Grammys Watch: Is ‘Royals’ By Lorde An Anti-Materialism Anthem Like ‘Gangnam Style’?


Our hyper-materialism is unsustainable. We have already overshot the Earth’s biocapacity — and the overshoot gets worse every year.

Pop culture and the media mostly ignore constraints like climate change, while the message of conspicuous consumption reigns supreme.

So it is worth noting the rare hit song that is explicitly anti-materialistic, like “Royals,” which helped the teenage sensation Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor) garner four nominations for tonight’s Grammys:

To her credit, Lorde’s song isn’t just a critique of materialism, it’s a critique of the culture of materialism in pop music:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom,
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room…

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.

And we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

She told HuffPost she wrote the song in 2012 (when she was 15!) to celebrate the “mundanity” of the lives of most young people:

I come from a pretty straightforward town, we spend most of our time riding around on bikes and taking photos — we live pretty straightforward lives. As one of the few teenage voices in music that isn’t like … Justin Bieber, I didn’t want to glorify that perspective — this is just what it is and if this is you, too, then cool … Then, we’re in it together, I guess.

Of course Bieber started off as a cute kid, too and look what happened to him. But I digress.

Now you can’t put an anti-materialistic song into a hyper-materialistic culture without it being quickly co-opted — in this case by Samsung in an ad for its $300 Galaxy Note 3 and $300 Galaxy Gear smartwatch. Samsung cluelessly believes Lorde’s song is about “overcoming her own humble beginnings.” As The Verge put it, “Whatever the hell is going on” in the Samsung ad, “it is the exact opposite of the message contained in ‘Royals’.”

Interestingly, the same thing happened on a larger scale to an even bigger hit song built around critiquing materialism, “Gangnam Style” by Psy (Park Jae-sang), which has nearly 2 billion (!) views on YouTube. As The Atlantic explained:

Gangnam is a tony Seoul neighborhood, and Park’s “Gangnam Style” video lampoons its self-importance and ostentatious wealth, with Psy playing a clownish caricature of a Gangnam man.

So on the one hand, Park is “making fun of people that are so vain and materialistic; but at the same time, he’s making a mockery of where he’s really from, that is, Gangnam,” as one U.S.-based Korean blogger put it.

But the song became so popular that Gangnam has embraced it, as the NY Times reported last year:

Mr. Park’s success has also helped feed much grander ambitions. Already famous within Korea as the opulent stamping grounds of this nation’s nouveau riche, the district now wants to seize the “Gangnam Style” craze as a chance to win the global recognition that it believes it deserves as a center of fashion, entertainment and, self-professedly, conspicuous consumption.

Seriously. Of course, in a world where the 85 richest people have the same wealth as 3.5 billion poorest, where the top 1% are worth $110 trillion (65 times the total wealth of the “bottom” 50%) you are going to see the celebration of a lot of conspicuous hyper-consumption — at least until the global Ponzi scheme collapses sometime in the next two decades.

It would be nice to think that Millennials like Lorde, who do for instance appear to be turning away from car ownership and driving, might lead the way toward sustainability, since, Lord knows, Baby Boomers keep living with the Ancien Régime‘s philosophy, “Après nous le déluge.”