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.

9781925266115

S.A. Jones

Light and Shade: Myfanwy Jones’ Leap

Grief, like depression, is potentially difficult material for a novelist to handle. To feel real, the reader has to be close enough to feel the raw, howling pain. But the reader needs reprieve too. It’s a balance of light and shade that Myfanwy Jones pulls off in her second novel, Leap. Read more »

the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

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

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

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 »

wolfpack-1024

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 »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

actf_rtt2_hero

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 »

golden-age-of-television

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 »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

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 »

Edinburgh

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 »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »