The Zeitgeist of Counterculture | Pure Heroine Turns 6

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.

According to Wikipedia, Royals by Lorde is “an anthem for millenials”. In celebration of the 6th Anniversary since Pure Heroine was released, I thought I’d look at how Royals perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the 2010s.
Lorde’s Pure Heroine was one of the best selling albums of 2014, and in my opinion enabled later artists like Billie Eilish to capitalize on a growing counterculture in the West.

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):

  1. Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (129 bpm)
  2. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (120 bpm)
  3. We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (92 bpm)
  4. Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (110 bpm)
  5. Lights – Ellie Goulding (120 bpm)
  6. Glad You Came – The Wanted (127 bpm)
  7. Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (116 bpm)
  8. We Found Love – Rihanna (128 bpm)
  9. Starships – Nicki Minaj (125 bpm)
  10. 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:

  1. Somebody that I Used to Know – Gotye (break ups)
  2. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (crushing on someone)
  3. We Are Young – F.U.N ft. Janelle Monae (an ode to wild partying)
  4. Payphone – Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa (break ups)
  5. Lights – Ellie Goulding (not being able to sleep in the dark)
  6. Glad You Came – The Wanted (crushing on someone)
  7. Stronger – Kelly Clarkson (break ups)
  8. We Found Love – Rihanna (love even during low-points)
  9. Starships – Nicki Minaj (it’s really just for dancing)
  10. 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
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

– Lorde, Royals

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.

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