Inauthentic is the disconcerting, whispered word that seems to hound Lana Del Rey wherever she goes, but perhaps a gentler term would be contradictory. She seems to be everywhere, yet has literally come out of nowhere. The lush atmospheres and crooked moral themes of her 2011 Lana Del Rey EP were carefully constructed to cater to “serious” music lovers, yet much of her major label debut album Born to Die feels like an ill-advised grab at pop stardom. The 25-year old vocalist’s most noticeable characteristics are her fashion-model good looks and jazzy, scotch-stained alto, but her recent performance on Saturday Night Live was by all accounts disastrous. Del Rey sounded nervous, stilted, overly husky, and worst of all, overrated.
What’s fascinating is how little a role music actually plays in the phenomena that is Lana Del Rey and how much perception does (here’s the data to prove it)— not just visual, but psychological as well. Del Rey is a natural smoldering beauty, with impossibly enormous pouty lips, bedroom eyes, and a dolled-up cinematic magnetism similar to that of classic starlets Angie Dickinson and Elizabeth Taylor. Never mind if the mascara is thick, hair is dyed or lips pumped full of collagen — its her attention to detail that is truly engrossing. Even the stage name Lana Del Rey (she’s actually Lizzy Grant from sleepy Lake Placid, NY) sounds like a character from an Elvis movie.
Her sudden emergence on the internet as a fully formed brand feels remarkably accelerated and calculated to generate maximum hype. In August, Del Rey made her own viral video for “Video Games,” an evocative, grainy patchwork of 8mm-style footage interweaving symbols of 50’s Americana with close-up snippets of a sultry Del Rey singing over orchestral strings and plucked harps. The warm, alluring pull of the visuals provided a perfect counterpoint for the singer’s sad, doe-eyed account of male emotional detachment, and Del Rey’s soon-to-follow full length became one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2012.
As both the audio and visual artist behind “Video Games,” she’s superb at creating a specific mood — nostalgia for a simpler yet more mysterious time when stardom was still as enigmatic as it was glamorous. Her fondness for the Hollywood golden era, and the fame garnered by people who lived during it, is obvious. On “Blue Jeans” she lovingly references James Dean before telling a stranger: “I will love you till the end of time.” Elvis, in her words, was “always a star, had a face like a god, and a voice like a dark angel. So he wasn’t really contrived — he was just dead cool.”
Stardom is clearly a touchy subject for someone who knows she herself has been perceived in some circles as contrived. In interviews, Del Rey acknowledges the role sexuality plays in her appeal but is noticeably shrewd about it, treating her feminine allure as more a means to an end. She admits in an interview with Pitchfork: “People have offered me opportunities in exchange for sleeping with them. But it’s not 1952 anymore. Sleeping with the boss doesn’t get you anywhere at all these days.” Ultimately, Del Rey remains as in control as she does desirous.
But as a singer/songwriter, in the end, Del Rey’s success is ultimately determined by the quality of her songs. For her part, “Video Games” is a dusty pop-hybrid jewel that feels of an era yet remains timeless, and “Blue Jeans” is a beguiling desperation ballad worthy of placement in a David Lynch film. “Diet Mtn Dew” will probably be a hit — it’s sly, hip and provocatively assertive in a “These Boots Were Made For Walking” sort of way that both alternative and pop radio should eat up. Listening to Del Rey sing: “Let’s take Jesus off the dashboard/ Got enough on his mind/ We both know just what we’re here for” conjures up images of a ramshackle modern-day Bonnie looking for her Clyde.
But for every one of these sorts of gems on Born to Die, there are several lesser tracks strung together like cheap, imitation jewelry. The novel blend of country soul with massive hip-hop beats (like a cross between Dusty Springfield and Kanye West) soon feels gimmicky and tired. On faded replicas like “Dark Paradise” (bad), “Radio” (worse), and “National Anthem” (worse still), all those jaded musings on booze, sex, and apathy begin to sound like trailer park trip-hop, replete with orchestral swells, big echoey drums, and Del Rey’s tacky intonations on just how much of a bad girl she can be. It begins to exceed the boundaries of good taste.
Her uniquely expressive voice (which can be so striking in the right context) sounds terribly out of place when contorted to the confines of an inexplicable rap or sing-along pop chorus. On “Off to the Races” Del Rey’s verbal ticks, pitch jumps, and tempo changes teeter between comical and cringe-worthy as she yelps: “I’m off to the races/ Cases/ Of Bacardi chasers/ Chasin’ me all over town.” It’s baffling why she would expect a song like this to suit her strengths. Coupled with the SNL episode, moments like this make you wonder how wide her vocal range actually is and how much is just studio smoke and mirrors.
But the real problem here is that the sublime elegance and tastefulness of a song like “Video Games” creates an implicit contract between artist and listener, and Del Rey spends the bulk of her time on Born to Die breaking that promise. “Video Games” hinted at her potential to create something as good or better, and people who come here looking for that are going to be sorely disappointed. It’s as if she recited Shakespearean sonnets on your first date, but begins loudly chewing gum in your ear and twirling her hair with a vacant look as soon as you start going steady. You feel like you’re getting jerked around.
And I don’t buy the argument that these extreme mood swings and her music’s scatter shot quality is her trying to “find her creative direction.” For someone whose keenly aware of the perception of her audience, I think it’s safe to assume that Del Rey’s music is just as much a carefully targeted commodity as it is an expression of her creativity. Unfortunately, I think Del Rey believes her target audience is everyone (from hipster bloggers all the way to top 40 radio), and Born to Die is the sound of her failing to be all things to all people.
It remains a fascinating paradox that Del Rey’s aesthetic recalls a bygone era when the private life of a sultry torch singer was inaccessible, yet her online presence makes such a thing now impossible. In a sense, she wants it both ways — the mystery and the ubiquity. And thanks to the internet, she has it; we already know everything there is to know about Lana Del Rey, and we’re still dying for more. Between the SNL debacle and uneven quality of Born To Die, some critics would have us believe Del Rey melted her wax wings by flying too close to the sun. Quite possibly, she’s just human, like the rest of us, and has bitten off more than she can chew right now. She’s trying to comprehend and control the cultural machinations she’s set in motion with “Video Games” and her sculpted-for-success persona. She’s trying to be make art respected by a society that would rather undress her with their eyes.
There’s real melancholy and intrigue in the story of a beautiful woman who chooses to stay with a boyfriend who would rather drink beer and play video games than connect with her emotionally. I suspect Lizzy Grant the songwriter has more ideas and themes with this sort of complexity that are worth exploring. But I’m not sure if Lana Del Rey does. Her performance in the category of sex appeal is flawless (at least by our society’s warped standards), but her creative choices and vocal consistency remain in doubt.
I just can’t help but wonder who Del Rey might have sounded like if she had it the other way around — if she didn’t work so ridiculously hard at looking “perfect” but instead disciplined herself to sing on pitch and emote with true abandon. She’d certainly deserve all of the attention she’s getting. And then I realize we’ve actually heard of this girl already. Her name is Adele.