I don’t listen to music much, but I’ve been interested in a debate I’m seeing around the Internet concerning New Zealand musician Lorde’s song “Royals”. Here are the lyrics for “Royals”. I started reading about this through Liz’s post at No Award, Good Lorde! Liz writes that Lorde is ‘a New Zealander, singing in her own accent about the experience of being on the receiving end of the USA’s cultural imperialism,’ which resonated with me in the song, too. Liz and I are both Australians, and Australia and New Zealand, to the best of my knowledge, have a similar kind of relationship with US popular culture: we’re saturated with it, because it’s cheaper to, for instance, put US shows on TV and republish US books than it is to produce local stuff (although, of course, New Zealand also gets saturated with Australian material, which is another ballgame). It leaves us with odd kinds of frustration: we’re knee deep in US cultural products, which gives the semblance of knowledge about US culture, but likely misses a lot of the important context. And how are we meant to relate? And why can’t we have more of our own stuff?
Liz continues that ‘Some Americans find that uncomfortable. Consider this post and follow-up, which essentially boil down to “please perceive American culture from an American perspective, not your own.”’ I think that’s a part of it, but it’s not the whole story, because we do need to talk about race here, as the linked Feministing posts suggest. It’s true that it’s a little odd from an antipodean perspective to see a focus on the hip hop and rap references in the song rather than also the rock ones and the general US (music industry) wealth ones, and to see all that antipodean alienation elided in favour of a US-based analysis – but then it’s odd to be talking about alienation from US music cultures in ways that don’t acknowledge the alienation within that set of cultures, and how racially coded genre is there.
I think it’s important to talk about how differently that song plays when you are listening to it in terms of a broader conversation on white artists ‘using the wealth signifiers of rap music to gesture at their self-important “anti-consumerism,”‘ in ways that denigrate black people in particular, as Ayesha A. Siddiqi puts it at Vice in discussing British artist Lily Allen. That’s a really important context, and something that, as Feministing writer Verónica Bayetti Flores does end with acknowledging, the US record executives and such should have been working with, because the heavier focus on those wealth signifiers and the lighter stress placed on (white coded, unfortunately) pop and rock signifiers does end up being part of a trend of white artists manipulating black people and cultures for their own success and critique of success. And it ends up ignoring how a focus on wealth in US rap and hip hop is borne of, well, imperialism: it’s a response to a white-centric society that has used black people to gain wealth, a response that says that riches and success aren’t just for white people anymore.
So can we talk about that, and can we talk about Lorde’s context? Because she brushes over the ways in which the wealth discourse she’s seeing is racialised, but that doesn’t mean we can brush over how she’s seeing a great big ball of culture coming at her country without real (racialised, cultural) context or connection. Can we talk about how New Zealand and US musical cultures are interconnected even as it’s hard to engage with difference (not that it seems like there’s any real effort to examine the New Zealand context in the US)? Can we talk about how, say, New Zealand hip hop and rap artists fit in here, and how keenly political and multiracial and racialised these genres are there, and how that dynamic in this part of the globe is borne of political and cultural influences and collaboration with, you guessed it, the United States?
If you read the royals as ruling the international stage, the song’s about a disconnect with US cultures. If you centre the US in your perspective, the song’s more geared towards shaming black people for a class and wealth dynamic ultimately borne of white supremacy. I wonder what would happen if the debate wasn’t so focussed on assigning a singular meaning or context to the song. Perhaps we could talk about interconnected global denigration and oppression of black people, or about how US culture plays out globally, or about how we connect and don’t connect with a range of cultures. Because “US-centricity is annoying” can’t be the end of the conversation when the US itself has a strict system of centricities and inequality. And “you can’t talk about our cultures like that” can’t be the end of the conversation when it’s hard, globally speaking, to centre non-US popular culture products and producers.