In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
HIT #1: October 12, 2013
STAYED AT #1: 9 weeks
In the fall of 2013, Lady Gaga released her album Artpop, an album that Gaga herself referred to as a “reverse of Warhol”, to put art culture into pop music. If anyone was going to blend high art and pop music during the early ‘10s, it might as well have been Lady Gaga who up to this point had been known for treating music as an artsy spectacle. She arguably had already been succeeding at her “reverse of Warhol” method but with Artpop she made a huge push to get its message across. She got artist Jeff Koons to design the album cover with bits of images of the famous artworks like the Birth of Venus and Apollo and Daphne. Her team created an Artpop app. Just before the album’s release, Gaga hosted and performed at a two-day elaborate event known as ArtRave. Gaga performed the album and announced the creation of the world’s first flying dress. Gaga and her team went into overdrive in promoting Artpop.
When Artpop was put out in November 2013, it debuted at #1 with 258,000 copies sold. For just about anyone in the modern era, that’s normally a pretty good-to-decent debut. But for Lady Gaga, it was arguably a failure after her last studio album, 2011’s Born This Way, opened at the top with over a million copies sold, an increasingly rare number in the 21st Century. And unlike her previous albums, there weren’t many hits. The lead single “Applause” was the biggest hit from the album and it stalled at #4. (It’s a 6.) From what I’ve heard, Artpop is actually a pretty good album all things considered but the hype and promotion were enough for people to be disappointed or just not care after a few years of Lady Gaga dominance. Gaga’s imperial period would’ve probably ended by this point with or without Artpop but it no doubt furthered it leading her to move away from public spectacle toward more middlebrow fare like collaborating with Tony Bennett and making down the middle roots driven music. (Lady Gaga has appeared in this column once and will eventually appear in it again.)
It just so happened that the same week that Artpop was released, the song dominating the Hot 100 went against all of the loudness and spectacle that Lady Gaga represented. It was a minimal and downbeat song sung by a New Zealand teenager with no prior notoriety about how phony the lifestyles presented in pop music are and how we can create our own kind of rich fantasy. The artist behind it, Lorde, hasn’t had a hit as big as this since but she has held a huge shadow over popular music in the eight years since her unassuming, out of nowhere hit. “Royals” is one of those #1 hits that acts as an inflection point in pop music history, a great indication of where it would be going. While Lady Gaga had intended for Artpop to be the future of music, it’s safe to say that at that moment it was Lorde who as David Bowie himself perfectly put it represented “the future of music.”
Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor turned 17 during “Royals’” run at #1 and is the first Gen Z person to hit #1. (On the day that Lorde was born, the #1 song in America was Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”) Her stage name came from adding an e to Lord which grew from her interest in “royals and aristocracy.” Growing up outside Auckland, Lorde began performing by the age of 13 with a school friend playing on local radio and their school’s talent show which led to a development deal with Universal Music Group after her friend’s father sent their performances to an A&R exec. As she continued to perform in various school bands, Lorde began writing her own songs and when paired with producer Joel Little, a former pop-punk bandleader who’d have a hand in future big hits began working on music together.
Within a few weeks, Lorde and Little had recorded a five-song EP called The Love Club EP which was released for free on Soundcloud in November 2012. The EP quickly garnered lots of attention online to the point where UMG released the EP commercially in March 2013 where it went to #2 in both New Zealand and Australia. Much of that success was thanks to a song whose title was inspired by a picture of American baseball. Lorde said she wrote “Royals” in a half-hour one day before going to the studio and immediately recorded it. She also stated that she was inspired to name the song “Royals” because of a National Geographic picture of Kansas City Royals player George Brett signing baseballs which as she explained, “He was a baseball player and his shirt said ‘Royals.’ And I was like ‘I really love that word,’ because I’m a big word fetishist, I’ll pick a word and I’ll pin an idea to that. It was just that word and I was like “This is really cool.” (Had it gone another way we could have had “Mets” as the song title and I would love it much more for that.)
In the lyrics, “Royals” touches on a feeling many teenagers can relate to in being disillusioned with pop culture feeling they aren’t reflecting their own lives calling out their bullshit. Despite singing about living in a torn-up town and not being proud of her address, Lorde did grow up in a well-off suburb from what I could tell but not well off enough to afford lavish homes or jewelry. And Lorde does not hold back in her distaste for the lifestyles while making it clear that she and her friends want no part of this and is fine with not being the royals depicted in the media wanting their own kind of luxury and plan to be her own ruler, a queen bee. This all comes across in Lorde’s delivery: a smoky quality feeling both fed up with what she sees while also assured with herself. “Royals” wasn’t the only hit song of 2013 to rail against pop music’s flagrant materialism with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis having the biggest song of the year with “Thrift Shop.” But where “Thrift Shop” was all goofy “Royals” was dead serious.
Listening to “Royals” today, it’s easy to hear why it took many listeners and critics aback. Up until this point in the ‘10s, pop music had largely been loud, fast, and heavily club-centric save for the occasional hit like Gotye and Kimbra’s quiet sounding 2012 indie smash “Somebody That I Used To Know.” “Royals” wasn’t pop, rock, or hip-hop yet it also was at the same time. It’s a song that internalizes various influences and becomes its own thing that you can’t place it in any one genre which is evident as Lorde said she was inspired by artists from Lana Del Rey to Jay-Z and Kanye West on their 2011 collaboration album Watch the Throne.
While the song garnered instant acclaim, some felt it ignorantly dismissed what are often celebratory symbols in music with one writer going as far as to call it racist for going after items that have been largely celebrated by Black artists. Personally, as someone who’s been in almost the same type of living situation as Lorde, I’ve never minded these glamorous pop culture depictions. Lots of times they’re a fun fantasy but it’s easy to see how others would have gotten annoyed at it with it being so prominent. With its anti-establishment theme, it wasn’t long before politicians began co-opting the song most notably with Bill de Blasio, a candidate who ran to fight income inequality, playing the song at his victory party when elected New York City mayor while “Royals” was #1.
Getting away from its context, I think “Royals” is just a great piece of pop music. Even if it’s bagging on the opulence and materialism of pop music in the early ‘10s, “Royals” creates its own kind of opulence with the sparse snaps and synths sounding to me like champagne. As this great YouTube video explains, its use of the Mixolydian scale, a middle ground type of scale, helps give the song the feeling that Lorde expresses of both frustration and triumph. And for a song that’s been viewed as anti-pop, it has a lot of pop-level catchiness to not sound totally out of place on 2013 radio. It follows a traditional pop structure and all the little elements like the choir of backing vocals repeating Lorde on the chorus to the multi-tracked vocals of the pre-chorus help make a song that already stood out stand out even more refusing to leave your head when you hear it.
The music video for “Royals” was directed by some guy named Joel Kefali, a director that doesn’t have a Wikipedia page but his website tells me he’s done other videos including Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do” and Billie Eilish’s James Bond theme “No Time To Die.” Lorde said she wanted the video to be a straightforward depiction of the suburban life she grew up in. We certainly get that but narrative-wise there’s not much to it. The video largely centers on Lorde blankly singing to the camera while it shows two teenage boys doing various activities together like shaving their heads, boxing, and swimming with random shots of the neighborhood without a story to go along with it. Even if there isn’t much to the “Royals” video it does fit with the low-key vibe of the song. The video wound up winning for Best Rock Video at the 2014 Video Music Awards making Lorde the first female winner of the award over more traditional rock acts which inevitably led to controversy.
Due to it not fitting into any one genre, “Royals” had a ridiculous amount of crossover appeal. It was #1 on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, #2 on Adult Contemporary, and #3 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay even though the song sounds not much like any of those formats. (The Adult Contemporary success is particularly funny considering Lorde was not an adult yet.) It even made the Top 20 on Dance Club Songs and for some reason Latin Pop Airplay. “Royals” got its biggest sign of mainstream acceptance when it won Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammys where she also performed the song.
The massive success of “Royals” helped her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine go triple platinum and while it didn’t get higher than #3 on the album charts, it was big enough to be listed at #8 on Nielsen Soundscan’s list of the best-selling albums of 2014. As far as the pop charts are concerned, Lorde hasn’t had much presence getting into the Top 10 only one other time since with the Pure Heroine single “Team,” another downbeat alternative pop jam about Lorde’s friends and hometown and how she’s fed up with being told to put her hands in the air. “Team” wound up peaking at #6. (It’s an 8.)
You’d normally expect an artist that broke through as big as Lorde to immediately follow this up. Nope. She’d take four years to release another album though in between she curated the soundtrack to 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1, the kind of thing that was too obvious not to happen. Lorde soon disappeared from the public coming back in 2017 with the absolute pop masterpiece Melodrama which garnered lots of critical acclaim and debuted at #1 but lead single “Green Light” only got as high as #19. Just recently, she announced her newest album Solar Power and released its title single. It’s pretty good! I also saw her in concert in 2018 and she’s good on stage as well. With concerts starting back up again, we should all try to see Lorde when her next tour comes around.
Even though Lorde has outgrown the pop charts, we are still feeling her impact on pop music. Lorde won’t appear in this column again but her many artistic descendants will.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bruce Springsteen covering “Royals” during a 2014 New Zealand concert:
(Bruce Springsteen’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s video for his 2014 “Royals” parody “Foil” which guest stars Patton Oswald:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Lorde and Taylor Swift performing “Royals” at Swift’s 2015 Washington D.C. concert:
(Taylor Swift has already appeared in this column once and will be in it many more times.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2017 Saturday Night Live sketch where Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney sing “Royals” with Lorde, the musical guest that night, making an appearance at the end:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Royals” soundtracking the downfall scene in the 2019 movie Hustlers: