Editor's note: Our free Pop Psalms ebook, featuring all 12 essays in one place, is available here.
The book of Ecclesiastes is famously depressing and dramatic. Right from the opening lines, the royal philosopher who authors the book does not mince words: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Interestingly, “Royals”—the 2013 song by Lorde—articulates some of these same themes, albeit from a strikingly different perspective.
The author of Ecclesiastes describes how to live when we know our fate is ultimately death: don’t seek wealth or fame with the belief that it will give you meaning and purpose; have compassion for the oppressed; have empathy for our fellow humans. At the same time, we’re encouraged to rejoice with those who have learned to enjoy the blessings God has given and with those who find contentment with the small things in life.
This was and remains a countercultural way of living: denying power; seeking a life of hard work full of empathy and sacrifice, modeled on Jesus; removing attachment to our earthly riches. This is a way of life that orientates us to the heart and kingdom of God. In our modern-day culture, Ecclesiastes seems to speak against the large life lived by so many of our celebrities—Hollywood royalty. Which is why it was a bit ironic when, in 2013, 16-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor, known as Lorde, released “Royals” and it became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
The mysterious voice of the young New Zealand indie-pop artist spoke deeply to my alternative-loving heart. With black lipstick, a beat machine, and not an ounce of rehearsed choreography, she offered a countercultural response to the bubble-gum sweetness of other female pop artists that I would skip through on my Pandora playlists. I find that pop music by young female artists influenced by rock, grunge, and emo culture has a catchy way of commenting on the consumerism that has dominated our culture. Lorde, to me, embodies the voice of the Old Testament teacher in Ecclesiastes as she lilts through her critique of “royalty” (think the Kardashians, Bachelor stars, sports legends, and other super-celebrities). Just a kid from a small town in New Zealand, Lorde has said that everything she knew about being rich was from rap and hip-hop music videos; personally, she had “never seen a diamond in the flesh,” and counts her “dollars on the train to the party.”
“But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece,” she sings in the song’s chorus. “Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.” This crazy, wild display of wealth baffles her. She doesn’t find it appealing because she has her own way of indulging her desire of the finer things in life: “We don't care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams!” Instead of wishing that she could party like a rich person, she is seemingly content to be ruler of her suburban clique: “We’re not caught up in your love affair, and we’ll never be royals.” A breathy choir echoing her sentiments can be heard throughout the track, perhaps symbolizing her leadership of her suburban mates.
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What I think is fascinating about Lorde, as an artist and as a person, is that even as she makes fun of a wealthy lifestyle, she is also aware that she desires some aspects of it: she wants authority and love, belonging and purpose. But she obtains it by being herself. “Royals” did not attempt to fit into the Top 40 female pop genre: upbeat, sugar-sweet. Instead, it highlights what Lorde loves about herself: her unorthodox vocal range, her penchant for minor keys, her love of minimal production, and her emo-girl sarcasm.
Through her music, Lorde is writing her own book of wisdom for the young millennials of the 21st century. She is subconsciously referencing an ancient, biblical way of thinking about existence and happiness. However, she does this a bit more hopefully than the author of Ecclesiastes. While the royal philosopher encourages people to be content with the blessings presented to them in this lifetime because what follows is death, Lorde revels in seeking the small pleasures of being young that are within her grasp, simply because she knows seeking anything more will only bring her discontent and disillusionment. “We’re bigger than we ever dreamed,” she tells her generation, “and I’m in love with being queen.”
In their own distinct ways, both of these philosophers tell us that while we should find joy in what we have now, we shouldn't put our faith in worldly treasures. Both philosophers are, in their own way, countercultural. And both point us to a larger countercultural way of living: a life of following Jesus and seeking the kingdom of God. They ultimately point us to the realization that everything we have in life is a gift: any semblance of wealth, power, talent, or community in our lives is a blessing to be thankful for and to be used for the glory of God. And we know that when our work and worship is done in the name of Christ, it will never be done in vain.