Why Lorde’s ‘Royals’ Deserves To Win The Hottest 100 Of The Decade
After being robbed of the crown in 2013, now is the time to give 'Royals' the glory it deserves.
2013 was a banner year for producing music that would change the entire industry landscape. Daft Punk made their return after eight years to give us several instant classics, Arctic Monkeys delivered an album that would see them achieve ‘biggest-band-in-the-world’ status, and Beyoncé gave us a completely new, iTunes-crashing blueprint for how albums can be released in the digital age.
Blockbuster albums by legendary artists would have completely defined 2013, if it weren’t for 16-year-old New Zealand teenager Ella Yelich-O’Connor — otherwise known as Lorde.
Her first ever single ‘Royals’, and her debut album Pure Heroine, were an effortless and rebellious resistance of maximalism in music and in celebrity, and an open-arms embrace of what it means to be a ‘regular teenager’.
Despite sounding like nothing else on the charts at the time — this was the year of ‘Blurred Lines’, ‘We Can’t Stop’ and ‘Harlem Shake’ — ‘Royals’ topped most charts around the world, and scored her two Grammy Awards for ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Best Pop Solo Performance’. She defied all odds to take her place on the alt-pop throne, and looked poised to add ‘Hottest 100 Winner’ to her already extensive list of accolades.
Of course, she didn’t win — but now, Lorde once again has a chance to take out the countdown, this time for the Hottest 100 of the Decade.
‘Royals’ V ‘Riptide’
It was 27-year-old James Keogh — aka Vance Joy — who took out the world’s largest democratic music poll, ukulele in hand, with ‘Riptide’ in 2013. It wasn’t a total surprise that he took it out — the Warmest 100 had him pegged for it – and it’s not like his win wasn’t historic in its own right. It was the first time an artist had won without an album out and the first time an artist found on triple j Unearthed won as well, opening the door for artists like Flume, Chet Faker, The Rubens and Ocean Alley to do the same in the following years.
It was a close race between ‘Riptide’ and ‘Royals’, and when the opening notes of the latter played out at #2, many eyebrows were raised across the country. How could a song that had all the makings of a winner get pipped at the post?
Lorde had a few unavoidable barriers facing her, perhaps the most obvious one being that she wasn’t Australian. Of course, she was certainly like an adopted Australian and triple j played a huge role in breaking her into international stardom. But still, she wasn’t strictly ‘ours’ — and triple j listeners have a tendency to relentlessly champion Australian artists in the countdown.
Vance Joy’s win would be the first of four consecutive Aussie wins — a record that still holds — so it seemed that Australian voters were very ready for a homegrown hero.
Secondly, Lorde suffered a classic case of Hottest 100 vote splitting: with a full album out in Pure Heroine, listeners were divided over which song to send to the top. They ended up sending quite a few to the pointy end: ‘Tennis Court’ landed at #12, and ‘Team’ landed at #15. ‘Riptide’, meanwhile, didn’t have any other competition from other Vance Joy cuts.
Thirdly, Lorde is a woman. The Hottest 100 has been notoriously unfavourable to women over the years, a representation of the deeply ingrained issues of the music industry at large. In the top 20 of the Hottest 100 2013 countdown, only five songs by exclusively female artists made the cut — three of which were by Lorde. If you extend it to allow the inclusion of The Preatures, London Grammar and Arcade Fire, that still gives you 12 songs that are entirely male dominated. In fact, it wasn’t until mere months ago that a woman — funnily enough, another teenager — would actually win the countdown.
“I just remember like this sea of people,” she told triple j in 2018. “I think it was like 5000 people and I’d never played to 5000 people before.”
While she might not be Australian, her rise to fame is inextricably tied to our music scene. While it took a little bit for ‘Royals’ to really make its impact internationally, it quickly became a triple j favourite from early 2013 onwards, despite very little promotion from her label.
She began playing small Australian club shows in May of that year, but it was her appearance at Splendour In The Grass in July that would become the stuff of legends. She received a call on the Friday night at a party, after headliner Frank Ocean had pulled out. Splendour asked her to play on the Sunday, and it would be her biggest gig to date. “I just remember like this sea of people,” she told triple j in 2018. “I think it was like 5000 people and I’d never played to 5000 people before.”
It became one of those ‘you-had-to-be-there’ moments, and it cemented her in the hearts of Australian music fans. The next time she’d play the festival, she’d be headlining herself.
Lorde has stayed a favourite of triple j listeners in the years since, despite never having won a countdown. In each year she’s appeared on a Hottest 100 countdown — 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 — she has charted at least once in the top 20 and three times in the top 10. Both of her albums — 2013’s Pure Heroine and 2017’s Melodrama — were voted into the top five favourite albums of those respective years by triple j listeners.
The Song That Changed The Game
If we’re trying to discern the best songs of the decade, we have to discuss the impact that song had on music at large. ‘Royals’, and Pure Heroine, was the catalyst for a massive shift in the direction of pop music in the industry.
When it first appeared, ‘Royals’ was an anomaly on the charts: it was minimalistic and understated in a time where pop was explosive. As discussed in Middle 8’s video essay ‘How Royals Changed Pop Music’, ‘Royals’ has a BPM (beats per minute) of 85. The other big songs of 2013’s BPMs were much higher — ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ sat at 120, while Lady Gaga’s ‘Applause’ was at 140.
It sounded notably more sombre than any song it bumped against on the charts, despite not necessarily being a sad song. It uses the melodic scale known as ‘mixolydian mode’ — used by The Beatles and Nirvana — which, thanks to its minor seventh note, subverted the song’s tone against its lyrics. Fast forward a few years, and songs in a minor key have become the norm: an analysis by Popbitch revealed that 87 percent of UK #1 songs in 2017 were in a minor key, up from 29 percent in 2015.
The way Lorde sings ‘Royals’ is equally as crucial to its legacy. Lorde’s pop contemporaries in 2013 — Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé — all projected their booming voices to give their songs power. Lorde’s vocal delivery is much more subdued and conversational, which was highly unusual at the time, but has now become the norm among pop stars.
The trend of ‘whisper-pop’, as pointed out by Peter Robinson in The Guardian, has fast become one of the genre’s most prevalent features in recent years. Between Lorde and Lana Del Rey — who, interestingly, inspired the writing of ‘Royals’ — we saw a rise in pop singers who use their vocals more lightly, rather than belting to convey emotion and power.
Artists like Halsey, Banks, FKA twigs, Julia Michaels, Alessia Cara, Tove Lo and Selena Gomez nearly all experienced their rise to musical success and acclaim in the wake of ‘Royals’. Even aforementioned artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande can be seen muting their traditionally huge voices in parts of more recent singles, like ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘7 rings’. Forbes even argued in 2013 said that ‘Royals’ shifted the way the wider public viewed pop music as a genre — it wasn’t something to be scoffed at, and it deserved to be taken seriously.
‘Royals’ shifted the way the wider public viewed pop music as a genre — it wasn’t something to be scoffed at, and it deserved to be taken seriously.
We also see Lorde’s influence in artists like Billie Eilish, even beyond their obvious commonalities. Eilish disrupted the pop landscape in 2019 just like Lorde did six years prior. While Eilish has done it in a much more obvious and immediate way, both artists have a distinct brand of opposition and uniqueness to the larger pop world.
Most of Eilish’s biggest songs have her singing quietly, nonchalantly, which would have been completely out of place prior to ‘Royals’. Off the back of those songs, Eilish won all major Grammy Awards this year and became the first woman to ever win the Hottest 100 with ‘bad guy’. It’s hard to imagine this success as possible without Lorde helping to open the door in the first place.
There’s an argument to be made that ‘Royals’ is not actually Lorde’s best song — that title probably belongs to the bombastic break-up anthem ‘Green Light’, or perhaps the heartbreaking ‘Liability’. But ‘Royals’ ultimately triumphs because of the immense impact and influence it had on popular music and culture — its influence is all around us, and will be for a long time to come.
She may have missed out on the 2013 Hottest 100, but now we have a chance to place the Hottest 100 crown on Lorde’s head for the first time — after being crushingly overlooked so many times before. It’s time for us to let Lorde, and ourselves, live that fantasy.
Jackson Langford is a freelance music and culture writer from Newcastle. He tweets at @jacksonlangford.