“Royals,” by New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, is that rarest of birds, the perfect pop song. It’s brilliantly simple in its execution, only voices and percussion with some synthesizer effects. Sixteen years old when she recorded it, Lorde’s vocals on “Royals” recall both Adele’s burnished depth and Fiona Apple’s slouchy confidence; she simmers with youthful-yet-worldly disdain (“We aren’t caught up in your love affair”), then mood-swings into the sunnily affirmative “And we’ll never be royyyy-als” chorus. Lorde doesn’t have one of those auto tuned little girly voices. She sounds like what she is, a young woman.
What’s “Royals” about? Oh, lots of things. Snobbery, materialism, people who equate status with happiness, the celebration of wealth and luxe-brand lifestyle that drives so much of reality TV and pop music. It’s about living in “a torn-up town” and being OK with it, because it’s your life and it’s real. And it’s about being with someone who makes you feel like a queen, even without the fortune and the crown.
The first time I heard “Royals” was during royal birth mania, and the line that leapt out at me was, “We don’t care/ We aren’t caught up in your love affair.” OK, fair enough. Not everybody takes as much (guilty) pleasure in the British monarchy as I do. Then the line, “Let me be your ruler/ You can call me Queen Bee” caught my ear, and I thought, “Ooh, a possible Beyonce reference! This gets more interesting all the time.”
There’s a contingent of anti-“Royals”-ists who propose that the song is racist, for the lyrics, “Every song’s like, ‘Gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom/ bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room’.” (Lorde co-wrote the song with producer Joel Little.) I’ll concede that the stuff about gold teeth and bloodstains probably is a reference to certain rap tropes. But when I hear “trashin’ the hotel room,” my mind immediately goes to Led Zeppelin, not Yeezus. And the second pre-chorus (“Everybody’s like, ‘Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece/ jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash’ “) could apply to the tacky excesses of every large-living celebrity from Liberace to the Kardashians to Justin Bieber. “Royals” isn’t racist. If anything, it’s taste-ist. And bad taste is color-blind.
But back to aural perfection. Simple and airy in its construction, “Royals” is a song that everybody wants to sing, needs to sing, feels like they can sing, even if they have no voice, like me. And it’s virtually indestructible, as the multitude of “Royals” covers on You Tube demonstrates.
Lacking complex instrumentation, “Royals” is DIY-friendly. Which fits in with the whole less-is-more message of the song. Lorde is a queen in her fantasy, and aspiring singers can be Lorde in theirs. There are countless homemade You Tube covers of “Royals” by teenage girls. I chose this one (by a group of girls who call themselves “The 5th Empire”) because they harmonize like angels and they’re in a stairwell, which, acoustically speaking, is the DIY equivalent of Carnegie Hall.
Because the original is pretty close to being voice-only, it’s only natural for a cappella groups to want in. There are all sorts of “Royals” covers by a cappella groups on You Tube: Earnest ones, plucky ones, over-sung ones, boy-band ones, girl-band ones, Disney-fied ones that cut out the references to alcohol. Here’s a popular one by Pentatonix, who won NBC’s reality show “The Sing-Off.” It’s more polished than Lorde’s original — which kind of misses the whole point of the song. But even with all that glossy weight on its slender shoulders, the melody still manages to take flight. Plus, lead singer Mitch Grassi is fierce.
“Royals” as a bluegrass song — and it works!
You knew there’d be ukuleles.
Even thrashy guitars and screaming vocals can’t kill it.
Classical violinists? Yep, they’re down with “Royals”.
Remember I said that “Royals” was “virtually” indestructible? This is the version that earned that qualifier. Mayer Hawthorne attempts to “funk it up” (as he explains) and then proceeds to overproduce all the natural soulfulness out of it. Worse, he only sings the first two words of those crucial pre-choruses, crooning “Gold teeth, Grey Goose” and “Cristal, Maybach” as punchless ellipses. How can you listen to the original and not understand that the whole key to the song’s infectiousness is in the choppy-rappy rhythms of all the words of those pre-choruses? The phrase “trippin’ in the bathroom” needs to be in there, dammit! The hard-soft consonant blend is pleasing to the ear and it’s the phrase that everybody want to sing.
And now, my favorite of all covers of “Royals,” an unfussed, beautifully sung version by the girls’ choir of Garin College, a Catholic high school in Nelson, New Zealand. There’s something about these uniform-clad girls and their charming foot-shuffling choreography that made me hear an echo of ’60s girl-groups — specifically, the percussive-heavy, intricately harmonized “Out in the Streets” by the Shangri-Las — in Lorde’s original. And it’s hard to resist a group of girls Lorde’s age, from her corner of the world, bringing it all back home.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013