DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here is a pop song that has people talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROYALS")
LORDE: (Singing) But every song is like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin' in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room. We don't care.
GREENE: You might recognize it. It's called "Royals," and singing there is Ella Yelich-O'Connor. She's 17 years old, from New Zealand, and she goes by the name Lorde onstage. The song is a pretty sharp critique of the materialism and party culture that's glorified in many songs on the radio. So when it shot up the charts this fall, many people took notice - among them, NPR music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. Welcome, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, David. How are you?
GREENE: I'm well, thank you. So you've said this song might be a sign of a real sea change in pop music. What do you mean?
POWERS: When "Royals" made its descent to the top of the charts and stayed there for so long, to me it seemed to indicate a possible binge fatigue. People might be tired of songs that are just about relentless partying and living the luxe life. These are all things that "Royals" directly criticized. Now, some people say Lorde is unfairly questioning hip-hop culture, which, of course, is about people aspiring to a wealth they may not always be able to achieve. But I hear a desire for an alternative to what pop has been presenting of late.
GREENE: Well, you sent us some tracks that are similar, in a way, and let's listen to Sky Ferreira here, and "I Blame Myself."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BLAME MYSELF")
SKY FERREIRA: (Singing) Is it because you know my name, or is it because you saw my face on the cover? Either way, it's all the same. It's like talking to a friend who is trying to be your lover.
GREENE: Now, why do you put this song in the same category?
POWERS: Like Lorde, she was groomed for a long time for a pop career, but Sky Ferreira has made this album "Nighttime, My Time" that is really oppositional to those values, I have to say. And the lyrics are all about I'm claiming my own identity. I'm not going to be the pop star you wanted to be. I am standing apart.
GREENE: Well, let's queue up one more song. This is "Dance Apocalyptic" from Janelle Monae.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE APOCALYPTIC")
JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) Bands, they make her dance apocalyptic, now.
POWERS: Janelle Monae has been presenting an alternative to conventional pop music for a few years now, right in the middle of the mainstream. She's beloved by music industry. Critics love her, too. And yet her music is very much about imagining the world in a different way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE APOCALYPTIC")
MONAE: (Singing) ...smash, smash, bang, bang, don't stop. Chalangalangalang. You gotta laugh at the zombie in the front yard. Take a bath, but nothing gets the funk off.
POWERS: This song incorporates a sample from a full-on party rap by a Memphis rapper named Juicy J that's about strippers in a club and throwing money at them, and turns it into a sarcastic critique of over-the-top partying that, in itself, is a song worthy of over-the-top partying. So, for me, this is the greatest hat trick of all.
GREENE: And Ann, before we go, let's queue up one more song. This is "Thrift Shop," from Macklemore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")
MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) I hit the party, and they stop in that - whoa. They be like oh, that Gucci, that's hella tight. I'm like you, that's $50 for a T-shirt...
POWERS: Here's a guy, a white rapper from Seattle, totally steeped in hip-hop culture, and yet all of his many hits send this oppositional message. And the biggest hit of all, "Thrift Shop," is about saying, no. I'm not going to buy a $50 t-shirt. I'm going to go to the Goodwill and come out looking better than you could ever look.
GREENE: Is there some hypocrisy, here, I mean, with a rich musician talking about the value of shopping at Goodwill? I mean, is this a sincere message?
POWERS: Oh, definitely, Macklemore and Lorde have dealt with that criticism. But to me, these dialogues, you know, between culture and counterculture, the dominant and the underground, are what really make pop music. And that's what I love about this music.
GREENE: We've been chatting with NPR music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. This is NPR News.