2014 columns, Music

That kind of racism just ain’t for us: Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and offence criticism

by Chad Parkhill , January 29, 20142 Comments

One of the most widely-read and influential pieces of music criticism in 2013 was not written by a music critic – its author possesses a master’s degree in sexuality and public health, works in the field of reproductive justice, and had written little about music before the blog post in question was published. Despite this, Verónica Bayetti Flores’ post entitled ‘Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist’ – which argues that ‘Royals’ is ‘deeply racist’ because its singer doesn’t care for a list racially-charged signifiers of material wealth – not only (in the words of its author) ‘BLEW. UP.’ but also set the frame through which Lorde’s song ‘Royals’ would thenceforth be analysed, inspiring an endless series of rebuttals along the lines of ‘Nah, that Lorde song “Royals” isn’t racist’.

Of course, ‘Royals’ wasn’t the only song from 2013 that engendered controversy along the three most salient axes of contemporary identity politics: that is, race, gender, and sexuality. We were also preoccupied by whether Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was an example of rape culture, or whether the twerking in the video for Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ was cultural appropriation or sexual empowerment. The controversies that raged about these songs were also focused on their content rather than their forms or context, and were motivated by a strong feeling of outrage that usually culminated with the work being labelled with a pejorative (‘rapey’, ‘deeply racist’, etc.). Tiny Mix Tapes’ Benjamin Pearson has characterised this form of engagement with music as ‘offense criticism’ – criticism that analyses its object in terms of a given politico-theoretical worldview, and finds the artist morally culpable when the object does not live up to the critic’s standards.

Pearson’s own article is not without its problems – it is, at points, as hastily generalising and glib as some of the criticism it responds to – but it does identify and name a disturbing tendency. Offence criticism is, first and foremost, hasty criticism; it responds to art not through careful analysis of the work’s intention, but rather by searching selectively for evidence of thought crimes. Thus Bayetti Flores’ analysis of ‘Royals’ singles out certain signifiers of wealth (‘Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece’) while ignoring others that have little to do with hip-hop culture (‘blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room’). Bayetti Flores also fails to question her assumption that ‘Royals’ is a swingeing critique of conspicuous consumption, when there is little textual evidence to suggest that it is. (‘That kind of luxe just ain’t for us’ is hardly Karl Marx.) The original blog post also conspicuously ignores the context of the song’s composition and production, and the (still open) ethical question of whether a teenager from New Zealand should be held accountable for the way her work is received by adult audiences in the United States. Most tellingly, though, Bayetti Flores completely ignores the song’s form – and the minimalist production and sub-bass heavy beat of ‘Royals’ sounds like nothing if not a love letter to contemporary rap music.

The fundamental issue with offence criticism is that it has no definition of the role of the work of art, beyond examining art against a checklist of -isms to determine whether or not it is politically right-on. This seems to miss the point, since art isn’t solely made to educate or to conform with pre-existing political ideologies (although plenty of art, good and bad, has been made for these purposes). It might be hard to pin a univocal meaning to Lorde’s song ‘Royals’, seething as it is with the tension between asserting one’s personal anti-consumerist ethos and the allure of luxury goods and the lifestyle they promise, but it is precisely this tension that the song aims to explore. While it’s a near-certainty that race, gender and sexuality will continue to be flashpoints for musicians and critics alike in 2014, we can only hope that, in future, those who are poised to vent their offence will first pause to consider whether the offence is warranted.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo

  • Kezia Lubanszky

    Yes, you’ve perfectly articulated the way I’ve been thinking about this kind of criticism. Great piece.


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »