This National Geographic picture of George Brett is pretty unassuming. But what if I told you it inspired the title of a song that sold 10 million units worldwide, making it one of the best selling singles ever? Take a closer look.
Counterculture is the rejection of the prevailing values and behaviors of mainstream society. If you were growing up in the 2000s, you’d probably see wealth celebrated on TV shows like MTV Cribs. But with the economic recession in 2008, wealth lost its lustre a bit. Mansions were foreclosed and luxury cars sat unsold in dealership lots.
Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” in 2012 rode this wave with humor, and Royals tailed it by being a bit more candid and contemplative.
But I could go on all day about the context Royals capitalized on. What about the song itself? Let’s look at the top 100 songs of 2012 (according to Billboard’s year-end charts) with regards to their approximate Beats Per Minute (bpm):
- Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (129 bpm)
- Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (120 bpm)
- We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (92 bpm)
- Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (110 bpm)
- Lights – Ellie Goulding (120 bpm)
- Glad You Came – The Wanted (127 bpm)
- Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (116 bpm)
- We Found Love – Rihanna (128 bpm)
- Starships – Nicki Minaj (125 bpm)
- What Makes You Beautiful – One Direction (124 bpm)
The average across these songs is 119 bpm. For reference, that’s faster than the upper range of the normal rate for your heart, which makes sense — these songs are meant to be energizing for parties, dances, and gyms.
Royals (produced by Joel Little) is written at 84 BPM. Now that’s not particularly groundbreaking in and of itself, but it does set the song apart from other songs in the pop/hip-hop genre specifically for 2012. Royals isn’t the kind of song you dance to (though I still would) — like many of Lorde’s songs off Pure Heroine, it’s meant to be listened to in a more relaxed and contemplative state.
That slow pace and Royals’ minimal instrumentals provokes you to pay attention to the lyrics. And the brilliance of Royals is in its countercultural lyrics. Let’s look at those same top hits again, but this time by subject matter:
- Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (break ups)
- Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (crushing on someone)
- We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (an ode to wild partying)
- Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (break ups)
- Lights – Ellie Goulding (not being able to sleep in the dark)
- Glad You Came – The Wanted (crushing on someone)
- Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (break ups)
- We Found Love – Rihanna (love even during low-points)
- Starships – Nicki Minaj (it’s really just for dancing)
- What Makes You Beautiful – One Direction (crushing on someone bashful)
Now many of these are great subjects to write a song about–they’re generally pretty relatable. But they’re also all covering pretty homogenous topics.
Royals discusses the disparity between what younger people increasingly saw in pop culture and their lived experience in suburbia. Its lyrics are, well…luxurious ironically. Take a look:
But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom– Lorde, Royals
Bloodstains, 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 timepiece
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair
Royals references brand after brand: Grey Goose, Cadillac, Cristal, Mayback, etc. And then it rejects them in a celebratory, prideful way. And that speaks to those who want to be content with their lives without the financial pressure of high-end luxury brands or fame.
I love Royals. I think it makes me nostalgic for 2013 when I first heard it, and it still holds up in 2019.
When I first arrived at the University of Chicago, I remember coming across Ted Gonder’s 31 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College blog post. It resonated with me so much that I printed it in its entirety and taped it to my freshman dorm room’s door.
In 3 months, I’ll be done with my time at the University of Chicago. It’s been a wild ride, and I figured it was time to make my own list. It would mean so much to me if a fellow student found this helpful—if you do, I’d love to know. Here are the twenty things I’d have told my freshman self before college.
- Our memories are biased towards experiences documented and shared. The only college nights I vividly remember are the ones I captured in pictures or shared with friends.
- Exploration alleviates imposter syndrome. If you’re going to college far from home, the more you explore your surroundings the more at home you’ll feel.
- Live on a low salary for a summer (including rent and other expenses). Living on a minimum wage or low salary will likely be somewhere between extremely uncomfortable to just barely tolerable. However once you’ve done it, you’ll be better informed on how much of a salary you can reasonably live on after college.
- Pick classes based on the professor, not the subject material. You can find interesting things to self study long after college has ended, but you mostly only have these four years to find inspiring academic mentors who will take office hours with you.
- Brand names are only as good as the people who adore them. Whether you attend an elite brand name school, or are gunning for an exclusive student club, or would like to join a household name company after college—that brand is simply a carefully curated image bolstered by those who buy into it. Optimize to work for (and with) people you admire instead of brands others admire.
- If you skip working out or sleeping to study, you’re sacrificing long-term well-being for short-term gain. This is amenable if the short-term gain does not become a long-term habit.
- Take a whole week off for Thanksgiving. Even if it’s only a four day break, find a way to make it a week. Spend that week with family. At the end of your four years, you will have missed precisely twelve days of college, and gained one month with your family.
- Being memorable only requires caring. As you progress through college, the most memorable people will be the ones who cared about your well-being for some reason. Similarly, your impact on others is mostly measured by how much you care about them.
- Read David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ until it makes sense to you.
- If you are never rejected, you’ve never really pushed the boundaries of what you can accomplish.
- All those days that came and went, little did I know they were life. If something toxic like anxiety or depression brings you down daily, you need to work to minimize its influence on your life, and there are absolutely times when you need professional help to do so. The most courageous and difficult bit is the same step: seeking help.
- Small steps forward will always beat indecisiveness with time. I think of the future like driving down a really foggy highway. The exit signs are opportunities. As long as you keep driving, even if you’re not sure what the next opportunity is, it’ll definitely come your way. But if you stop moving forward, you’ll never reach it.
- When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.
- Write essays that are powerful. Your professor has probably assigned this prompt many a time over, and year after year students use the same textual evidence to support the similar theses. Draw on your own personal experience to approach the assignment in a unique and creative way. End it with a mic drop. Make it fun. Make it humorous. Just don’t make it boring. If you get a poor grade, so be it. But never let anyone take away the fun of articulating your thoughts.
- Read fiction outside your classes. Non-fiction is like photography—it’s the art of selecting. Non-fiction authors select a biography, a research paper, an era of history, etc. Fiction is like painting—it’s the art of creating a universe from a blank canvas inspired by human truths that undergird our everyday lives. Nonfiction can endow intelligence, but fiction is unrivalled in building empathy.
- Be charismatic to a fault. One of the most inspiring people I’ve met could be described this way. Err on the side of being an open book rather than being indecipherable. Vulnerability can be endearing.
- Outbound leads tend to beat inbound leads. The opportunities that arrive on your doorstep are the ones you are well qualified for—whether you capitalize on them or not. The opportunities you have to actively seek and fight for are the ones that tend to result in the most personal growth.
- If you don’t know anyone, no one knows you. If you’re at a party and you don’t know any of the people there, the inverse also tends to be true—no one knows you. You get a completely blank slate to build a reputation, meet new people, and experience new things. Not knowing anyone at a get-together is a blessing in disguise.
- ‘Follow your passion’ is not necessarily good career advice. Read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You early on when choosing your major and intended career path.
- Live a story worth telling. At the end of your four years of college, I promise no one is going to ask you about that time you studied all night.