It’s October of 2013, and a 16-year-old singer from New Zealand named Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor has become the youngest artist in 26 years to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Amidst the media-perpetuated mess of Miley Cyrus’ twerking controversy and Katy Perry’s usual domination of mainstream radio, a spidery girl with a shy demeanor, an unruly mane, and a name people are still mispronouncing sits on the throne. Her name is Lorde, pronounced “lord.” The song that got her here is “Royals.”
To many listeners, “Royals” came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, there was this different-sounding pop song that was inescapable, by some new artist who they’d never heard of. All of a sudden this striking new singer with an intriguing look was popping up in YouTube ads, nighttime television, daytime television, and every relevant music website out. The strangest part: Lorde was discovered and signed to Universal Records a long time ago, when she was 12 years old. That song “Royals” wasn’t even new. It was included on Lorde’s The Love Club EP in November 2012, and it performed well in New Zealand, debuting at No. 1 when it was finally officially released in March. Blogs, including American ones (and including this one) were posting about “Royals” back in 2012 and early 2013. It wasn’t until August of 2013 that the song finally crept into the American charts. This single’s rise to the top has been painfully slow, but it’s not the first time this has happened.
Remember Gotye, that other artist with an accent, an international hit, and a name nobody could pronounce correctly? Dubbing “Somebody That I Used To Know” the song of 2012 wouldn’t be a stretch, but that song was released in 2011. By mid-August of 2011, it was already the No.1 song in Australia. In December of 2011, it was released in the U.K. It wasn’t until January of 2012 that “Somebody That I Used To Know” got its release in the United States. It debuted at No. 91. After a Saturday Night Live performance, an American Idol placement, and 15 weeks on the charts, the song finally reached No. 1 in the U.S. It stayed there for eight consecutive weeks. By the end of 2012, it had sold almost 12 million copies and became one of the best-performing digital singles of all time. Great, right? It depends how you look at it.
The difficult part of a single rising so slowly is that by the time it reaches the mainstream, the people who knew it early on are already over it. As shallow and ugly as it may seem, part of the enjoyment of being a music fan is being a part of something we’re proud of. We are a generation who talks about our “personal brand” and considers everything we “like” on Facebook and share on Twitter as an extension of ourselves. When we become a fan of something, we associate with others who have similar tastes. It’s childish and superficial, but it’s all a part of finding our place in a world that has too much to offer.
With “Royals” and “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the Americans who were interested early were the ones interested in cutting edge music. It was the people who sought out new sounds instead of being served. Both singles stood out from mainstream pop that was typical of the U.S. charts, and both songs attracted fans of indie and alternative music. The early U.S. fan base of these songs consisted of people who identified more with independent music than pop hits. When the songs reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, there was a flocking of new fans who changed how those early adopters perceived the music itself. All of a sudden, it wasn’t some interesting, different-sounding song from a foreign country that featured interesting production and a unique sound. All of a sudden, it was that song on Glee or that song that your mom heard in the grocery store. All of a sudden, it wasn’t “cool” to be a fan. It has very little to do with the music itself, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Context, as much as we wish we could ignore it, is always going to shape perceptions.
There’s a lingering distaste with crossover artists because, suddenly, something that made you different now makes you the same as everyone else.
Part of the decision you make when listening to music isn’t just what you like, it’s what kind of person you see yourself as. Even if you’ve never heard a Sex Pistols song, you know that punks are rebellious. So, if you want to be rebellious you listen to punk. Not many things are as clearly defined as that today, but it’s relatively easy to place yourself as within or outside of mainstream culture based on your music taste, and there’s a lingering distaste with crossover artists because, suddenly, something that made you different now makes you the same as everyone else.
Not everyone buys into this. There are plenty of people who like good music regardless, and who are just as open to a chart-topping pop hit as they are to an obscure indie gem, but there are many more who are turned off by going to a concert and feeling alienated, surrounded by people who they do not identify with. This is when a backlash occurs, and this is part of the reason that while “Somebody That I Used to Know” may be Gotye’s most successful song ever, it may also be the song that forever excludes him from being embraced by music snobs and indie kids. Sure, maybe he can come up with another massive pop hit and become a superstar, but that sort of success is rare, especially for an artist whose style of music is still alternative to most mainstream music consumers. While indie acts enjoy modest success compared to Gotye, their fan bases are loyal. Fans of Grimes and The xx are invested, and they don’t need a massive hit to stay dedicated. Gotye’s entire career may forever live in the shadow of “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The success of that song was massive, but is it sustainable? Probably not.
Is Lorde any different? Is “Royals” going to be covered on Glee and forever tarnished in the eyes and ears of the people who heard it first? Are the bloggers that posted about Lorde in January going to turn on her? Or is there something special about Lorde?
In ‘Team,’ Lorde says she’s ‘kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,’ but the pop she’s annoyed by is the company she’s keeping now, intentionally or not.
Lorde is portraying herself as the alternative to the shallow, vapid excess of the Top 40, but “Royals” has reached the level of popularity at which it’s played right after the songs it decries. In “Team,” Lorde says she’s “kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” but the pop she’s annoyed by is the company she’s keeping now, intentionally or not. She’s too tactful to speak harshly about other artists, but her song currently sits right above the No. 2 and No. 3 songs in the country: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” When one talks about the typical Top 40 music that Lorde strives to avoid making, these are the artists one is speaking of. This begs the question, has “Royals” been consumed whole by an omnivorous mainstream or is it all the more subversive because it’s so successful? Can it be both?
Over the past couple of years, some interesting things have happened in music. One of them has been a bridging of the gap between underground sensations and mainstream success stories. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Grimes have gone from indie darlings to the covers of magazines without alienating their original fans or conforming to the industry standards. Major labels have noticed these kinds of success stories and it seems like these days even they are trying to tap into the indie market with smarter marketing, deliberate aesthetics, and an attempt to think outside the box. These acts may not sell a million in their first week, but their fans are loyal—they’ll buy shirts, they’ll go to shows, and they’ll be long term fans, even if they never get a No. 1 hit.
Other than a few extreme outliers—Adele and Kanye West being the most obvious—the past decade in music hasn’t yielded artists that are critically acclaimed, respected by indie fans, and massively successful in the mainstream all at once. But things are starting to change.
While music snobbery is always annoying, some of it is warranted. Some of these so-called snobs aren’t laying claim to lesser-known music just to be different, they’re doing it because normal sucks. Other than a few extreme outliers—Adele and Kanye West being the most obvious—the past decade in music hasn’t yielded artists that are critically acclaimed, respected by indie fans, and massively successful in the mainstream all at once. But things are starting to change. While being in-the-know and exclusively into edgy, underground music used to be quietly admirable, the Internet has made it so easy that keeping up with the latest blog buzz or insider scene is something any nerdy teenager in Middle America can do. It has made it so people who say things like “I heard that a year ago” are nothing more than caricatures of themselves—they are fucking memes.
The most perfect thing about this situation is that Lorde seems to feel the same as the rest of us, fearful of conforming to the hollowed out norm.
When you look at the rise of “Royals,” the backlash to Lorde’s ascent seems inevitable—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—but it hasn’t come yet, and there’s reason to believe that it won’t. Maybe we’re over that. Maybe we’ve learned from Lana Del Rey, Foster The People, fun., Mumford & Sons, and Gotye. Maybe this backlash thing is just a bunch of confused people turning against music they like because they’re afraid of being part of something they don’t want to be a part of. If there is a song that can break this cycle of backlash and snap people into more reasonable thinking, “Royals” is the song. The most perfect thing about this situation is that Lorde seems to feel the same as the rest of us, fearful of conforming to the hollowed out norm, and she lays it out pretty clearly with “Royals.” She craves a different kind of buzz. She may not want to be a pop star—at least not your Top 40 type of pop star, singing to screaming teens on morning TV and practicing her hair flip for the nighttime shows—but that’s exactly what she’s becoming, and it’s working out surprisingly well.