It’s so beautifully ironic that a singer whose pseudonym was inspired by 18th-century French aristocracy would make her name with a song about being broke. Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s (AKA Lorde) stage name was inspired by her love of figures such as Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI of France, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. After signing to a record label at the age of 13, Lorde’s immensely successful song ‘Royals’ was released when she was just 16-years-old. Its lyrics contain all the frustration and aspiration of a person without a penny to their name. Whether she knew it at the time or not, she managed to write a pop hit that was, at once, accessible and actually critical of class divisions.
‘Royals’ followed a period in which Yelich-O’Connor’s songwriting collaborations were failing left, right and centre. Despite her management’s attempts to pair her with talented local songwriters, these partnerships rarely resulted in anything the singer was proud of. That is until she met Joel Little of the punk group Goodnight Nurse. The teenage Yelich-O’Connor would later describe how, unlike her other collaborators, who rarely took her seriously because of her age, Little allowed her to have as much a stake in the writing process as he did. “He doesn’t want to put his huge big signature on the music,” she told a local newspaper. The pair went on to write the underdog hit ‘Royals’ when Yelich-O’Connor was on her school holidays.
At that time, the songstress was listening to two albums religiously: Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, as well as Lana Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die. She was struck by both album’s exaggerated declarations of wealth. Of Born To Die, Lorde said: “What really got me,” she began, “Is this ridiculous, unrelatable, unattainable opulence that runs throughout. Lana Del Rey is always singing about being in the Hamptons or driving her Bugatti Veyron or whatever, and at the time, me and my friends were at some house party worrying how to get home because we couldn’t afford a cab. This is our reality,” she said, amid spits of laughter. “If I write songs about anything else then I’m not writing anything that’s real.”
Lorde wrote the lyrics to ‘Royals’ in response to Del Ray’s celebration of extreme wealth, taking a swipe at the luxurious yet hollow lifestyle she and many rappers celebrate in their music. As she explained: “When I wrote Royals, I was listening to a lot of rap, but also a lot of Lana Del Rey, because she’s obviously really hip-hop influenced, but all those references to expensive alcohol, beautiful clothes and beautiful cars – I was thinking, ‘This is so opulent, but it’s also bullshit.'”
In another dose of irony, Lorde’s takedown of wealth and excess won her the very riches she had been criticising. Lorde addressed the bizzare paradox in an interview held just after the release of ‘Royals’. She said: “I get the irony of ‘Royals’ and royalties. But I can’t pull any money out of my bank account unless my dad okays it, so I think I’ll be all right.” So many years later, and with the recent release of her new album Solar Power, it would be interesting to hear if Lorde is as unimpressed by wealth as she was when she wrote ‘Royals.’