In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: In anticipation of this weekend’s Grammy Awards, the five songs up for the 2014 Song Of The Year award.
It’s the finger snaps, I think. There are many reasons Lorde’s “Royals” took over the world—the lyrics that deliberately push back against pop culture, the soaring chorus, that voice—but the snaps are what make the song three minutes of pop bliss. “Royals” first started popping up in earnest in late summer, and that stripped-down style gave it the perfect, smoky feel for a season marked by lingering heat and nights that sneak up on you earlier and earlier. It’s the feeling in the backyard after the barbecue has cleared out, the lingering heat from the sun still trapped in the water of the pool but rapidly dying off.
Like most great pop songs, “Royals” is written from the point of view of a teenager. Written by Lorde and Joel Little, the lyrics came under fire for being racist for a brief period last fall, because the singer rejects hip-hop culture by choosing the signifiers predominantly associated with African-American rappers. These arguments had a point. It’s not hard to read the song as a paean to working-class white people, made uncomfortable by other races in pop music.
But said arguments tended to miss that Lorde wasn’t just rejecting one particular section of culture. Rather, she was opposing everything else that exists in the world, because it couldn’t possibly be as authentic or true as one’s teenage self. “Commoners” may be stuck in a nowhere town, with nowhere else to go, but at least they’re the coolest motherfuckers around who don’t need cool stuff, because they’ve got cool spirit. There’s a direct line here from Lorde and all the other rock and pop chroniclers of go-nowhere teenagers with nothing to lose. Indeed, there’s not that much distance between “Royals” and “Born To Run.”
Technically, all that Lorde did is position herself as the latest riff on the pop music type that gave us Avril Lavigne 12 years ago. She’s the pop princess who’s better than all the other, manufactured pop princesses. The artist’s arguments with others in the pop community only underscore this. But “Royals” is miles away from “Complicated” or “Sk8er Boi” because of the purity of its expression. That’s expressed in those lyrics, but also in those finger snaps and in the way that the song takes out everything but the essential. The heat from summer fades, but the echo of the percussion doesn’t dissipate so easily.