my friends and I have cracked the code

My friends and I have cracked the code
We count our dollars on the train
To the party

Probably the most chilling lines in Lorde’s monster single “Royals.” It’s a repudiation of a version of herself that she sees being sold to her. Cataloged in the chorus, a weaponized hook you’ll have lodged in your cranium after one listen:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

But despite the startling ease with which she reels off these totems of hiphop excess, it’s this moment of realization, stated declaratively as a mere fact of the nature of her engagement with the world, that changes everything from now on. We will celebrate who we are, not who you tell us to be. Our few dollars, our train, our party: not yours. Echoes of Johnny Rotten, asking his last audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Yes, the song says – but we’re not mad about it anymore. Living well is the best revenge.

This weekend my sons scooped me (and The New Yorker, by a day) with this tune. I heard it once through the earbuds – after-market ones with better bass response, thankfully, a key to appreciation of this joint – and was swept back to first hearing Adele’s big record under similar circumstances a few years back, and before that Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Veruca Salt, Sleater-Kinney, even Patti Smith. All the foregoers who temper my ears for a big female voice, a rumbly velvet one that winds around your legs like a cat.

What did Lorde listen to before laying this down? What are her – ahem – “influences”? A crazy question for a sixteen year-old maybe, but also not: our youth are more “influenced” than any generation before, the world in their pocket to peruse, reject, Like. Apparently, she’ll have none of that. She likes spare electronic beats, and the sonic cathedrals on “Royals” give her more space to wind around the pillars than anything since, I don’t know, Miles Davis’ “Tutu.” With it’s pared-down aesthetic and multi-tracked self-harmonies, it’s a Garageband song, maybe this generation’s answer to Springsteen in his own bedroom laying down the harrowing tracks only accessible from that apercu of remove. It’s a solo act, despite the solemn sidemen that apparently accompany her live.

I can’t stop thinking about the song, asking others to think about it with me. Trying to understand the power of the sweeping rejection of what an industry has given a young woman to love and respect and buy: the star maker machinery of the popular song, the rhetoric of the videos, the insistence that she (we) attend to the doings of the beautiful and rich, wait for their singles, follow their trysts and feuds. “We don’t care” – it’s repeated, in a falling figure into the fourth that gospel and blues reserves for the heightening of lyric tension: the place where things change, before redemption in the fifth. That comes, I think, with “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” not an aspirational statement so much as an insistence that their “Cadillacs” are bigger than an Escalade, perhaps because they are smaller.

Is anything so sweeping, so maddening, so terrifying as the dismissal of a teenager? “We don’t care,” insouciant and complete. “What are you rebelling against?” comes the question: “What have you got?” responds the new generation, impossibly far away already, perhaps irretrievable, or just gone to better shores. (And don’t start with calling this statement “inauthentic” because it had to partake in that same machinery to be released and promoted on this platform: it’s a bogus argument, especially as it’s leveled disproportionally against female artists, brilliantly stated here.)

She’s not the first to goof on the excesses of pop, hiphop especially. The Lonely Island said a lot here, to the young adults I work with, as did some of the more self-aware practitioners of the art since back in the day: Flava Flav, Tribe, Outkast, Salt’n’Pepa, a few clown princes and princesses here and there who get the power of the grotesque and comic as part of delivering the message (Forevah EVAH evah?). Gangsta brought the sternness, the seriousness, collapsed the gap between Signifyng and signifier (or, perhaps, changed the register to one a lot less forgiving of breaking character). That was the forebear of the present expectations of “gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom:” bleak, monolithic, one-note of so much of what comes over MTV and the radio. Repetitive compulsion that finally deadens the palate. Who can taste it when it’s so much of what we’re fed?

Not sure yet what to do with the growing cry against the song that it’s racist at core, dismissing an expressive language that’s impossible to unwind from the poverty and prejudice that informed the first hiphop assertions of wealth, power, money. Mainstream press is swarming the story – who doesn’t love a good race war – predictably giving more heat than light. Though I’ll agree with MSNBC that hiphop has jumped to mainstream culture too completely to continue to file it simply and neatly under “black.” I am not really persuaded there, seeing the original hiphop aesthetic of stealing the symbols of unattainable luxury to subvert them (literally breaking hood ornaments off Benzos) as more punk than appropriation. From Lorde’s remove – New Zealand (!?) – the white agony at regarding a black man in power that Coates explores so powerfully is perhaps tempered. And Jay-Z is not the President, though maybe the same anxieties about access to power – the same anger that underpins my white students when they try to understand affirmative action from the perspective of not getting the financial aid they need either – do obtain. Money is the new power.

Race doesn’t play the same way in the generation behind us. Of course the kids see race – I strive in my class every day to help future teachers understand and work against the treacherous reproduction of status quo that comes from affirming otherwise – but in some real way, their battles aren’t ours. SES plays so much harder as a personal entryway into understanding privilege with my overwhelmingly white students than race. And not because of whatever the rest of the world makes up about going to school in western North Carolina, being Southern, whatever story you might be making up about who “my students” are.*  It’s that their world is so much browner, so differently expressed, than ours was at the same age (check out the National Geographic’s awesome “Changing Face of America” photo essay on this.)

I do not think Lorde is talking back to hiphop’s performance of privilege as raced. To my ears, half a planet away, it’s just too remote from her world. She gets the marketing of it, the come-on of what she is supposed to care about, and says no. In this she’s twinning with my other darlings, Arctic Monkeys, whose fully-realized milieu gives a lot more to work with than Lorde’s stark sketches. But both dismiss inauthenticity as the most cardinal of sins. “Get off the bandwagon, put down the handbook,” the AMs say – “we don’t care,” tosses off Lorde, and if a teenager with a microphone doesn’t care, nothing – nothing – can save you from the dustbin.

This could probably all be said better (hoped to work in some of John Taylor Gatto’s critique of compulsory schooling as designed from the ground up to create a new consumer class), but there’s no time, and I need to get something off about it now before the moment passes. What do you think about the song, about the issues it raises? Really?

*Assumptions in turn informed by the rampant “redneckspoitation” boom on TV, Duck Dynasties and Honey Boo Boos and Handfishin’ and Turtlemen. That topic needs to wait for another day: but there’s more casual dismissal at the national level of who we are around here than Li’l Abner ever got away with, so you better recognize.

Thanks to for image. NO image of the artist because photos of Lorde are everywhere, sheesh.

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