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?