The Number Ones

October 12, 2013

The Number Ones: Lorde’s “Royals”

Stayed at #1:

9 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Time stopped. The radio seemed to shimmer and throb. The music was barely there, just snaps and bloops and empty space. The voice sounded distant and mysterious, and it also sounded like someone whispering in your ear. I’d never heard the song before, but it immediately sounded familiar. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

I forget where I was going or what I was doing when I first heard “Royals,” the random hit that became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon. The song didn’t immediately imprint itself on my brain in the way that some game-changing hits do. Instead, it insinuated its way in there, and it lingered. Nobody had ever heard of Lorde, the singer of that weird new song, but the track was immediately everywhere. It turned out to be the debut single of a 16-year-old singer from New Zealand, which seemed impossible. How does this happen? But it happened. Lorde’s “Royals” snuck up on the world and became a juggernaut, at least in part because it did things that juggernaut pop songs are not supposed to do.

If I’m remembering this right, the first time I heard “Royals” was on my local adult alternative station, where it immediately stood out from the performatively folky songs that tend to serve as the bread and butter over there. But when “Royals” crossed over to pop radio, it sounded just as out of place. It was soft and still and slinky. It made fun of big-money consumerist pop tropes even as it indulged those tropes. There was no press hype around “Royals,” and it might’ve been the last time that I encountered a big new hit on the radio without already knowing the full context behind the song. In retrospect, it’s funny that “Royals” worked so well as a radio song, since it seemed custom-built for the internet, and since it foreshadowed a new pop era when internet was all that mattered.

When “Royals” blew up — first a stealthy slow-build hit, then an out-of-control boulder rolling downhill — people were quick to jump to conclusions. Maybe the era of precision-tooled Dr. Luke jackhammer dance-pop was over. Maybe people wanted to hear quiet, personal, insular pop music now. Maybe Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” wasn’t a one-off; maybe it heralded some bigger change. That impression was right and wrong at the same time. “Royals” succeeded two different Dr. Luke tracks at #1, and plenty of Luke tracks followed it to the top. But things were shifting, and the present pop landscape would look a whole lot different if “Royals” never happened.

For a moment, Lorde was a phenomenon. She was a reluctant pop star who didn’t look, talk, move, or act like a pop star. But her pop stardom was genuine, and her debut album Pure Heroine became a real cultural bellwether. She seemed like the future, but that’s not what she wanted to be. In the decade-plus since “Royals,” Lorde has kept an inconsistent schedule, going dormant for long stretches and finding herself further and further from the zeitgeist whenever she returns. That’s fine with her. She doesn’t want to dominate. Cult stardom continues to work just fine. But “Royals” changed the idea of what a #1 hit could be, and we’re still living in its aftermath.

Overnight-success stories are never really overnight-success stories. When a kid bursts onto the scene out of nowhere, there’s always been some work done to prepare that kid to burst onto the scene. Some business interest has worked to develop that kid. That was the case with Lorde, just as it’s always the case. But Lorde was so young that she still seemed like a weird kid, not a human brand avatar, when people started to ask who’d made that “Royals” song.

Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor comes from the suburbs outside Auckland. Her father is a civil engineer, and her mother is a poet, one who’s prominent enough that her name shows up in blue on Lorde’s Wikipedia page. When Lorde sings that she doesn’t come from money, I suppose that’s probably true; I don’t really know what kind of paper you can pull down as a prominent poet. In any case, I get the sense that Lorde grew up solidly middle class, without too much exposure to Maybach, Cristal, diamonds on your timepiece, etc. I bet she really had seen a diamond in the flesh before she wrote “Royals,” though. (When Lorde was born, Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” was the #1 song in America. In New Zealand, where American rap has always been more popular than you might expect, it was Warren G and Adina Howard’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”)

Young Lorde was a smart kid who competed in national speech and writing competitions when she was still in elementary school, or when she was in whatever they call elementary school in New Zealand. (Please don’t ask me to research the New Zealand educational system. I am busy.) At 12, Lorde and her friend Louis McDonald participated in a school talent show, where Lorde sang while McDonald played guitar, and that somehow led them to playing acoustic covers on New Zealand national radio. It’s a small country, I guess. That led to 13-year-old Lorde signing a development deal with Universal. She took vocal lessons and played small local shows around Auckland, and her A&R rep, who became her manager, tried pairing her up with different songwriters. None of the pairings worked until she met Joel Little.

Before working with Lorde, Joel Little was the frontman of Goodnight Nurse, a pop-punk band that was pretty popular in New Zealand in the ’00s. For whatever reason, former pop-punk frontmen seem to make good collaborators for young female pop stars. Later on, Lorde recorded her second and third albums with Jack Antonoff, another former pop-punk frontman who’s done a whole lot of big-deal work with a lot of young female pop stars. Right now, the dynamic seems to be working out really well for Olivia Rodrigo and Dan Nigro. It’s just one of those things. I can’t explain it.

In any case, Goodnight Nurse went on indefinite hiatus in 2010. (They got back together in 2023 to open a My Chemical Romance show in Auckland.) Joel Little was just starting his production career when he tried making music with Lorde, and the two of them immediately clicked, possibly because he was more concerned with helping realize her ideas than with trying to cram his own in there. Lorde started writing songs when she was 13, and she wrote all of her own lyrics; Little was just there to help her shape those lyrics into tracks. After a week, Lorde and Little had a bunch of songs ready to go. One of those songs was “Royals.”

Lorde has said that she got the idea for “Royals” when she saw a National Geographic photo of George Brett signing baseballs in 1976. In the picture, Brett was wearing his Kansas City Royals uniform. Lorde didn’t know who George Brett was, and she didn’t know anything about baseball, but the image got her mind working: “He was a baseball player, and his shirt said ‘Royals.’… It was just that word. It’s really cool.” Brett later sent Lorde a signed jersey, and they met before she played a Las Vegas show in 2014.

“Royals” is not a song about George Brett. Instead, it’s about the disconnect that Lorde felt when she would listen to opulent American pop music — rappers like A$AP Rocky and singers like Lana Del Rey, who’s sort of Lorde’s companion in whispery and insular cult-pop stardom. “Royals” isn’t a sarcastic takedown of materialist pop music like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” and it’s not a sincere broadside about that stuff, either. Instead, it’s a playful reflection. In later interviews, Lorde talked about how the images that she describes on “Royals” — the jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash — are both fun and bullshit. They had nothing to do with her experience, so she sang about them with a sense of irreverent bemusement. Eventually, the song made Lorde famous enough that she could probably have a tiger on a gold leash if she wanted one. That’s what I would do if I were Lorde. A tiger on a gold leash sounds awesome.

When I wrote about “Thrift Shop” a couple of months ago, I talked about how that song’s snide, finger-wagging anti-consumerist message always grated on me. “Royals” arguably has the exact same message, but it’s done with a sense of joy and artistry that I just don’t hear in “Thrift Shop.” Lorde doesn’t position herself as better than the fanstastical, escapist images that pop and rap songs conjure. Instead, she revels in the disconnect. She’s driving Cadillacs in her dreams, and she wants to live that fantasy, even if she and her friends are counting dollars on the train to the party.

“Royals” doesn’t stake out a coherent position. Nor should it. It’s a song from a teenager. On “Royals,” Lorde doesn’t offer some cultural thesis statement. She seems to enjoy repeating all the brand names on the chorus, even as she points out that these things have no bearing on her life. It’s the musical equivalent of giggling that some activity is so stupid while still going through with that activity. I did that shit all the time as a teenager, and I like how “Royals” lives with its contradictions.

When “Royals” blew up, Rick Ross, the king of rap opulence, rapped on a remix. To this day, I have no idea what was happening there. Was Ross in on the joke? Or was this a simple and transparent attempt to draft off of the buzz of a big song, or maybe to get “Royals” into rap-radio rotation? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The cognitive dissonance of hearing Ross jump on this song, talking about new fur rugs and Super Bowl tickets and dead presidents sleeping in the attic of the mansion, is a whole lot of fun, whether or not it’s intentional. (Rick Ross’ highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2008 T-Pain collab “The Boss,” peaked at #17. As a guest on Drake’s 2021 track “Lemon Pepper Freestyle,” Ross made it all the way up to #3, as Drake is happy to point out these days. That one is a 6.)

The existence of the Rick Ross “Royals” remix underlines something about the original track: There is a whole lot of rap in “Royals.” The track’s use of empty space — fingersnaps, bass tones, echo, very little else — worked in conversation with the rap of its moment. The beat’s syncopation is subtle but undeniable. Lorde’s delivery, especially on the pre-chorus, sits right in the pocket. She flows, and she broadcasts her personality in the same way that a rapper might. Even the track’s lingering synthetic melancholy seems to come straight from Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, an album that cast a huge shadow on the next decade or so of mainstream rap. American R&B radio loved “Royals”; it went all the way to #3 on the airplay chart. I heard “Royals” on rap radio plenty of times, and it wasn’t always the Rick Ross remix.

If you were half-listening to “Royals,” you might miss the song’s point about unattainable cultural images of success. If you listened closer, you might come to the conclusion that there is no point, or at least the point isn’t as linear as you might expect. Instead, the song exists in beautifully bored suspended animation, commenting on a thing while being resolutely on the outside of that thing. The faint sadness in “Royals” isn’t an indictment of consumer culture. It’s just suburban-kid blues, and there’s always comfort to be found in suburban-kid blues.

Did you ever spend any time looking at a shishi-odoshi, those Japanese bamboo fountain things that gently tip over whenever they fill up with water? They can be so mesmerizing, so satisfying to watch. There’s not really anything to it, just the tranquil and reassuring rhythm of the water trickling and the stick tipping over every once in a while. That’s how I feel about “Royals.” The soft, spare clicks and harmonies were hypnotic and vaguely addictive. The song was catchy, but you couldn’t get the same effect if you sang that melody while playing acoustic guitar or whatever. It needed to be just Lorde’s voice against all that empty space. For a little while, I needed to hear “Royals” once every few hours, just as a way to reset my nervous system.

Lorde initially released “Royals” on The Love Club, an EP that she posted as a free SoundCloud download in 2012. After 60,000 people downloaded the record, Universal gave it a proper release, and “Royals” immediately went to #1 in New Zealand. Quickly enough, the song bubbled up in the US, and I honestly can’t even tell you how that happened. With most of the tracks that have been appearing in this column lately, I can point to either a deafening, bombastic big-money publicity campaign or a sneaky viral-meme component that led directly to popularity. I can’t do that with “Royals.” My best guess is that the song caught on just because it was really good and people liked it. The track took on a ritualistic quality for me, and maybe it had the same effect on other people, too.

Mystery played a part. Nobody knew who Lorde was, and that felt refreshing. When people learned that she was a 16-year-old kid from New Zealand with no big industry connections, that made her even more intriguing. On the song itself, she sounded quiet but confident, layering up her own multitracked harmonies into a smooth call-and-response with herself. In the “Royals” video, she stared straight into the camera, while other flinchy and awkward kids milled around in vaguely Harmony Korine-ish ways. Lorde wasn’t out promoting the song on daytime TV. We just had these few images of her, and the images resonated.

In the US, “Royals” first made an impact at alternative radio, making its debut on that chart in June and then reaching #1 in August. At the time, alt-rock radio was finally pivoting away from post-grunge guitars and into synthier, poppier fare — Imagine Dragons, Capital Cities, the Neighbourhood. Still, “Royals” stood out in that context, just as it stood out in every context. On pop radio, it cut straight through the maximal thump of the Katy Perry and Lady Gaga tracks that were getting big pushes. When Lorde’s Pure Heroine album arrived in late September, it sustained the uncanny mood of “Royals” for an admirably restrained 40 minutes.

Pure Heroine is the album that Lorde needed to make in that moment. She recorded the whole thing with Joel Little, and there are no other musicians on the record. Her pop-star personality isn’t quite fully formed, but it’s most of the way there. She’s got hooks and charisma, but those qualities come through a pulsating minimalism that seems to come straight from the xx or Beach House. (Lorde has always shown great taste in both old-school pop and relatively underground fare, so I don’t doubt that those bands were direct influences.) The album took off and became a phenomenon. It debuted at #3 on the American album chart, and it never got any higher, but it lingered in the chart’s upper reaches for a very long time, eventually going quintuple platinum.

Given how huge her debut single was, Lorde could’ve easily fallen into the one-hit wonder trap, especially when follow-up single “Tennis Court” peaked at #71. But “Team,” another single from the album, took off and reached #6. (It’s an 8.) That song told the same outsider story as “Royals”: “We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen.” With both “Team” and “Royals,” Lorde proved herself a master at using the — sorry, gotta do it — royal we. She was singing these insular songs about insularity, but she was also extending an invitation to anyone who’d ever felt the same way. On the same song, Lorde sang, “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there.” Given that so much of that moment’s pop music was specifically about telling you to throw your hands up in the air, the contrast couldn’t have been any clearer.

Like “Royals” itself, Pure Heroine became an unlikely commercial juggernaut. “Ribs,” a deep cut from the LP that was never released as a single, is now triple platinum, while “Royals” has gone platinum 14 times over. At the 2014 Grammys, “Royals” won Song Of The Year, beating out a bunch of tracks that have appeared in this column, and Lorde gave an endearingly awkward performance of the track. For whatever reason, she wasn’t even nominated for Best New Artist, but the industry fully embraced her. Over the next few years, Lorde got some extremely big looks.

In 2013, Lorde signed a multimillion-dollar publishing deal and covered Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” for the soundtrack of the big-deal blockbuster The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. A year later, Lorde curated the soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, picking tracks from Chvrches and Tinashe and Bat For Lashes. Her own track “Yellow Flicker Beat” peaked at #34 and got a Kanye West remix.

Legendary rock-star types looked at Lorde and saw a kindred spirit. When Nirvana went into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014, they invited Lorde to join them on “All Apologies.” At the 2016 Brit Awards, Lorde paid tribute to David Bowie, who’d just died, by covering “Life On Mars?” with his last touring band, while Bowie collaborator Mike Garson said that Bowie had loved Lorde. These are the biggest votes of confidence that a young star could possibly ever get.

In the years after “Royals,” record labels rushed to sign their own versions of Lorde. You could hear her influence in something as minor as the whispery vocals that a full-on mainstream pop star like Selena Gomez adapted. (Gomez, who covered “Royals” on her 2013 tour, will eventually appear in this column.) Shy and talented kids like Alessia Cara and Khalid seemed like transparent attempts to manufacture newer, more obvious versions of Lorde. It’s frankly impossible to imagine Halsey and Billie Eilish, two acts that this column will cover, existing without Lorde’s example. The shift wasn’t immediate, but the pop center moved away from the big-and-bold Katy Perry types. You could argue that the center ceased to exist entirely, but we’ll get more into that whole saga in the days ahead.

In the meantime, Joel Little moved to Los Angeles and became an in-demand producer, working with people like Tove Lo, Imagine Dragons, and Ellie Goulding. Little also produced two of the worst singles that Taylor Swift has ever released in her entire life. Before Noah Kahan emerged as a ramshackle-folk sensation, he was trying to make relatively conventional pop music, and Little was his main collaborator.

Lorde did not move to LA. Instead, she took four years to make another album, which isn’t the kind of thing that you usually do if you really want to maintain your stranglehold on the zeitgeist. Lorde was fully forthright about the fact that she didn’t know how to make another “Royals” and that she didn’t especially want to make one, either. Joel Little did some work on her 2017 follow-up LP Melodrama, but her main collaborator was Jack Antonoff, who’s already been in this column as a member of Fun. I’d argue that Melodrama is the moment that Antonoff really made the leap to super-producer status. It’s an absolute fucking banger of a record.

Melodrama is a desperate, freaked-out breakup album with none of the minimalism or the rap undertones of Pure Heroine. Instead, Lorde and Antonoff went for messy ’80s-pop catharsis, and they made some absolute magic. In a New York Times Magazine profile, Lorde told a great story about playing lead single “Green Light” for Max Martin, who told her that it was “incorrect songwriting.” Certain parts were too short, others too long. It didn’t fit into Martin’s rigidly mathematical methodology. Lorde proudly agreed: “I have a strong awareness of the rules — 60% of the time I follow them; 40%, I don’t.”

Maybe “Green Light” would’ve been a bigger hit if Lorde followed the rules. The song peaked at #19, and Lorde hasn’t been anywhere near the top 10 since. But critics loved Melodrama; this website named it the album of the year for 2017. As I write this, I’m listening to the record for the first time in a while, and it’s kicking my ass all over again. Melodrama eventually went platinum, but it wasn’t anywhere near as big as Pure Heroine, and that was probably by design. Instead, Lorde embraced her status as an anti-pop pop star. She promoted the album — TV appearances, all-star remixes, all that stuff — but she didn’t seem sorry that she wasn’t conquering the zeitgeist again. Instead, she understood her new place on the fringes. Touring arenas behind Melodrama, Lorde recruited Mitski as an opening act, and this was long before Mitski found her strange new status as TikTok cult star. Lorde got it. (Mitski’s only Hot 100 hit, 2023’s “My Love Mine All Mine,” peaked at #23.)

Lorde took another four-year break before her next album, and 2021’s Solar Power turned out to be a big whiff. The record has a couple of joints; I really like the title track, which peaked at #64. But on the whole, it’s too folky and misty and self-helpy to really click for me. Other critics agreed, and so did the public at large. These days, Lorde sits fully outside the mainstream, and she continues to radiate the impression that she’s a very cool person. I’ve never met her, but I imagine that she’s a great hang, and this is not something that I would say about everyone who has appeared in this column.

“Royals” was a strange snapshot that helped shape the pop landscape we see today. Lorde isn’t a huge part of that landscape, but that could change. She’s still just 27 years old. She could always come back, if that’s something that she’s even interested in doing. If not, we’ll always have “Royals.”

GRADE: 10/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2013, when “Royals” was still ascending the Hot 100, the Weeknd, an artist who will appear in this column many times, remixed the track. At the time, the Weeknd was still a vaguely mysterious internet thing, and people weren’t entirely clear whether it was a solo artist or a band. Abel Tesfaye barely even sings on the remix — he’s just doing backgrounds — but it’s a reminder of a moment when those two artists didn’t seem that far apart from one another. Here’s the remix:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: At a 2014 show in Auckland, Bruce Springsteen saluted Lorde by singing a very cool “Royals” cover, switching up a few of the lyrics so that they applied to him a little better. Here’s his version:

(Bruce Springsteen’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2014 album Mandatory Fun, “Weird Al” Yankovic naturally parodied “Royals” as “Foil,” a song about using aluminum foil to keep your food from going bad and also to protect yourself from alien mind-control rays. Here’s the video that he made for it:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For a little while, Lorde became a kind of auxiliary member of Taylor Swift’s omnipresent so-called squad, even though Taylor Swift is the closest thing we have to an actual royal these days. I mean, royalty continues to exist, but nobody sane cares about that. People do care about Taylor Swift. (Swift has been in this column once, and she’ll obviously be back many more times.) At a 2019 show in Washington — one that I really wish I’d gone to — Swift introduced Lorde as a surprise guest, and they performed “Royals” together. I really like the way Lorde seems to float across the stage when she first appears in the fan footage. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the extremely fun 2019 stripping-and-scamming caper Hustlers, “Royals” plays during the montage where everyone inevitably gets busted. The song serves the same function in that movie that Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” does in Goodfellas. Here’s the montage:

(Jennifer Lopez has already been in this column a bunch of times. A couple of other Hustlers cast members will eventually appear in this column, but they aren’t in that montage.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Let me be your writer. You can call me King T. And baby, I’ll write, I’ll write, I’ll write, I’ll write. So please buy that book from me.

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