In recent months, pop songs criticizing the material wealth of the “1 percent” have taken off in pop culture and in the ears of millions of listeners. However, the same songs that criticize the material wealth of platinum artists tend to make them millions of dollars.
In this day and age, can a pop artist critique materialism and participate in it by making millions?
Let’s take the most salient critic of this materialism: Lorde.
Her real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a 16-year-old New Zealand artist who made “the Nielsen BDS-based Alternative chart’s first No. 1 from a female solo artist since Tracy Bonham’s ‘Mother Mother’ reached the summit in June 1996.”
Her most famous song from “Love Club,” “Royals,” has lines like “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh” and “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.”
These lines make sense for a normal 16-year-old to be writing. She goes on to criticize those in power, singing: “We don’t care; we aren’t caught up in your love affair” and “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.”
Again, Lorde can criticize the music world because prior to this time, she was just a girl like any other. We all look up to those in high culture, with money to throw around.Lorde goes beyond this by asserting that she does not need those material trappings because of the simple fact that “we’ll never be royals.”
This is an ironic line Lorde crosses because the commercialization of music demands that even material criticism will “sell,” intrinsically against the idea of material criticism in the first place.
Because Lorde participates in the culture that it is supposed to be subverting, she is trapped in hypocrisy. Pitchfork, the music review site, seems to agree: “Thanks to (the album’s) constant use of the royal ‘we’ — she’s usually implicating herself in the very contradictions she’s exposing.”
It makes sense to the listener but makes no sense for the artist to be trash-talking the wealth that they take part in by making millions of dollars.
Perhaps, however, this was Lorde’s idea all along. A subversive song cloaked in a subversive hypocrisy means that she can have her cake and eat it, too.
By extension, we can apply the cultural materialist lens to this debate, adding yet another layer to the analysis.
Cultural materialists argue, “Literature cannot escape its material trappings.”
This final layer, then, could say Lorde’s attempt to include hypocrisy in her commentary would then be limited by the material that she was criticizing in the first place.
Without any larger context than the material goods that Lorde hates, she cannot escape the lowly materialism that she tries to criticize.
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