Sometimes a single, unlikely word can spark a hit. Lorde describes seeing the word “Royals” written on the uniform of a Kansas City Royals baseball player. It triggered a response – not to the baseball team, but to the word itself. ”Royals” is a word that’s loaded with associations – wealth, luxury, power, and privilege. It evokes stories of legendary kings and queens, as well as today’s celebrities. And it stirs up interest in just about everyone, which makes it a perfect word on which to build a song. Let’s take a look at Lorde’s mega-hit and find out how to create a hit song from a single word. Here’s the official video on YouTube.
“Royals” recorded by Lorde
Writers: Ella Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde), Joel Little
You can read the lyric here.
The Shortcut numbers below refer to specific chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”).
GENRE/STYLE: Singer-Songwriter (What is a genre?)
This song has sold triple Platinum and made it to #1 on Pop charts around the world. It doesn’t sound like most Pop hits, though. Definitely not Katy Perry or Kelly Clarkson. Instead it blends a singer-songwriter style lyric and melody with a groove and tempo that owe a lot to Hip Hop, giving the song a cool Urban edge.
When blending genres like this, be sure you’re familiar with both of the styles you’re working in. Your song and/or production need to draw on authentic elements from each source rather than being an accidental mish-mash that may or may not really capture a genre. Listen to your favorite artists in each style as you write. Draw on those elements that appeal to you, or study an artist who is already blending those styles.
The song structure is one you hear in many hit songs:
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS
Both pre-choruses start with “Gold teeth, Grey Goose…” The choruses begin with “And we’ll never be royals.” The bridge begins with “We’re better than we ever dreamed.” The bridge is a bit of a throw-away, mostly repeating ideas/lines we’ve already heard. It’s really there to give the listener a break between choruses.
The song structure is a familiar one which doesn’t make this song any less original. Don’t be afraid to use a song form like this one with proven listener appeal. There are endless ways to make it your own. (For more on this song structure, see “Hits” Shortcut #26)
This song is a great example of how to get your listener involved in a lyric and keep them with you all the way through while writing about something that feels personal.
VERSE: The singer starts by telling us something about who she is, something important that will help us understand why she feels the way she does, and she does it in a fresh way. Instead of writing “I grew up poor,” she says: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh.” It’s an image of poverty that’s unique and gets your attention. And just in case you’re thinking surely she must have seen a diamond wedding ring, she replies: “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” It’s almost as if she heard what you were thinking.
If you keep your listener in mind and anticipate the questions they have, how they’re reacting, or what they might be thinking, you can create a kind of dialogue with them. Then they’re involved in the song just as they would be if they were face to face with you.
Read “You and Your Listener: It’s a Relationship” for more ideas on how to do this.
PRE-CHORUS: Most of us don’t think of ourselves as Richie Rich. We identify with the singer even if our lives weren’t as deprived as the one she depicts here. Yet, while Lorde puts down the pursuit of wealth, claiming that she’s not interested, just look at how long this pre-chorus is, how wonderful that deluxe list of riches sounds: Grey Goose, ball gowns, Cristal, Maybach, diamonds, jet planes, tigers on leashes. It’s threaded through with darker but still alluring images: blood stains, tripping, gold teeth.
This long pre-chorus is repeated twice in the song and it’s a big part of the song’s appeal. We’re all attracted to the luxe life, and this list of brands and bling has tons of associated emotions and images that draw us in. So, by the time we get through the first pre-chorus, we’re hooked and we love hearing it again. (“Film/TV” Shortcut #53)
CHORUS: A chorus should always express the heart and soul of a song for the listener and this one lives up to expectations. Lorde has already said “We aren’t caught up in your love affair” with money and celebrity, so listeners know this life isn’t for her. But if she doesn’t show us WHY it isn’t for her and convince us that it’s true, this song is going to go down in flames. The chorus has to pay off for listeners. That’s the challenge for all songwriters.
In the chorus, the idea of “a different kind of buzz” is crucial to making the song work. The celebrity lifestyle is just that: a buzz. In the singer’s world, youth, falling in love, and relationships are a bigger, more immediate buzz. The image of a queen bee ties the “royal” idea to her life and that of her friends. She’s basically saying, “We have our own royalty and it’s good to be queen.” Works for me.
Getting in Touch With Your Listener – 2 exercises
1. Choose an idea for a song. Make lists of words, phrases, images, and ideas related to the idea, ones that have strong emotional associations. Images of weather, material and personal objects, nature, physical bodies, clothing, food – all of these can be loaded with feelings. If you have a reaction, probably your listeners will, too. Choose an image or phrase and write a line or two about it. Then anticipate a question the listener might have and answer it.
2. Choose an idea for a song and imagine you’re talking to a total stranger. Tell them what they need to know in order to understand how you feel about it. Imagine this stranger is not all that interested at first. Use images, vivid language, and action words to get them to listen to you. Make it compelling.
MELODY / CHORDS
Like many hit song melodies, this one builds from a low note range in the verse, through a middle range in the pre-chorus, to the highest notes in the chorus. As you listen to the melody, notice how it underscores the meaning of the words in the lyric.
=> The verse melody is conversational with melodic phrases that sound just like you would speak the line, just a little bit exaggerated. There are pauses between each line, giving it a relaxed feel (“Hit” Shortcut #76).
=> The pre-chorus melody picks of the pace, doubling the speed of the words. While it’s not hurried, it creates energy and has a deliberate, repetitive feel, as if the singer is running down a list – which is just what she’s doing (“Hit” Shortcut #83).
=> The highest note in the chorus occurs on the title word “royals,” emphasizing it and letting us know this is a word we should pay attention to. Like many recent hit songs, the melody has few or no pauses in the chorus. It keeps rolling forward, overlapping lines, creating a sense of momentum (“Hit” Shortcut #81).
CHORDS: This is a three-chord song. Just a V – IV – I progression. In this case, the chords are… | D | C | G |.
The verse, in fact, is just one chord: D. These chords would quickly become boring and predictable if the melody didn’t work to keep them interesting. It’s one of the great tricks of today’s Pop, Rock, and Country hits: Simple, repeated chord progressions create a hypnotic, dependable base while the melody might start on a number of unexpected beats, use a variety of phrase lengths, double in pace, rise in note range, and/or use syncopation to keep the chord progression interesting.
This song is all about the vocal and rhythm tracks. It’s unusual to see something this sparse make it to the top of the charts but I get the feeling we may be hearing more of it. Listeners are vocal-centric these days. They want to hear the singer, connect with the singer, get involved with the singer. When the singer stops, listeners tend to tune out That’s why you rarely hear instrumental bridges these days, and many songs go right into Verse 2 after the first chorus without a break.
If you’re going to try stacked harmony vocals like this, be sure to put the lead vocal in front and sing it with plenty of personality and emotion. Don’t play it safe with the lead vocal just because you know you have to sing tight harmony with it; it could create a homogenized, lifeless feel. The performance needs to be full out, natural and emotionally connected. Take the extra time you need to get the harmonies to match a strong lead.
You may be able to cheat a little and use a plug-in, a vocoder, or a harmonizer to create one or two of the harmony parts. Be aware that this will give the vocal a synthetic quality. For some tracks this can work. Check out lmogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” to hear a vocoder vocal that’s been used in a lot of TV shows.
Do It Now!
Use some of the phrases you came up with in the “Getting in Touch With Your Listener” exercises above. Create a simple drum beat or use a loop and work up a verse, pre-chorus, and chorus melody using some of the melody writing techniques described here. You don’t need to add chords until you have a rough idea of your melody and lyric. If you have trouble getting started, here’s a blog entry with 10 ideas for starting and developing a Pop song.
by Robin Frederick