Lorde, Lily Allen, and the Problem With Pop Culture’s Hip-Hop Love Affair

Recently, there has been a storm of editorials related to Lorde’s “Royals” and Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here.” These editorials are as varied as the outlets they come from, but the negative ones (like this and this) tend to cluster around one specific point: these songs are racist because they criticize materialism in American music using images historically associated with hip-hop. In “Royals” specifically, Lorde calls out “gold teeth,” “Grey Goose,” “Cristal,” “Maybach,” “diamonds on your timepiece,” “jet planes,” “islands,” and “tigers on a gold leash,” as items that just don’t resonate with her worldview. The question is, is that sentiment inherently racist?

Before delving into this, it must be acknowledged that there are problematic elements in Lily Allen’s new video. When Allen says, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you, ’cause I’ve got a brain,” she casually implies that anyone who dances provocatively, for a living or otherwise, doesn’t have a brain. This coupled with the fact that most of the dancers in her video are black gives her sloppy criticism troubling racial undertones. But the fact is that “Royals” has none of this condescending feminism and still receives the same allegations of racism.

The heart of the issue then seems to be American music’s relationship to hip-hop’s particular brand of materialism. Hip-hop’s entwinement with materialism is complicated, as is the relationship between its egalitarian and ultra-capitalist tendencies. But the part of hip-hop that mainstream American pop has both appropriated and promoted is the “tigers on a gold leash” part. The part that celebrates vast wealth and opulent status symbols. For the most part, this is both the type of hip-hop that becomes popular, and also the element of hip-hop lifted by the “pop music” of Miley et al. Why is that? One of the reasons is that it sells in white suburbs, even if it means something completely different there than it does to African-Americans suffering from a history of economic oppression.

The dominant images of wealth in American music culture are now those cribbed from hip-hop. No American pop stars are singing or rapping about wearing Brooks Brothers and working at Goldman Sachs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reactionary songs of Lorde and Lily Allen, neither of whom are American (as BuzzFeed recently pointed out in the case of Lorde). It’s clear from “Royals” and “Hard Out Here” that they feel the materialism being sold to them is packaged in this way: Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.

The hip-hop aesthetic has become the premier mode of selling a wealth fantasy in American music, for artists of all races. This is a fantasy that Lorde, and judging by the success of “Royals,” many other people in the world, feel disconnected from.

The question then comes, what is the appropriate way for pop stars like Lorde and Lily Allen to respond? Megastars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber (although nominally Canadian), are now wholesale appropriating hip-hop imagery and reselling it across the world. The hip-hop aesthetic has become the premier mode of selling a wealth fantasy in American music, for artists of all races. This is a fantasy that Lorde, and judging by the success of “Royals,” many other people in the world, feel disconnected from.

It seems that when Lorde searched for imagery to describe the wealth fantasy that didn’t resonate with her life, with her hopes and dreams, she found two main things to anchor her chorus: British royalty and American Top 40 wealth imagery derived from hip-hop.

This imagery has become so entrenched in American pop music’s conception of evident wealth that it seems unlikely it will fade from popularity any time soon. It’s hard to imagine a future where hip-hop imagery isn’t used in pop music. It’s not going to happen. And so it seems we’ll run into this same debate every time a non-black pop star criticizes the materialism of American music using the vocabulary it has defined itself by. If American pop, as a broad category, chooses the imagery of hip-hop to sell its wealth fantasy, is it racist for artists to throw these images back?

  • disappointed

    well this is one of the worst articles i’ve seen on here, stick to posting new music and less with cultural theories that look ripped from a college ruled notebook

  • fucknhell

    baaaaaad

  • Latest

    as i first heard lorde’s “royals” i thought “this song is catchy, the instrumentals were simple enough to let the crisp vocals shine” this is despite me knowing it would be an overly played radio hit. as i first heard allen’s “hard out here” i thought “boy this sounds forced”.

    but not once did i correlate racism with either of the two, lyric, video or audio wise…
    there are a million contradictions in the music industry, is this article trying to tell us to pick one and be butthurt about it? is this article going to be up by the time i finish writing this? #sorrynotsorry
    part of why i like pigeons and planes because it makes fun and light of the music industry, not because it points out racism/feminism that nitpicky media sites choose to make non-existent points with.

  • bro

    i’m bored w/ this

  • Cethin

    Oh the struggle must be terribly rough for you. You deserve to sit through more articles like this one.

  • Cethin

    Oh the struggle must be terribly rough for you. You deserve to sit through more articles like this one.

  • Nicholas James Concklin

    Not this again

  • jx

    haha, racist, that’s funny

  • jajay22

    I can’t take lily allan seriously…she makes a video abt over- materialization/sexualisation, while also having vigorous amounts of product placement in it… #hypocritemuch?

  • Shawn A. Gadley

    This is one of the most culturally relevant articles I’ve read here in a while. Hip-hop, while aesthetically still monopolized by African-American artists, is an international force that isn’t received as plain ol’ “Black Music”. In America alone, the generation growing up now never experienced a time where hip-hop was an underground sound being picketed for its social defiance.

    So if any other genre can be attacked, why can’t hip-hop stand with the big boys and be critiqued for blurring the line between individual materialism and corporate commercialism? I don’t agree that either one of these pop inferences are directly racist toward hip-hop, but if it became a pop trend to defame the “hip-hop lifestyle” some problems could arise with this new wave of anti-swag ensembles.

    At the end of the day, rather it be pop or hip-hop, it’s all for the underlying purposes of exposure, artistic expression, and dollar signs. The big wigs won’t let this type of slander go on for too long, unless it outsells the hip-hop aesthetic.

  • busstophustle

    This article introduces a point that’s been making rounds in the media sphere, yet stops short of offering a conclusion for or against the allegations it highlights.

    Are Lorde and Lily Allen being “accidentally racist” or are the response articles written in their wake evidence of a tendency to jump the gun when waving the flag of racial sensitivity? It’s a worthwhile dialogue to discuss. I just wanted a definitive stance.

  • TheLastMindBender

    boring! Next.

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  • Christina Maclane

    Overthinking. Lily Allen who? The other one is 17. 17. Kids don’t have money but still want to feel important. So they take shots at superficial pop idols.