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Royals Crowned #1

John Darr | Thursday, November 7, 2013

By JOHN DARR

Scene Writer

“Royals” is rolling into its sixth week as the number one song on Billboard’s Top 100. That’s a pretty remarkable feat for the young (she turns seventeen today!) songwriter from New Zealand, especially considering that Eminem and One Direction have released new singles in the past six weeks. “Royals” dethroned Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and has kept Katy Perry’s “Roar” sitting at the number three spot.

It’s not that uncommon for a song to come out of nowhere and hold Billboard’s number one spot for extended periods of time – just look at Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” or Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” Both “Somebody” and “Thrift Shop” have elements really common to pop songs – both have huge instrumental hooks, and “Somebody” is a classic boy-girl duet while “Thrift Shop” sports an armada of ridiculous, highly-memorable lyrics.

“Royals” is different. It’s a smooth, subdued R&B track, the sort of thing that a department store would play over the speakers and no one would notice. Sure, it has exquisite production and gorgeous melodies/harmonies. But it’s not a standard pop song in any way. It’s not an anthem – it’s quiet and stripped down. It’s not a ballad – it’s too fast and lacks strong emotion. It’s not a party song or a dance song or a we’re-going-on-an-adventure song. And as Lorde is a new face in the musical arena, it’s not as if her song is on the charts due to her prominence as an artist.

To put everything in context, loud, energetic dance music and dubstep have been dominating radio for quite some time now. The truth and impact of this statement are most easily seen with several huge artists changing their sound to adapt (Taylor Swift’s “Red,” Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto”). And while R&B hits have cropped up time to time in recent years, nothing has reached anywhere close to the success of “Royals.” Last year, Frank Ocean’s “Thinking Bout You” merely reached the 32nd spot at its peak, while Miguel’s “Adorn” cracked the 17th spot. By the numbers, “Royals” is a huge anomaly. Why is this particular song reigning over the Billboard 100, and what does that mean for pop music as a whole?

Almost every musical trend runs into a brick wall at some point. It’s not hard to remember the days when almost everything on the radio was rap – and yet almost everything on the radio now is dance music. Perhaps “Royals” is a sign of changing times. Chillwave and R&B has been on the rise in the indie music scene for quite a while now; The Weeknd, James Blake, the xx, and Grimes are all artists that have risen from obscurity to relative prominence within the last five years.  Often enough, trends within the underground music scene foretell those that will soon appear in the mainstream.

And then there’s Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” currently sitting at number five on the charts – another chilled out R&B song. It’s also Drake’s highest-charting song to date. Going back to the relatively-low-charting R&B megahits from last year, “Thinking Bout You” and “Adorn,” it appears as if R&B is ascending the charts slowly but surely. 

It’s also completely possible that “Royals” is a blip, a track so special and appealing that would rise to the top regardless of what was going on in music at the time. However, the magnitude of its success is reason enough to read into the situation a little further. Perhaps this seventeen-year-old songwriter really is aiming to kick dance music right off the charts – she did, after all, proclaim “**** David Guetta” with all due respect in a recent interview. She’s young enough to start the revolution from the bottom up and is gifted with the face of a mischievous and unconventionally beautiful nymph. And as most songwriters do, she’ll probably have a whole new gauntlet of catchy tricks up her sleeves on her next album.

But it’s most likely that “Royals” is simply a musical tipping point. Perhaps “Royals” is successful because it’s new and different in a music scene that’s been singing the same tune for a while now. Perhaps listeners everywhere really are craving a different kind of buzz – I know I am.

Contact John Darr at jdarr@nd.edu