Lorde, winner of the Song of the Year Grammy, proves that you can always succeed by telling people what they want to hear.
Last night's Grammy ceremony was baroque and overdone as ever, bloated past the three-hour mark but with nearly every individual performance seemingly pitched at an audience that remembers what real music is. Other than Katy Perry's "The Craft" cosplay, more or less every element of the ceremony was about "real music" -- McCartney and Starr's reunion; Daft Punk triumphing at last for their old-school, Nile Rodgers-inflected album; Nine Inch Nails closing the show. It all added up to a picture of the music industry as deeply serious about its own mission and history. There was no room at the Grammys for any edge or apparent awareness that to make music is not a saintly calling.
Lorde was able to puncture the room's self-seriousness in a manner the assembled grandees found comfortable, even flattering. Her hit song "Royals" posits that the world of pop music is one to which she has no access, as she's not materialistic, just real. It's tremendously flattering to any industry professional to vote for that as the best-written song of the year, especially because the sort of songs Lorde decries for their emphasis on material wealth don't really exist, anymore.
At last night's Grammy celebration, one of the big winners was Macklemore, who swept the rap categories; he explicitly decries material culture in much the same way Lorde does, singing about thrift shop garments in opposition to... someone, surely. Other performers in Lorde's own generation who enjoyed the spotlight included Kacey Musgraves, who sings about empowerment and being oneself, and Taylor Swift, who sings about her own feelings. "Every song's like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin' in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room," sings Lorde on "Royals." Okay -- which songs, exactly? Even Katy Perry, who seemed miserable singing "Dark Horse," isn't explicitly singing about materialism, there or ever.
"Royals" is how a generation of Grammy voters who think the peak of edginess is Ringo Starr perceive pop music; its message is that things have gone badly off the rails somehow. Missing from last night's ceremony was Miley Cyrus, whose image is baroque in precisely the way Lorde seeks to combat but whose songs are as solidly built and lovely as "Royals." The Grammys won't even let in the front door any hint of intriguing dissent as they lavishly reward a song about just how bad dissent is. Watching the Grammys, it was impossible to know just what Lorde was singing about; every song felt the same, and none of them were about anything so fun as trashing a hotel room.