Race vs gender vs class. It’s a modern political struggle that is all tied up in a minor controversy over an international pop hit by fast-rising New Zealand musical artist Lorde. Her song Royals – you can watch the excellent video here – is being accused of racism on a US feminist website. The song itself is broadly about social class and inequality, and so the fracas is pitching liberal against liberal with New Zealand politicos mostly coming to Lorde’s defence on Twitter and in the blogosphere. [Read more below]
The controversial article is on the US Feministing website and is titled Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist. The best refutations of this ridiculous accusation so far have come from New Zealand satirists Ben Uffindell – see: Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’ riddled with bigotry, discovers bored psychology graduate, and Scott Yorke – see: Is Lorde an anti-Semite too?. Both are very funny responses, but the episode provides some very interesting insights into, not only modern pop culture, but also the politics of race, class and gender.
Among New Zealanders taking to Twitter to debate the issue, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has come out in Lorde’s defence. First, Coley Tangerina (@ColeyTangerina) tweeted: ‘Hi I would really like to hear what women of colour think about the Feministing article on how Lorde's 'Royals' is racist’. Turei (@metiria) responded to the allegations of racism, saying ‘so some think but it's unfair to attack a 16yr old for an incomplete sociopolitical critique’, and ‘At 16 she'll sing abt what she sees w/o analysis. At 16, leave her be, says this Maori mother’. Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) replied to say the racist allegation ‘Has some merit, but I think misses the point’. Coley Tangerina and other New Zealand feminists have pointed out the merit in the racism allegations, but most on Twitter have condemned them as ridiculous. Russell Brown (@publicaddress) has been at the forefront of defending Lorde. Similarly, blogger Craig Ranapia (@CMRanapia) has said ‘Wow, that @femisting post dissing Lorde as racist is just dripping with US cultural/political privilege isn't it?’
The Social-liberal obsession with race
It's a peculiar thing. At a time when the worst manifestations of racial oppression have lessened in countries like New Zealand – many liberals and leftists see racism lurking around every corner. And they see it as their role to expose it. Just recently Miley Cyrus was loudly condemned for apparently appropriating black culture when she engaged in twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards – see: Miley Cyrus Opens-Up On 'Racist' VMA Criticism, Censorship & Double-Standards.
These complaints speak as if the melding and fusing of different cultures must be negative. In reality everything in contemporary culture comes from some of kind of fusion that involves ‘appropriation’. Rock music itself represents a merger of different forms of music and cultural traditions.
In this context of complaint, Lorde is simply next on the McCarthy-like PC blacklist. That her song Royals provoked such a hysterical outburst is reflective of the dire state of modern feminism and politically-correct leftism, rather than an indictment of the song itself.
At one time the women’s movement promoted truly emancipatory politics. The best of the second wave of feminism was about radically transforming society economically, politically and socially, so that women (and men) weren't locked into oppressive structures, whether in the home, the workplace or society in general.
Yet these days feminism – and much of liberal-leftism in general – so often seems to be about censuring people for using the 'wrong' words and images. Unfortunately, this simply tends to enforce a politically-correct form of Newspeak. This new moralism also often leads to modern-day feminists and leftists just getting it completely wrong when they comment and analyse popular culture.
It's about class, stupid
Rather than being an attack on black culture, as the feminist writer claims, Lorde's song Royals is clearly about the disconnect between life presented in pop music and the lives of most of the working class kids that consume this music. Journalist Philip Matthews (@secondzeit) tweeted to liken Royals to The Smith’s song, Panic: ‘So Lorde is basically saying, "The music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life"? Panic on the streets of Devonport’.
But because Lorde references the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as presented in rap and RnB music, then somehow she is seen as a racist. The author of the racism allegations, Veronica Bayetti Flores argues the following:
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal andMaybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism. I don’t have to explain why wealth operates differently among folks who’ve grown up struggling because this shit has been explained already: If you grew up with holes in your zapatos you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.
Thankfully the backlash against this absurd analysis was swift. The best critique has come from Dave Schilling, an African American comedian and writer for Vice magazine – see his response: "Royals" by Lorde Is Not Racist. Here’s the key part:
I'm guessing by now that you've all heard of Lorde. She's a 16-year-old pop sensation from New Zealand whose song "Royals" has taken American airwaves by storm. She's precocious, the song is ridiculously catchy, and the New York Times raved about her live show. Naturally someone had to come along and take a big, steamy poop on her immaculately coiffed hair. Veronica Bayette Flores of a blog called Feministing seems to think that "Royals" is racist. Her reading of the song's meaning couldn't be more simplistic…. Could it be that there aren't any songs on the radio about golf or polo that 16-year-old girls listen to? Why would anyone assign their own cultural baggage to someone who isn't even old enough to buy cigarettes in America? Also, are "Jet planes, islands, [and] tigers on a gold leash" or "Blood stains, ball gowns, [and] trashin’ the hotel room" black things?
So why are so many modern-day feminists and liberals so blind to class, and at the same time so obsessed with identity? Partly this has to do with intellectual fashions, where issues of class and social inequality just haven't been trendy in universities for several decades now. Added to this, the collapse of class-centred political projects, whether of a reforming social democratic or radical Marxist kind, have led to a view that class-analysis is irrelevant and amounts to economic essentialism. In place of class-centred leftwing politics has come a rather shrill version of social-liberalism.
Politically correct moralism
So, where does this shrill and censoring form of modern leftism come from? The radical leftwing philosopher Slovoj Zizek has written some of the most insightful criticisms of contemporary social-liberal ideology – see his book, The Universal Exception. He has argued that the type of hysteria against 'racism' that we get from modern leftists, such as the attacks on Miley Cyrus for 'appropriating' black culture and now Lorde for writing a 'racist' song, amounts to a 'moralistic depoliticisation'. That is, according to Zizek, modern-leftists who have become despondent about their chances of creating any real radical change – and have essentially surrendered to the liberal-democratic capitalist system – now simply invest their political energies in an abstract and excessively moralising stance'.
It's time leftists and feminists ditched the moralistic and – let's be honest – boring politics, and reconnected with, and update, the radical emancipatory politics of their predecessors.
- Bryce Edwards and John Moore
PS, for a laugh, watch Robbie Ellis’s excellent acoustic mashup of Lorde’s Royals, and Dave Dobbyn’s Loyal.