Envy is classically defined as “sadness” or “grief” at someone else’s good. Remarkably, until lately, envy of others’ well-being has not been an animating feature of American social life, as it has been in other times and places. In general, throughout our short history, Americans have shown benevolence toward and respect for those who we think have earned their success. As social thinker Michael Novak wrote in 1982:
Under democratic capitalism, inequalities of wealth and power are not considered evil in themselves. They are in tune with the natural inequalities which everyone experiences every day. Nature itself has made human beings equal in dignity before God and one another. But it has not made them equal to one another in talent, personal energy, luck, motivation, and practical abilities.
Of late, our critiques of the market economy have more often cited inequality, most recently and notably by President Obama. Other economists and thinkers have challenged whether these are effective arguments. Yet the American cultural resistance to envy as a feature of our life together seems to be eroding - which might indicate a decline in moral character, a decline in the justice of accrued wealth, or some combination of both.
Victor Claar, an economist at Henderson State University, and I recently argued that envy is fundamentally a spiritual problem that requires spiritual as well as cultural solutions. The Bible’s injunctions against envy, covetousness, and jealousy, when followed (intentionally or not) by a country’s citizens, have no doubt contributed to the vigor of the broader American ethos. In this regard, the church and the family as institutions constitutive of moral and spiritual formation are most significant.
But as a pop cultural resource for inoculation against envy, it would be difficult to imagine something more powerful than Lorde’s popular release, “Royals.” Lorde plays off the mainstream characterization of wealth and celebrity, the culture of “bling,” associated with royalty, whether derived from heredity or Hollywood. Thus, goes the chorus, “every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,” but Lorde and her crew “don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” On the emphasis on conspicuous consumption characteristic of celebrity culture, Lorde proclaims “that kind of luxe just ain’t for us.” Her working-class neighborhood doesn’t have “postcode envy” of those in more affluent neighborhoods.
In exposing the vapidity of the conspicuous consumption glamorized in celebrity culture, Lorde articulates a much more mundane and substantive brand of happiness and contentment. In the single “Team,” which also appears on her debut album, Lorde says that her people “live in cities you’ll never see on screen / Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things.” If there’s glamour in Lorde’s vision, it’s in the grittiness, “in the ruins,” of urban life that provides the context for community of social outcasts and misfits. This perspective shows maturity beyond that of the idle rich (think of Paris Hilton or the Kardashians), as Lorde proclaims, she’s “older than I was when I revelled without a care.”
There’s a moral seriousness to Lorde’s artistry that arises from a recognition of the realities of blue-collar struggles. It takes a certain kind of courage and moral maturity to recognize the value in an honest day’s work and a life spent in the service of others, even when the world derogates the value of that existence. These are the lives of labor that are not often celebrated “on screen” (with notable exceptions like Undercover Boss and Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs).
Rather than preaching a message of class struggle and envy, Lorde’s album can be seen as a paean to contentment with the commonplace blessings of life and seeking life’s meaning in places other than materialistic consumption. They crave a “different kind of buzz.” It’s the kind of contentment that can only be found in the satisfaction of a hard day’s work well done and genuine enjoyment of the company of others. These are insights reminiscent of the biblical wisdom that “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work,” realizing that such mundane “pleasures are from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).
In a way, Lorde and her friends have “cracked the code” to happiness—and in so doing have provided us with a powerful message against the corrosive effects of envy.