Bill de Blasio and the Politics of Lorde’s “Royals”

Well, Internet, we did it: New York’s next mayor is a Lorde fan. Mouths dropped open across the city last night as Bill de Blasio took the stage at the Park Slope Armory YMCA in Brooklyn to deliver his victory speech… to the unmistakable, minimalist finger-snap percussion of “Royals.” Without even thinking, I tweeted, “OK, de Blasio walks on to ‘Royals’? I mean,” as similar observations flooded my feed. “You wanted ‘La Marseillaise’?” replied Alec MacGillis of The New Republic. In fact, shared lyrical imagery of blood and tigers aside, Lorde’s song might be almost as revolutionary a choice.

“Royals” begins with the lyrics, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies / And I’m not proud of my address / In a torn-up town, no postcode envy,” and goes on to take shots at the images of wealth that turn up in “every song.” It’s an international hit single about the way pop music fills us with empty and unrealistic longings (“We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams”) — a slightly if predictably daring message for any musician trying to make a name for herself in the world she’s critiquing, not to mention an unusually sophisticated one for a singer who’s all of 16 years old.

There has, of course, already been plenty of argument over whether there’s more hidden within “Royals” than that class-based critique. At Feministing,Verónica Bayetti Flores caused a stir last month by arguing that Lorde’s mentions of gold teeth, Cristal, and Maybachs added a worrisome racist undertone to the song (although it should be mentioned that much of the song’s other imagery points to entirely different kinds of decadence, from the rock-star cliché of “trashin’ the hotel room” to the old-money invocation of ballgowns). There has also been the ambient, and well-founded, observation that “Royals” allows listeners to have their wealth porn and eat it too; Maura Johnston sums up this judgment in her Spin review of Lorde’s debut album Pure Heroine, pointing out that the single’s “sing-a-long chunkiness [is] designed so listeners can trill played-out tropes of ‘success’ (‘Jet planes / Islands / Tigers on a gold leash’) in unison with Lorde, even though the rest of the song implicitly places her — and her beloved — above trifling materialism.”

Whether New Yorkers will end up looking back on de Blasio’s use of “Royals” as unintentionally (and perhaps disappointingly) appropriate in light of the above reading remains to be seen, but the political press sure is taking its lyrics at face value, as a statement of purpose for the new mayor. The NY Post is on fire about the song’s “strong message of class consciousness that many listeners took to be a slap at the current billionaire mayor, if not all wealthy New Yorkers, upon whom de Blasio has vowed to raise taxes.” Meanwhile, the Village Voice (somewhat jokingly) points out what the “Royals” ethos has in common with the part of his victory speech in which de Blasio said, “When we call on the wealthiest among us to pay just a little more in taxes to fund universal pre-K and after-school programs, we aren’t threatening anyone’s success. We are asking those who have done very well to ensure that every child has the same opportunity to do just as well as they have… That’s how we all rise together.”

Neither this literal reading nor the subtext that de Blasio’s words might not track with his accomplishments is lost on me, but I have to admit that what I found most thrilling about hearing Lorde soundtrack his victory party was something a bit different. Although this may just be utterly ridiculous wishful thinking on my part — and maybe we’re all overthinking a choice that some have laughed off as de Blasio representing “peak Brooklyn” — I’m excited to see the next mayor of America’s biggest and most culturally aware city demonstrating some engagement with the music people his kids’ age are consuming (and creating). Clinging to the songs of your own youth, the way most baby boomer political hopefuls do, is a type of conservatism; there’s a hint of progressivism in embracing change and newness in even this seemingly minor aspect of a campaign. All judgments of the content or artistic merits of “Royals” aside, that seems like a good omen to me.