If you’ve checked the Billboard Hot 100 in the last month and a half, then you’ve found three A+ pop songs at the top of it, jockeying in and out of the No. 1 position like a pack of fabulous racehorses. Teenage New Zealander Lorde rode “Royals” on the least likely path to the top and for the longest time so far, at three weeks. The top of the charts usually isn’t where you’ll find “Royals”’ sparse, breathy arrangement, or songwriters previously unknown to the American public (30-year-old New Zealand producer Joel Little is co-credited).
In that sense, Lorde is sorta this year’s Gotye but better, as it’s doubtful that “Royals”’ll benefit from hundreds of millions of views on an arresting YouTube video. (Recall that Billboard recently re-factored its formula to incorporate online streams and music video plays, which explains how “Harlem Shake” and “Thrift Shop,” with their thousands of spin-offs and parody videos, each spent a month at the top of the Hot 100 earlier this year.)
For how ostensibly arty it is, there’s a strong populist appeal to “Royals” in how it addresses the wealth gap between pop stars and their young audience: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, drippin’ in the bathroom.” (Katy B did a similar sort of thing in 2011 with an album full of dance songs about clubs but with actually relatable, twenty-something dramas instead of, say, Drake’s VIPs-only privileged narratives.) Some have actually gone so far as to criticize Lorde as racist for going after rappers instead of, y’know, just being a 16-year-old songwriter from a different country and therefore maybe a little awkward-sounding for domestic critics. But however you read the song, it’s impossible to deny Lorde’s enormous, precocious talent — she swings from a smoky, broad contralto to spitting nimble, polysyllabic teenage pop as quickly as anyone.
Amid all the think-pieces, nude music video swinging, the click bait, the Terry Richardson photos and Robin Thicke-twerking, we seem to have forgotten that “Wrecking Ball,” taken on its own, is a gut-wrenching, note-perfect power ballad. And for all its disparate genre meddling, it shouldn’t really exist — at least not in the smooth, cohesive form it does. You’ve got a monster Carrie Underwood/Nashville chorus, an Adele breakdown made all the more sorrowful by those winsome violins and synths that Mike Will could’ve made. Like Haim's debut record, it’s a ripping success for the monoculture.
Would “Wrecking Ball” have reached the top of the chart if Miley hadn’t stripped down for the video? My heart says yes but my brain says no. It’s close to 240 million YouTube views now, about six times what the less-titillating fare on the “Royals”’ clip produced. I still think its wider cross-genre borrowing and sturdy vocal performance make it the best individual song of the trio, but I also worry that Miss Cyrus’s shenanigans are distracting her audience from fully appreciating the breadth of her vocal talents.
Moving along, is it weird to think of Katy Perry as a veteran now? She’s three records in (four if you count her teenage debut as a Christian rock star) but each boasts at least one massive hit single. “Roar” is the latest and it’s an empowerment anthem utterly lacking in any socio-gender-political under-or-overtones, making it ideal radio and sporting crowd fodder. The stretched-out “oh-oh-ho-oh-oh-oh-oh” hook is textbook Max Martin (who’s credited as a co-writer and -producer and pulled the same trick on Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together” last year) but the power of “Roar” really comes from its arena-rock guitar tone, which sounds like Bryan May walked right off a stage sometime in 1978 and straight into Martin and Dr. Luke’s studio.
The single’s only crime is its “perfectly fine-ness”: “Roar” checks all the boxes of a No. 1 hit without transcending or challenging the formula. “Wrecking Ball” mixes new factors together into that same equation, but “Royals” has proven itself as the year’s most welcome dark horse: something singular and unexpected. Considering that the men who’ve climbed to the top of the chart this year did so by aping classics, riding viral buzz or pretending to be Sting, this last month and a half of hits from women has been a welcome change.
Matt Carney is the night editor of NewsOK.com and writes the bi-weekly pop music column for LOOKatOKC.