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No, Feministing. Lorde’s Royals is not a racist song

I love a social justice throwdown as much as the next lefty feminist. I love discussing how lyrics of popular songs are problematic and I love being challenged in my own thinking. But holy shit, even I realise not everything in this world is an instrument of oppression.

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.

Case in point: Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist by Verónica Bayetti Flores. The writer asserts  Lorde’s song is not, actually, about a rejection of conspicuous consumption – the type sold to us in American and European cultural exports depicting excessive wealth and behaviour – but in fact, it’s racist. Because in the chorus Lorde mentions gold teeth, Cristal, and Maybachs.

Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality?

Actually, no I don’t know who she’s thinking of when you mention gold teeth, Cristal or Maybachs. They’re generic elements of excessive wealth and American cultural exports. And even if you can make the argument those specific items reference only black rappers (and not, say, Ke$ha or Katy Perry, for example) it’s an argument that cherry picks a few items from a whole song to make the point.

The relevant part of the song is here:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

If Lorde has chosen some aspects of conspicuous consumption that overwhelmingly refer to black hip hop culture,  she has also included other aspects that  refer to conspicuous consumption predominantly associated with other cultures. Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash? I’m thinking Richard Branson and maybe Russian oligarchs there. Blood stains and ball gowns? Celeb socialites with a hint of My Super Sweet 16. Cadillacs? Rich old people. Trashin’ the hotel room? Rock stars.

The theme of the song is a the dissonance between that life (ironically one that Lorde is probably now set to live) and the one she lives in New Zealand, but it is not at all about race.

Flores says if Lorde really wanted to critique the excesses of wealth, she should have focused on the golf course or bankers on wall street. Ignoring for the minute that enforcing accurate and comprehensive critical analysis of social and political issues in a 3-minute pop song is ridiculous; those things aren’t tubefed to us en masse through the American cultural exports of popular entertainment so why would she mention them in a song about pop culture?

Look Feministing, I know page views are great and everything but there’s really nothing to see here and it would be great if you could move along. I hear there are real issues of racism and class and womens’ fight for equality that need our attention.

edit: In Lorde’s own words 

“I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which are commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40. I did get a little ridiculous on it, but the sentiment’s there,” O’Connor says. “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.”

edit 2: Apparently I didn’t have discussion/comments open on this post. But I fixed it and you may express your opinion  below.

edit 3 (Oct 9): If you have a dissenting opinion and don’t feel comfortable posting here, please see my new post and feel welcome to share those opinions. I will be happy to share and discuss them. You’re still welcome to post disagreeing opinions on this post too, though!

34 thoughts on “No, Feministing. Lorde’s Royals is not a racist song”

    1. I somewhat agree with your rebuttal. The song was poorly interpreted as a racist piece. I actually agree with Lorde’s lyrics. I am a Black woman who likes and listens to hip hop music but I still do not like the ostentatious nature of some parts of hip hop culture and its incessant preoccupation with materialism and consumption. That said, I have to disagree with your explanation. If Lorde is critiquing the “art” that is being exported from the US, then the interpretations of her “critique” should be fair game. I think Flores, the blogger here, was probably a little hypersensitive and reacted only to the “calling out” of black hip hop culture, i.e. gold teeth and grey goose (this can’t be disputed). However, when I heard the lyrics, “jet planes” and “tigers on a leash,” I immediately thought about Siegfried and Roy in Vegas! This is the beauty of art; it is an expression of a person’s beliefs and once it leaves the mind of the individual, it then becomes open for interpretation by anyone, whether right or wrong, accurately or inaccurately.

      But I must say, as an educator and researcher on Race-particularly with respect to the social dynamics of race and interracial/intercultural dialogue, I respectfully disagree with your portrayal of New Zealand as a “racism-free” land where inequality and oppression do not exist. A lot of literature on racism and oppression has come out of Australia and New Zealand because why? It is not a secret how the indigenous people have been treated “down under” and beyond. So in this regard, it is foolhardy to suggest that you don’t also struggle with race. Racism is a global phenomenon but you are right, it definitely is not in Lorde’s song.

      1. I respectfully disagree with your portrayal of New Zealand as a “racism-free” land where inequality and oppression do not exist.

        HI Dionne. I never meant to suggest New Zealand is free of racism, or an idyllic, happy place where everyone lives in racial harmony. It’s not, and I’ll be the first to admit it. We have a long history of stressful race relations and marginalisation of Maori, and more recently of immigrants from the Pacific Islands, Asia, India, Pakistan and Middle Eastern Countries. (Although please don’t lump New Zealand in with Australia in terms of race relations – the way Australians have treated Aboriginal Australians is quite a separate issue from Pakeha New Zealand’s treatment of Maori). New Zealand has done some things right – the government largely tries to honour the commitment made in the Treaty of Waitangi and it is a central document to the fabric of our society. However, that by no means excuses us from addressing and redressing exising and long-standing issues. I didn’t write about the lengths New Zealand still has to go in its own race relations, because I didn’t feel like that was an appropriate subject to bring into this particular debate.

        I really appreciate your comment! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify that I in no way imagine NZ to be racism-free, or free of criticism on that front.

        That said, I have to disagree with your explanation. If Lorde is critiquing the “art” that is being exported from the US, then the interpretations of her “critique” should be fair game

        That’s a fair point. I guess my feeling is that she’s less critiquing and more contrasting. Her experience is somewhat humourously juxtaposed against the experience of the hip hop and pop stars she loves.

  1. Some people need to understand that New Zealanders/Australians/Brits/Irish, etc do not have the same cultural hang-ups as Americans.

    That’s not to say that race relations outside America are perfect, but not every American stereotype is relevant to non-American contexts, as the author of the original blog, with its “white girl” vs “black folks” focus, presumes.

    1. I agree! And I also think that it’s important to note the song doesn’t criticise gold teeth, Cristal or any of the other included elements. So even without the lens of cultural differences, the premise of the entire argument is moot because the Feministing writer misunderstood the song.

    2. Please don’t stereotype Americans either. This was one person’s opinion and is not a majority opinion. This song gets played every hour on the hour on American pop radio.

      1. It was not my intention to stereotype Americans, and I apologise if I came across that way.

        I was solely critiquing Flores’ generalised outlook, which seems to draw on a uniquely American perspective on race relations. Despite some superficial similarities, the racial dynamics in NZ are quite different from those in the USA.

      2. Nobody said anything about the majority of Americans. Stop whining and going on the defensive about nothing, and pay attention to what she’s actually saying.

  2. This isn’t something new. It’s almost a tradition. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” – parodying consumerist culture and the accompanying silly advertising. Right Said Fred’s “I’m too Sexy” – an oddly adopted parody of the insane modelling industry. Psy’s “Gangname Style”. Aqua’s “Barbie Doll”. Every one of them being parody’s of a certain life style (and often ironically so).

    Meanwhile, I caught a television ad recently (in New Zealand – I’m not sure if this interesting piece of racism is elsewhere) for Nestle’s “Milky Bar”. I remember as a kid learning that they were holding auditions for being the next milky bar kid! Of course, I couldn’t try out. I had the wrong skin and hair colour for being the milky bar kid…

    I suppose there’s a certain frustration in there? As a New Zealander the chances of me ever going to space are greatly diminished compared to if I was American or Russian. Even if you get gold teeth, a tiger on a gold leash, whatever other riches etc. you’ll still never be a royal… Which, in kind of a horribly abstract way, could be equated to the frustration from racism. It don’t run in our blood…

    Playing devil’s advocate is kind of fun….

  3. Apart from the gold teeth, I’m pretty much picturing Bon Jovi, Aerosmtih and all the other hair metallers of the ’80s/early ’90s those guys actually owned the planes. Seems to me that Flores is a racist on account of the conclusion that the song is an attempt to “shit on black folks?”.

    This part is fun…

    Q: Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East?
    A: Donald Trump and Tiger Woods ain’t droppin’ hits like bombs and Paris Hilton was already mentioned in track being critiqued.

    Q: Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality?
    A: Because Rage Against the Machine, Michael Franti and KRS-One amongst others are already killing that market.

  4. Lorde, or Ella, was in my my daughters year at school ( but as we are newish here, and Ella is now too busy with her music career to continue her schooling, and my daughter was not in her classes anyway, they did not know each other) but many other girls at school know her as she has lived around here all her life. She has lived in a very ordinary house, in a very ordinary street, in a very ordinary neighborhood of decent middle class people, all slightly on the boring side of life without glitter and excess money. She is 16, and is watching excessive gold glittery videos of these music artists on TV, not people playing golf or doing their banking ! It’s the music she chose to watch. She didn’t discriminate on the music she watched by the colour of the person who sang it. She just watched the video and sang about what she saw. Whoever said that that was racist, is a sad case of ” I am so jealous of this person, that I will have to do something to tear them down!” . They need to acknowledge that they should not judge others by their own dark hearts.

  5. Basically it is just the Americans being culturally imperialist about us not knowing 100% of their culture. That lady is all like, “naughty Lorde it is racist not to know everything about America”. Sure there is a problem in the US with African Americans being criticised for conspicuous consumption but how is Lorde supposed to know that, and also Lorde seems to be talking about non-African Americans as well in that song. If Verónica Bayetti Flores knew anything at all about our culture she would know that most of our music videos come from her country not our country and that Lorde is talking about heaps of stuff.

    I get tired of Americans wanting us to all be super-sensitive about their problems when they don’t know *anything* about our problems, issues or culture, they think Maori live separately as warriors in little villages and that there are lots of ex-slaves with African ancestry here or something.

    1. This is not about Americans being culturally imperialist. The article is written by one person. I don’t remember getting a phone call asking me about my opinion of this song, it’s a very popular song in the US.

      1. I didn’t say all Americans were being imperialist, I said her attitude “at worst” could be called that. I live in America, I love America. My response was only to VBF’s attitude, but it is one I have encountered many times and in other people.

        (edit: only just saw you said this in response to another comment as I originally wrote this from the back end of the site, so didn’t see the context. That being said, my point stands for myself. I’ll leave OP commenter to respond if he/she wants to).

  6. This article is a bad version of my thesis. While one can attribute a type of mimesis to artifacts of popular culture and larger societal issues of cross-cultural relationships, it is all too tempting to dismiss one reading in favour of another. Both of these readings miss the point that, while the song is not explicitly racist, it is extremely rudimentary in its views of consumerism and musicians. That being said, rudimentary views that are equally simplistic in their composition make their way into the song regarding rappers, just for example. It is as if the lyrics were lifted from MTV as a synechdoche for America. Ultimately, then, the song as a whole ends up being an equally bad version of what American popular culture looks like as written through the experiences of a child turned pop-star. Attempting to legitimize the racism presented in the song or legitimize its absence end up producing two simplistic readings of the song and the larger societal, cultural, and economic forces that surround the debate. The author of this article simply repeats what she sees as a mistake in the article she critiques in order to “lift lyrics” to make her own points as it were–and this is the nature of how we write argumentatively. The smarter reading of this song and this debate is that the items of popular culture are themselves necessarily simplistic versions of the larger cultural phenomenon they attempt to reflect. Readings of these, in turn, attempt to make sense of them through debates regarding what was left in and what was left out and what both end up suggesting about the larger phenomenon. The racist accusations noted in the article this article critiques are actually expressing a frustration with the simplistic readings of African American culture in its popularized celebrity forms–in this case rap–that are disseminated globally and consumed as a larger truth rather than a distorted fragment of a whole. But what the author really takes issue with are the critiques of wealth accumulation directed at rappers because of larger, ultimately, economic disparities that often accompany being black in America. That is to say, the perception in the critiqued article is that it is easy to critique wealth accumulation from a position of white privilege. And, truthfully, it is easy to critique wealth accumulation when you are sixteen (a point both articles seem to miss). What this article fundamentally fails to address or recognize is the first article’s step in the wrong direction diagnosing a child’s failures to recognize the larger societal issues at play in another country as racist when the more meaningful and honest conversation would ask how did this reading arise and how do we begin the conversation about the inadequacies of popular culture to produce intelligent and well-researched debates, within all age groups and across cultures, rather than debates mired in a simulacrum of the same inadequacies they purport to escape. That is to say, both articles fail within the same simplified and misplaced categorizations of racism and post-racial imaginings that the lyrics of the song itself do. If the article critiqued is looking through an American lens in an ignorant or imperial fashion at best and worst respectively, this article misses the point of the first article at best and contributes to a further perpetuation of intellectual illiteracy pertaining to how we read and understand popular culture at worst.

    1. you look like you’ve got the passion for academia, but wow do you have a lot to learn. it’s plain to see that your contention is actually: “i’m smarter than lorde and the authors of the two articles”. if you’re in cultural studies, go learn about critical discourse analysis or something, instead of writing this sanctimonious garbage. you’re a part of the reason people hate the ivory tower: you learn big words for the sole purpose of telling people you’re better than them. you write all this stuff, and then in the last line say that its effect is perpetuating intellectual “illiteracy”. first, that’s not a thing. second, you’re seriously trying to charge the author of an article with possibly contributing to “our” collective continued misunderstang of pop culture? seriously dude, get a life. if i were grading this you’d probably get a B-, because any lower and you’d lodge a complaint.

      again: please for the love of god stop doing this. it’s the most arrogant thing i’ve seen in weeks.

  7. Did you get your degree from the internet? You used enough jargon to power a small speedboat yet managed to say absolutely nothing at all.

    1. Are you talking to commenter Aaron or me? Because I’m just saying, anyone who uses the word “synechdoche” in a comment on the internet is maybe in for some mockery.

      1. And yet I see no more mockery. If ever a comment was due it’s pound of mockery (is mockery measured in pounds?) this is it.

        The point that Aaron seems to miss is that to get a point across, you don’t attempt to alienate your audience (he’s written it here thus we’re his audience). And you do your very level best not to be a condescending douche bag.

        You’ve got to ask yourself: Do you want to come across as a condescending douche bag, or are you actually trying to convey a message? If the message gets lost in you being a douche bag, is being a douche bag really worth it? Given that you appear to have gone through great lengths to use great lengths, it would appear you want to come across as intelligent. It hasn’t worked. You’re more likely to be judged on your content rather than your ability to alienate and insult your audience.

        I’d accuse you, Aaron, of exhibiting a 16 year old’s attitude in that you haven’t taken into account your audience and your experience would seemingly be based upon the idea that the longer the word the smarter you come across. Shed yourself of that erroneous assumption and join the real world. The world that rolls their eyes at condescending douche bags and knows better than to believe that inaccessible language somehow makes you smarter.

  8. This is well-written, I enjoyed it ^_^ and I hope to write like you someday. To me even if it was racists, I don’t think it will change my thoughts on black people.. it’s just a catchy music…I’m pretty sure it was unintentional for Lorde to write songs like that.

  9. To me, the point that Feministing misses completely is that ART is, rather historically, NOT politically correct, and Lorde has absolutely no obligation to “consider how her work will be received.” An artists job is to comment on the world they see, to open our eyes to a different POV, to change us. Honestly? I think Flores is a blogger seeking attention. Because all her arguments are empty balloons. Here’s a quote from Seth Godin: “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.” ― Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

    I was looking for a totally different quote. If I find it, I’ll come back : )

  10. You have to have lived in NZ to understand how her song is racist bullshit. In NZ they fetishize and kitchify Black Americans. There is hipster racsim everywhere. The young people only listen to hard core gangster rap. If they are working a shift in a store their playlist is violent, misogynistic racist rap. They wear blackface at parties. They wear gold chains and sagging pants they immitate the 90s including Black hip hop. It is outdated and stupid. The ‘n’word is everywhere among the hipster set. They have tshirts of Black rappers, Black rapper cartoons, ads that have Black men and gorrillas on the same footing. You have to be Black AMERICAN and in NZ to even have a valid opinion on this. I am. Most Blacks from around the world do not have the insight and boldness that we do they take what is given to them without thinking. Then they meet a Black American and their mind is blown. We set the standard for a lot of people. Then this song comes out. It perfectly describes the culture of White people listening to rap ironically in NZ. I hope it is a critique of her NZ and the youth that struggle with being cool without being assholes. I hope it is not a bashing of the America that has made her millions. White people chose to appropriate dirty rap. Now they are stuck under it and can’t get out.

    1. “Most Blacks from around the world do not have the insight and boldness that we do they take what is given to them without thinking”

      Okay, it’s a good point about white appropriation of hip-hop culture, but this part of your comment tells me that US-centric arrogance and imperialism is not only from white Americans. No, you do NOT get to speak for all Black people in the world. Your experiences and your culture do NOT represent ours. We are not one single group, we are MANY CULTURES AND EXPERIENCES and we do NOT ALL CARE about AMERICANS CULTURE.

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