[this is a little rough; i may come back and edit it if i have time this weekend. that said, i’d love any thoughts or feedback you might have.]
When I first heard Lorde’s single “Royals” on Charlotte radio, all I could think was “Wow. Just, wow. This is so fucking racist.” The fact that a white musician is racist isn’t in itself remarkable, because it happens all the time. However, the song articulates a specific kind of anti-black racism in a way that clearly illustrates the role of white femininity in multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.
The unconventional gender/race politics are evident from the very beginning. The lyrics to the first verse reference diamond engagement rings--something that ties the colonial and capitalist exploitation of black Africans to white bourgeois heteropatriarchal gender norms. Diamonds are from Sierra Leone, as Yeezy reminds us, and they are for men to give to women as the first step in the marriage-industrial complex, which is all about reproducing white supremacy. Thus, diamonds are excellent symbols for the complex interrelationships among white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. But the white girl who sings “Royals” doesn’t think these diamonds are her best friends; unlike Marilyn and Madge, Lorde (whose name ironically echoes Audre Lorde’s) thinks diamonds, and ALL that they represent, are not for people like her. They belong to the culture industry--she’s seen them in movies, but not “in the flesh.” This contrast between what she sees on screens and what she experiences IRL is our first indication that she sees herself as somehow outside the bourgeois mainstream. The culture industry is not her culture. “We’re not caught up in your love affair,” as she says later in the song.
But whose love affair, exactly? The chorus tells us whose culture she thinks this industry (re)produces: African-Americans. “Gold teeth, Grey Goose...Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash,” these are all icons of mainstream hip hop culture...or, more accurately, what people who don’t actually listen to mainstream hip hop THINK contemporary rappers talk about in their songs. (The fact is, some rappers have, for several years now, rejected and/or complicated bling aesthetics, mainly as a way to demonstrate their exceptional status among otherwise cliched black male MCs--think about Kanye’s skinny jeans, or, to speak directly to the “gold teeth” lyric, J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile.”)
There’s also a really interesting play on “queen Bee”--which could be a reference to either/both Lil Kim, who calls herself “Queen B,” and/or Beyonce or “queen Bey”, who also trades in the metaphorics of royalty. Lorde’s narrator says she’s not that type of “royal,” because her buzz is different. (This may not go anywhere, but here I also think of Marx’s use of bees in Capital v1 to distinguish human labor from non-human activity. Lorde’s narrator sees herself as buzzing at a different frequency than regular workers, and that’s her way of disidentifying with mainstream bourgeois capitalism?)
And when you listen to her music, the “buzz”--the vibrations, the harmonies and timbres--are actually very different than what people who don’t listen mainstream hip-hop influenced pop think this music sounds like. Instrumentally, “Royals” is very, very stripped down piece--just some snapping fingers, a basic drum machine loop, and some vocal harmonizations and bass notes in the chorus. Its folky minimalism starkly contrasts with dub/trap/EDM maximalism. (Even though it is totally consistent with similarly minimalist hip hop---just think about Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”.)
Lorde and her followers don’t crave the buzz of rattling bass, wobbly drops, or maxed-out textures. The “buzz” this song asks us to crave is vocal harmonization. The musical climaxes of the song are built by layering in more and more harmonizing female voices to the ends of lines in the chorus. If mainstream, hip-hop influenced pop has made traditional tonal harmony obsolete (rejecting it in favor of soars and drops), Lorde’s “Royals” re-centers it. (Again, I’m not saying that tonality is absent in contemporary pop--I’m arguing that from the perspective adopted in “Royals,” that appears to be the case.) In this way, “Royals” offers us white female bodies vibrating in harmony, not synths or AutoTuned vocals. Its musical pleasure is (supposedly) “in the flesh,” whereas mainstream pop is, like diamond engagement rings, an inherently screen/tech-mediated experience. (Obviously, it takes a lot of bad faith to buy “Royals” argument--it’s no less mediated or more “in the flesh” than any other song on the radio or YouTube.) So, the use of harmony and harmonization--which can and has been thought of as stereotypically “white,” especially when contrasted with stereotypically rhythm-oriented Afro-diasproic music--is a way to dis-identify with two different aspects of mainstream pop music: its blackness, on the one hand, and its tech/capital alienation, on the other. One implication here is that some kinds of black culture are vulgar and unruly because they can’t sufficiently moderate the use/effects of technology.
In the song, some precious ueber-femmy white girl singing about how “we” disidentify with mainstream hip hop culture and its blinged-out aesthetics. (Insofar as hip hop culture is stereotypically hypermasculine in a distinctly racialized way, the singer’s performance of white femininity is itself a dis-identificatory gesture.) Here, implicitly black (often masculine) hip hop culture represents mainstream bourgeois society, its norms and values. So the way to critique The Man is by situating yourself in opposition to representations of blackness. This gender and race dynamic flips more traditional scripts, in which white guys disidentify with mainstream white bourgeois culture by identifying with black subcultural aesthetics (from blues to bebop to rock to hip hop to jungle).
“Royals” shows that this disidentificatory work is now women’s work. It’s not prestigious work, like conventional male hipsterism (think of Mailer’s “White Negro” essay); it’s “second-shift” style feminized labor, like cleaning up messes always is. White women, in performing their white femininity, do the political work of multi-racial white supremacy. They devalue and reject the aspects of blackness that are still too unruly to be folded into multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.