will say that from both a journalistic and scholarly point of view that I find it concerning that she cherry picked just two lines from the chorus without considering the implications of the verses.

Returning to the central topic here I also want to say that song lyrics are always open for interpretation, it is an important aspect of popular musicology, criticism, even literature studies (but sometimes things just sound good together people, there isn’t always a deep meaning!). The essential disconnect for me that was only addressed in passing, is one that is actually fundamental for a young songwriter from New Zealand. That is how New Zealanders experience American culture. In this song we see a young songwriters interpretation of American popular music (particularly, but not exclusively hip-hop) culture through the lens of New Zealand culture.

This was a fundamental issue in my PhD research- how did New Zealanders interpret jazz, and its surrounding culture when it was imported from other countries, especially America. In fact most popular musical culture has been imported to New Zealand in some way. It is what was described by historian Eric Hobsbawm as ‘acquired culture’. My main supervisor and I discussed this topic a lot, and he came up with what I call the missing baggage theory. In the missing baggage theory the things (culture/ideologies) that were ‘packed’ around the music got lost in transit, and the music arrived here without most of its baggage. In essence, the culture was decontextualised from its origin culture and then recontextualised into New Zealand culture.

Now while we were discussing the period of the 1920s to the 1950s (so radio, records, films- no other media technology involved- and occasional international tours), this still holds true to a great extent even in today’s world. Possibly even more so because the presentation and mediation of popular music through music videos and social media has become much more streamlined and there is a greater blurring between the music, the culture represented through the music, and the culture surrounding the music. Most importantly this blurring affects the way it is received in another culture and the recontextualisation of that object.

Royals

I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
And I’m not proud of my address,
In a torn-up town, no post code envy

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 time piece.
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.
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.

My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.

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 time piece.
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.
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.

We’re bigger than we ever dreamed,
And I’m in love with being queen.
Life is great without a care
We aren’t caught up in your love affair.

And we’ll never be 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.

 I do not have space here to examine all of the ideas contained in this song so I have simply selected a few to use as focus points about New Zealanders perceptions of American (United States) culture. To start off: ‘postcode* envy’. Watch just about any North American television programme that focuses on the ‘haves’ and/or ‘have-nots’ and there are postcodes and addresses mentioned as markers of class. Gossip Girl with Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Veronica Mars and the fictional Neptune, California “ a town without a middle class” with the “prestigious 90909” district giving rise to the “09ers” and the “townies” in the 06 and lower postcodes. Beverly Hills 90210– the title says it all. Even reality television programmes such as those on Paris Hilton, the Kardashion family, Honey Boo Boo, Jersey Shore, and so on. All of these programmes have a certain prestige (or infamy) based on the address of the subjects. This is something that New Zealand does not have: while we have wealthy suburbs, but there is nothing that comes close to the iconographic use of postcodes in the United States.

*As an aside: postcode is British/Commonwealth term that is relatively uncommon in the United States compared to the more used zipcode.

The bugbear for Flores in her article was the chorus in particular the lines:
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
And
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.

Flores equates these lines to rappers and African American culture specifically, and more importantly she believes that Lorde (and by extension co-writer Joel Little, but he does not get a mention in these articles) is being explicitly racist here because of these lines and because she was influenced by hip-hop culture in the writing of this song. As a New Zealand scholar I can easily propose a different scenario for the entire chorus. It is simply that this is what is presented to New Zealanders as overtly American culture. Not ‘black’ or ‘white’ culture, but American culture, with an accent on conspicuous consumption. Something that New Zealanders, even now, generally consider unacceptable behaviour. Yes we are snobs that way, but that goes back to our British heritage, and the ideas of old money/new money and what is considered cultured or vulgar (just watch Downton Abbey).

The items name-checked (Cristal, et cetera) in the chorus are also items that are extremely expensive and/or hard to come by in New Zealand (hence ‘that kind of luxe just ain’t for us’). Not to mention that they only place you will see a tiger in New Zealand is in a zoo or wildlife park. As Lorde say’s ‘Let me live that fantasy.’ This is fantasy for New Zealanders, and for the majority of Americans (let alone the rest of the world) as well.

That line, ‘let me live your fantasy’, neatly sums up the perceptions of North American (specifically from the United States) culture in New Zealand. Just as many people outside of New Zealand see the wondrous landscapes in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit find it fantastical and unreal, to New Zealanders the presentation of American culture- in particular here hip-hop culture is equally unreal. While we intellectually understand the positive and negative aspects of this culture, we can’t know it because we come from a completely different background and experience.

Flores states near the bottom of her follow up article that Lorde was reacting to a decontextualised version of American culture, and this is very true, however I could wish however that she applied that idea to her critique of the song (rather than as a back-pedal), and tried to understand why Lorde (and Joel Little) composed these lyrics, rather than merely jumping on the ‘ooh she’s racist’ soap box. It does neither the very serious issue of racism nor Lorde’s music justice. It seems preposterous to me that a young New Zealander who until recently had likely only ever been to the United States on vacation is expected to be more nuanced and sensitive than many American artists about race in their own country on her first album.

To conclude I would like to go back to a parenthised point from earlier: sometimes lyrics do not have a specific meaning attached to them. Yes, Lorde has stated in interviews that she was writing about the conspicuous consumption of hip-hop culture, but that does not mean that she used specific items to denigrate black hip-hop culture. After all, other pop and hip-hop musicians (of all ethnicities) sing about Cristal, Cadillac and Maybach cars, gold teeth, et cetera. The most likely reason that these items were name-checked in the chorus is because they scan well together creating interesting rhythms for a good chorus effect. To paraphrase Freud: sometimes a song is just a song.

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