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By Michelle J.

In a Feministing.com a blog post, Veronica Bayetti Flores writes about the racism in the pop song, Royals by the New Zealander 16-year-old, Lorde (Cnn.com). Looking at this criticism in conjunction with the response from other writers, particularly, the New Zealand journalist, Lynda Brendish who argues to the contrary, demonstrates a difficulty in identifying hidden racism. I find Hall's notion of decoding to be useful tools in processing this controversy as well as other controversies in pop music.

Flores notes the popular interpretation of Lorde's song, but goes on to highlight lyrics that she recognizes as racist – “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 and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers?" (Feministing,com). She goes on to suggest elements of conspicuous consumption that could've been criticized instead and suggests that racism is the reason why Lorde chose to focus on markers of conspicuous consumption that are associated with black culture: “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” (Feministing.com). Here, she is decoding Lorde's song with what Hall would call an oppositional meaning. She recognizes the dominant reading of the song as “a critique of wealth accumulation,” but she interprets it with racism as the frame of reference. In a more recent blog post, Flores notes that her interpretation recognizes the negotiated meaning: “to be completely clear: my critique focuses on how the song lands in the United States” (Feministing.com)

The New Zealand journalist, Lynda Brendish offers a negotiated reading of Lorde's song and Bayetti Flores's critique. Brendish argues that “not everything in this world should be viewed through the lens of Americans, particularly when it comes to race and cultures of other countries. To insist otherwise is ignorant at best and imperialistic at worst” (Livinlavidalynda.com). Here, she sees the dominant reading of Lorde's song, and argues that Flores should consider a negotiated reading given the culture and history of racism in the United States. Flores argues that while “Lorde has chosen some aspects of conspicuous consumption that overwhelmingly refer to black hip hop culture, she has also included other aspects that refer to conspicuous consumption predominantly associated with other cultures” (Livinlavidalynda.com). The examples that Brendish cites: “Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash? I’m thinking Richard Branson and maybe Russian oligarchs there. Blood stains and ball gowns? Celeb socialites with a hint of My Super Sweet 16. Cadillacs? Rich old people. Trashin’ the hotel room? Rock stars” (Livinlavidalynda.com). Brendish's decoding reads the dominant message – “The theme of the song is the dissonance between that life … and the one she lives in New Zealand, but it is not at all about race” (Livinlavidalynda.com).

In Flores' response, she notes that she doesn't know Lorde's intent, but argues that “her intent matters little in the face of what is actually happening: the reinforcement of longstanding racist narratives that blame people of color for problems of which we are not the major perpetrators – and of which, often, we are actually victims” (Feministing.com).

Another example is Miley Cyrus’s “urban” music videos and performances. In an interview with Vice.com, Professor Akil Houston opines that Miley is cultural appropriating and her appropriation “continues a long tradition of what bell hooks might refer to as ‘eating the other.’” According to Houston, “hooks noted that within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes like spice seasoning. It is used to liven up the dull dish that is mainstream/white culture.” However, Miley denies that she is racist and that her music is racist. John McWhorter from New Republic argues in her defense and asks, “Why can’t Cyrus be transgressing from her position as a woman, period, or a young one—or even as a white one being told she can’t dance in certain ways because of the color of her skin?” He believes that the claim that she is racist is reductive. McWhorter invokes Lyon Wynter and claims that Miley’s performance is an example of the “browning” of American culture. Against the charges of appropriation, McWhorter asks, “But in which human culture, ever in the history of our species, have groups living together not borrowed one another's cultural traits?” (Newrepublic.com).

In November 2012, No Doubt pulled their “Looking Hot” music video from youtube after allegations that it was racist. The video included Gwen Stefani  dressed up as a “sexy Native American and having her bound at gunpoint.” According to Newser.com, “the band says in a statement that it never meant to ‘offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people’ and even ‘consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts’ before making the video. ‘We realize now that we have offended people” (newser.com).

Hall notes – “'misunderstandings' of a message at the communicative or contextual level … have fundamentally a societal, not a communicative basis”(Hall, 56).The scare quotes around 'misunderstandings' notes that in Hall's frame of interpretation, the different understandings of a message aren't actually misunderstandings, but different decodings of a message. While Hall's classification of readings is a helpful lens for seeing how such 'misunderstandings' arise, and helps map the different analyses, it doesn't decide the conflict of whether or not Lorde's song or Miley’s performances are racist, but highlights that despite Lorde's  and Miley’s self-reported non-racist intentions, it can impact a receiver as a racist. And while we can't definitively determine whether or not a song, music video or performance is racist with Hall's framework, we can frame multiple perspectives with greater understanding of their lens of interpretation and, perhaps provide a clearer understanding of the multiple 'understandings' of popular music.


Works Cited:

Bayetti Flores, Verónica. "Wow, That Lorde Song Royals Is Racist." Wow, That Lorde Song Royals Is Racist. Feministing, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Bayetti Flores, Veronica. "A Little More on Lorde, Royals, and Racism." A Little More on Lorde, Royals, and Racism. Feministing.com, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Brendish, Lynda. "No, Feministing. Lorde’s Royals Is Not a Racist Song." Livin La Vida Lynda. WordPress, 5 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Colgrass, Neal. "No Doubt Pulls Video After Critics Cry Racism." Newser. Newser, 4 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Cooper, Wilbert L. "Miley Cyrus Needs to Take an African American Studies Class."VICE. Vice, 27 June 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Hall, Stuart. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham England: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1973. 507-17. Print.

Hume, Tim. "Is Lorde's 'Royals,' the Top Song on the Billboard Hot 100, Racist?" CNN. Cable News Network, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

McWhorter, John. "Miley's Twerking Wasn't Racist: It's Not Right to Call Her VMA Performance Minstrelsy." New Republic. The New Republic, 27 Aug. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.