Between scowling at a Cubs games and ending up a meme, Jack White found time to cover Lorde’s “Royals” this week. The news wasn’t all that surprising for two reasons: White has been covering pop songs, like Jay Z’s “99 Problems” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” on his current tour; and old-school rock dudes love them some “Royals.” (I personally think the latter has to do with its message of anti-consumerism harkening back to a time WHEN ROCK MUSIC RAILED AGAINST SOMETHING, damn youths, grumble grumble, etc.) Most singles that spend more than a couple weeks at No. 1 are going to garner a bevy of covers — from up-and-comers and YouTube unknowns alike — but Lorde’s breakthrough really has inspired an astonishing number of covers… from dudes you would not expect. Let’s take a look at who covered it best, shall we? Worst comes first.
6. Jack White
I kept clicking over to iTunes, Spotify, and other tabs in my web browser while watching this, convinced something else was playing simultaneously. It wasn’t. It’s just that White over-complicates things as usual in an effort to sound intense. There’s honestly no need for an upright bass in a “Royals” cover. Bonus points for emulating Lorde’s hand gestures, having a shorter version of her haircut.
5. Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic
Lorde’s sparse original proves that less is more on “Royals.” I’d say just an accordion and drums qualifies as “less”… maybe a little too “less.” But hey, nice of Novoselic to return the favor after Lorde covered Nirvana at the Rock Hall.
4. The Roots as Black Simon & Garfunkel
“Black Simon & Garfunkel” is one of the many recurring spoofs on The Tonight Show, in which The Roots’ Questlove and Kirk Douglas reimagine current pop hits in S&G’s signature acoustic-folk style. They’ve done more amusing covers than “Royals” — especially since its lyrics seem more feasible as a Simon & Garfunkel song than, say, “Roar” — but this one actually turns out to be lovely beyond its comedic appeals. It’s like “Royals” meets “The Boxer.”
Now I know what you’re thinking: there’s a woman in Pentatonix, she’s right there in the video! Yes, but the odds are with me: four dudes, one lady. I’m making this count for a dude-centric list because it’s quite good and you should hear it. Pentatonix, winners of The Sing-Off and superstars in the a cappella world, don’t offer up sub-par covers, seeing as covers are their bread and butter. Their vocal percussion perfectly emulates the original’s beat, and they pretty much blow the quaintness of Lorde’s a cappella intro out of the water.
2. Mayer Hawthorne
The next-best thing to Michael McDonald covering “Royals,” which, honestly, would easily be No. 1 on this list. Way to keep it loose and go full Barry White; I always appreciate something so radically different from the original when dealing with covers of ubiquitous pop songs. Those vocal harmonies too, my god.
1. Bruce Springsteen
Jack White could learn many things from Springsteen, but in this specific instance, the longtime luminary of overly earnest pop shows him how to successfully intensify “Royals.” It does not involve a bunch of feedback and extraneous band members, but rather, just a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and a gravelly voice. This what a musical critique of capitalism should sound like.