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.