Is Lorde's 'Royals,' the top song on the Billboard Hot 100, racist?

Is Lorde's 'Royals,' the top song on the Billboard Hot 100, racist?
Photo provided by CNN/Universal Music

POSTED: Friday, October 11, 2013 - 11:00pm

UPDATED: Friday, October 11, 2013 - 11:04pm

An international war of words has broken out over a New Zealand pop star's chart-topping single, after an American blogger labeled the track racist.

"Royals," the debut single by Lorde, the stage name of Ella Yelich-O'Connor, currently sits above hits from Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making the 16-year-old the youngest artist to top the U.S. chart in 26 years.

The singer -- who sings about rejecting the trappings of consumerism in "Royals" and has admonished fellow pop star Selena Gomez for being insufficiently feminist -- has won plaudits from critics as a refreshing presence in the charts. But not everyone is a fan.

In a post on the prominent feminist blog, writer Veronica Bayetti Flores took issue with the song's lyrics, in which Yelich-O'Connor sings that "every song" is about gold teeth and Maybach luxury cars -- both fixtures of hip-hop music videos -- before concluding "we don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams."

"While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist," wrote Bayetti Flores. "Because we all know who she's thinking when we're talking gold teeth, Cristal (champagne) and Maybachs. So why s--- on black folks? Why s--- on rappers?"

The writer attacked critics who "have been so captivated by 'Royals' call-out of consumption that they didn't bother to take the time to think critically about the racial implications of the lyrics."

She concluded her post with the observation that the singer "apparently calls herself a feminist." "Let's just hope her feminism gets a lot less racist as she develops as an artist," she wrote.

The post attracted a massive online backlash from Lorde's fans and compatriots as well as other writers, with many claiming that Bayetti Flores, by interpreting the song through the prism of American race relations, was guilty of the kind of cultural arrogance she was attributing to the singer.

"I realize not everything in this world is an instrument of oppression," wrote New Zealand journalist Lynda Brendish. "And not everything in this world should be viewed through the lens of Americans, particularly when it comes to race and cultures of other countries. To insist otherwise is ignorant at best and imperialistic at worst."

The track was the songwriter's response to the images of unattainable luxury often conveyed through a U.S.-dominated pop culture, Brendish wrote.

"The theme of the song is the dissonance between that life... and the one she lives in New Zealand, but it is not at all about race."

While some of the trappings of conspicuous consumption cited in the song were associated with rappers, it also name-checked others associated with other wealthy, high-living stereotypes. "Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash? I'm thinking Richard Branson and maybe Russian oligarchs there," wrote Brendish. "Blood stains and ball gowns? Celeb socialites... Trashin' the hotel room? Rock stars." writer Dave Schilling said Bayetti Flores' reading of the song "couldn't be more simplistic" and asked: "Why should anyone be surprised that the proliferation of pop songs about conspicuous consumption would get tiresome eventually?"

A commenter on, Amelia Harris, called the post "a dreadfully done piece of deconstruction." "I hope you have a better understanding of your own bias and lack of understanding of the world beyond your own, and an interest in the impact of imported American culture on the rest of the world."

Others noted with disappointment that a vocal young feminist role model was being attacked on a feminist blog.

Bayetti Flores said on her Twitter page that she stood by her post, scoffing "at the quality of critiques" she was receiving in response. Amid the deluge of dissenting opinions, she also received some supportive tweets.

"Don't expect a Kiwi teen to know American race history, but then maybe she should step back from hip hop culture," she tweeted.

In comments written in an e-mail to CNN, Bayetti Flores added that her blog has mostly a U.S.-based audience, and "my critique focuses on how the song lands in the context of the United States.

"Clearly it has reached a much wider audience now," she added.

She took exception to how the song directs "a critique of excessive consumption to a genre both created and currently dominated by Black Americans, particularly when the vast majority of excess consumption is done by white people - not to mention the fact that Black people bear the brunt of the ill effects of wealth inequality, both in this country and globally," Bayetti Flores said.

Most of her critique is directed at record companies, U.S. media and "longstanding racist narratives" about consumption, she said.

While the genre isn't above criticism, hip-hop "must be critiqued in a way that contextualizes it within a larger system of race and power," she added. "To do so without this context reinforces racist narratives which feed into a larger system of racism that consistently dehumanizes people of color, and serve to uphold and excuse much larger oppressive systems."

A spokesman for Universal Music New Zealand, Lorde's label, said the singer had no comment in response to the criticism.

In an interview with NPR, Lorde described how the song was inspired by the messages conveyed by the pop music she had grown up with.

"I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which are commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40," she said. "I've always loved hip-hop, but as a fan of hip-hop, I've always had to kind of suspend disbelief because, obviously, I don't have a Bentley. There's a distance between that and the life I have with my friends going to parties and getting public transport and doing the things that every other teenager does." 

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