It’s been a little over a year since the debut of Royals, the smash hit from the waifish New Zealand songstress Lorde, and what a year it’s been. Having charmed both critics and listeners around the world, the anti-opulence, wrong-side-of-the-tracks anthem solidified its status as the song of 2013 by securing two Grammys on Sunday — one for song of the year, another for best pop solo performance.
At a time when income inequality has been steadily rising, Royals — in which Lorde pooh-poohs such earthly delights as Cristal, Maybachs, jet planes, islands and diamonds on timepieces in favor of a simpler lifestyle — clearly struck a chord in the United States, where it sat at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for nine weeks. In so doing, the song repudiated the themes of conspicuous consumption that have marked so much of pop music in recent years. (For a representative example, see the opening lines to Jay Z’s self-described performance art piece, Picasso Baby: “I just want a Picasso, in my casa./ No, my castle.”)
That got us wondering: Is there really enough income inequality in Lorde’s home country of New Zealand — a land that still has more sheep than people, and where the country’s richest man made his fortune off of packaging — to inspire a musical rant against ostentatious ballin’?
A look at data on inequality reveals something of a mixed picture. New Zealand isn’t as bad off as the United States or Mexico, but it’s worse than Canada or those bastions of equality, the Nordic countries, placing it at about the level of Japan. In other words, the people from Lorde’s “torn-up town” with “no postcode envy” probably don’t have it too rough compared to their blinged-out counterparts, who stay busy trashing the hotel rooms of Auckland and Wellington.
Still, the same data shows that income inequality in New Zealand has skyrocketed since 1985. So even if income inequality hasn’t become outrageous by global standards, it’s much worse than it used to be. That’s a sufficiently stark change to perhaps inspire a bit of old fashioned class resentment.
Indeed, New Zealand seems to be grappling with something of an anxiety crisis about the wealth gaps that have formed in the country of late. A book published last summer — Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis — sparked soul-searching across the country’s press on how to counter the problem. “From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, the gap between the rich and the rest has widened faster in New Zealand than in any other developed country,” journalist Max Rashbrooke writes in the book. Meanwhile, pop culture is selling a darker, less tourist-friendly side of the picturesque country that served as the backdrop for the Lord of the Rings films. Last year’s miniseries Top of the Lake showcases a part of New Zealand that is both supremely beautiful as well as isolated, drug-ridden and menacing.
Of course, Royals can also be understood as a small-town manifesto against a pop-music culture that has little, if anything, to say about the lives of ordinary individuals — in which case, maybe quiet, sleepy New Zealand gives her the perfect vantage point. Lorde’s hometown of Devonport, in suburban Auckland, is nearly 9,000 miles from decadent Wall Street, more than 8,000 miles from glittering Dubai. Surely no one in Auckland is keeping tigers on gold leashes — too dangerous, with all the sheep.
© 2013, Foreign Policy