A National Geographic Photo Inspired Pop Star Lorde to Write Her Hit “Royals”

Photo of Kansas City Royal's star George Brett surrounded by fans
This photo of Kansas City Royals star George Brett appeared in the July 1976 National Geographic. Photo by Ted Spiegel, National Geographic

Earlier this month, New Zealand singer-songwriter, Lorde (whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor), cited a National Geographic image as the inspiration behind her chart topper, “Royals.”

“I had this image from the National Geographic of this dude just signing baseballs,” Lorde said in an interview with VH1. “He was a baseball player and his shirt said, ‘Royals.’”

The photo, taken by photographer Ted Spiegel, appeared in an article about Kansas City in July 1976. It depicts future hall-of-famer George Brett signing baseballs among a crowd of fans. Twenty-five years later, the young pop star’s song has revived the image, which has been circulating on the web for the past few weeks.

Lorde, a self-proclaimed “word fetishist,” said the word “Royals” sewn across Kansas City Royals player George Brett’s jersey stuck with her and inspired her to write the song.

Sample lyric:

And we’ll never be royals (royals).
It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

“Obviously I’ve had this fascination with aristocracy my whole life,” she said. “Like, the kings and queens of 500 years ago…they’re like rock stars. If there was a TMZ 500 years ago, it would be about Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette and all those people.”

We caught up with Spiegel to talk about his career, American “royalty,” and the provocative and enduring nature of still images.

Popular young artist from New Zealand, Lorde, cites your image of George Brett from our July 1976 issue as the inspiration behind her #1 hit, Royals. Have you heard about that?

I had not heard about this song nor its inspiration prior to today. I can’t wait to bring it up at Thanksgiving! But it proves that still images invite thought, encouraging the viewer to think about the “back story” to the scene that has been captured and put before them.

What do you remember about that day?

What I remember was sheer adulation. There was one girl who worked in the Kansas City Royals office who had what we would now call a large reaction to George Brett. Her eyes melted just gazing at him. He had star power. He was an all-American in image and in bat. All those hands holding the baseballs are adulating fans, and in Lorde’s interview, she talked about how the royals were rockstars in their day. George Brett proved to be a sports star in his day. In 1976, he became the American League batting champion. By 1999, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

What brought you to Kansas City?

I worked on assignments for the National Geographic for a period of 25 years. The July 1976 National Geographic was a great birthday card to our democratic nation. And I was assigned to do two articles specifically for that issue. One was Kansas City, the America of today, and the other one was about George Washington, the founding father who refused to become a royal. Do you see the irony of it all?

As a result of Lorde’s statement, that particular photo has been circulating the web. Do you ever expect your photo to resurface years after they were taken?

Yes, all the time. As you know, this past week has been commemorating John F. Kennedy. My portrait of John Kennedy, which was on the cover of many memorial magazines just now, also served as the backdrop for the memorial ceremonies. The big banner at the memorial at Dealey Plaza is based on my portrait of JFK, one of the American royals. My photographs continually reappear.

Is there anything you would like to say to Lorde if given the opportunity?

My next door neighbor when I was a kid and my spiritual grandfather was a lyricist named Yip Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “April in Paris,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” So I hand you over to Yip Harburg for lessons in storytelling lyrics! And if she needs more inspiration, I invite her to look at more of my images in the NGS image collection!


Human Journey

Chelsea is an editorial intern at National Geographic Magazine. She is a senior at the George Washington University majoring in Journalism & Mass Communication.