By the time you are reading this, Lana Del Rey’s album Born To Die will have reached #2 on the Billboard charts, and #1 in a gazillion countries. In a true sign that she’s made it, she will have been mocked on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” impersonated no less by Kristen Wiig, just a week after her controversial appearance on the show. You have probably bought the album, or illegally downloaded it, or have heard every track just by skipping around the Sirius dial. You don’t need to read this review – you’ve certainly read all the other ones. In fact, certainly you’ve made up your mind as to where you stand on the Lana Del Rey phenomenon (and it is a phenomenon, as Liz Phair astutely explicated in this Wall Street Journal blog post.
If Lana Del Rey was the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, conservatives could probably breathe a little easier and assume that she would take the top spot; at the same time, she somehow inspires the same kind of revulsion and confusion the current G.O.P. hopefuls embody, too. Lana Del Rey is now, in fact, a star – an instant, overnight sensation in the classic sense, and yet a galactic media event unique to this moment as well. The last time I can recall so many formats shook like this by one artist is, in fact, when Nirvana first broke into mainstream consciousness: you heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” everywhere – I remember a friend reporting hearing it incongruously on a San Francisco roots-reggae radio show. Similarly, a cursory spin across satellite radio today finds Lana Del Rey on the college-alternative station, the “hits” station, the “chill” station, and so on. This cross-genre acceptance, and the confusion of various youth cultures trying to simultaneously embrace and disown her, is another telling sign. Lana Del Rey is a glitch in the matrix, and the algorithm, however confusing its coding, proves hard to resist.
The big conundrum surrounding Lana Del Rey concerns her supposed indie authenticity – in particular, that she once released an album under her “real name, Lizzy Grant and that she’s been manufactured by music-industry savants. In fact, Lana Del Rey did work with outside songwriters with hitmaking pedigrees, and Born To Die is in fact a release by uber-major label Interscope, home to U2, Pussycat Dolls, and naturally, Lady Gaga). We can settle this debate right now, however: Lana Del Rey is a pop artist, period, and all pop is an industrial product. Industrial products are best evaluated by how effectively they fulfill their intended purpose; in the case of a pop artist, it is how well they capture the imagination of the masses, via sales. As well, certain industrial products transcend their utility and become objects of desire and worship far more sublime than anyone had hoped; they go beyond their mandate to become something greater in our collective consciousness, the way an iPhone has transcended its status as a mere communication device to become the ultimate lifestyle signifier, or how we can’t imagine life before Google searches. Del Rey satisfies on both fronts, which is where the confusion around her stems. She’s simply not as shittily and obviously prurient as many pop artists; there’s a level of idiosyncrasy, Warholian sophistication, and knowingness that seems risky for the expense involved in getting a pop star to market these days. To the untrained eye, that reads as “indie,” when it is in fact anything but; it’s a simulacrum of indie, reflected back in a cracked funhouse mirror all the way to the bank. And it’s the simulacrum that consumers want: pop is about fantasy, and society decides what that compelling fantasy is in spite of the tastemakers and gatekeepers, and this year’s model is Lana Del Rey.
It’s not a profundity to suggest that Lana Del Rey is a character, a constructed persona – most pundits, and even the artist herself, have noted as such. Where Lana Del Rey compels in the current pop marketplace is the surprising elements that went into that construction: it has the startling freshness of, say, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. On the one hand, Ziggy comprised eyebrow-raising aspects like then-controversial embrace of gay culture, and taboo subjects like suicide and loss of self; on the other hand, it fulfilled the pop requirement by featuring a photogenic idol with catchy songs. Lana Del Rey pushes similar buttons. She’s doesn’t employ the overwrought carnality of, say, Rihanna, or the bougie beauty-queen allure of Beyoncé, or the ironic slut/do-me feminism of Ke$ha. Instead, when she sings about tying cherry knots on “Carmen,” or how she’ll “swallow you down/Down anywhere, anywhere,” she radiates the sexual availability of the hot, mercurial, slightly unstable girl who has a radio show on NYU that you got drunk with at Pianos watching Blondes do a secret DJ set and then blows you in the bathroom while the Italo disco song that Washed Out sampled plays through the wall. In other words, she’s exotic and available and approachable and unavailable and self-destructive and all powerful all at once: “I can be your china doll if you’d like to see me fall,” she sings on “Without You,” an indecent proposal many seem to willingly accept.
I am of the opinion that what pisses people off most about Lana Del Rey is that, for maybe the first time during the post-Internet era, the major labels actually got it right. For what is now decades, whenever the majors wanted to break a pop star, they threw the same damp logs on a hoary fire that wasn’t keeping anybody particularly warm: even as the inevitability of the digital age grew increasingly evident, their first target was always terrestrial radio, billboards, print ads, network television appearances and the like. With Lana Del Rey, however, the major-label system managed to use blogs, and YouTube viral videos, social media, and word of mouth in a way that previously seemed reserved for “authentic” (that word again) indie acts like Arcade Fire. This signified a significant switch in the rules of engagement: it’s like when, in pre-Civil War days, opposing armies would patiently take turns firing on each other. With Lana Del Rey, the majors finally decided to skip their turn and embrace the new machinery of starmaking, virtual guns blazing. And while the great Lana Del Rey Experiment has proven to be absolutely a smashing success, the actual quality of Born To Die as a musical experience demonstrates that they don’t quite have this whole smoke-and-mirrors thing figured out quite just yet.
Again, let’s not forget that Born To Die is, above all else, a pop album; while it comes maddeningly close, it ultimately doesn’t fully rise above the expectations of such an endeavor. Pop albums traditionally feature a few killer singles, then pad out the rest with filler; on this score, Born To Die doesn’t disappoint – it cumulatively doesn’t result in a fully realized album, but there are more than enough great songs and memorable performances. The high points indeed prove high, starting with the album’s cover image, iconoclastically featuring Lana with perfect ‘50s hair and a prim white shirt that seems immune to wardrobe malfunction; it’s an image that could’ve been pried straight from a Joan Crawford weepie or Douglas Sirk melodrama. The opening title track sets up the dominant aesthetic DNA – reverbed-out guitar that could be lifted from a David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti score; hip-hop beats that somehow prove to be both lethargic and insistent; the swirling string reverie that would be at home on the kind of tragic noir romance you might find playing late at night on American Movie Classics; and of course, Del Rey’s voice, exuding tales of melancholic nostalgia, forbidden love, and the alluring threat of Romeo & Juliet-style immolation.
Her vocals actually prove the essence of her appeal: you hear them, and you immediately know that it’s Lana Del Rey, even if she clearly owes debts to her predecessors and influences. She’s got the quirky, damaged coffee-shop virtuoso thing Fiona Apple epitomized, of course; there’s also the broken soul siren qualities of Amy Winehouse, who was similarly unafraid to clash classic and contemporary vibes in the same smoky breath, as well as the contemporary witchery of Florence Welch and Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. But Del Rey is less interesting for her obvious female influences than she is her more unexpected male ones. Her comfort in higher and lower registers combined with the ability to transform elastically into different Jekyll and Hyde characters recalls Axl Rose’s similar gambits on, say, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone.” She also has the casual perversion, ironic appropriations of hip-hop slang, and unexpected, jazzy, raw phrasing of Greg Dulli – not to mention Dulli’s propensity for exploring the twilit taboo manipulations inherent in male-female power relationships; when she sings “I was so confused as a little child” (on “Born To Die”) or “He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart” (from “Off To The Races”) that psychosexual psychologizing rings out loud and clear.
Del Rey also approximates the great American mythology of Bruce Springsteen via the macabre – there’s more of a little “Born To Run” in “Born To Die,” where she rhapsodizes about how “Sometimes life is not enough/And the road gets tough, I don’t know why.” She gets even more Boss-like on “Without You,” where she trills about how “We were two kids, just trying to get out.” At the same time, Del Rey’s darkness on the edge of town seems to stem more from watching Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark movies than lived experience; it’s a pop-art reimagining of the more darkly iconic elements of the American Dream – “Born To Run” via “Twin Peaks.” That’s clear from the famous-for-fifteen-minutes quotable on “Without You”: “I even think I found God in the flashbulbs of the pretty cameras.” It’s another compelling wrinkle in the Del Rey puzzle: she seems that rare pop star that has someone on her team who might be aware of, say, the writing of Camille Paglia and the photography of Cindy Sherman.
Who knew the collision of high art and low art would be the thing to take over the pop charts in 2012? Did the cool hunters and early adopters have this one pegged? Methinks not – that’s why Born To Die seems to hedge its bets a bit, weakening the cocktail’s potency; in doing so, it reveals the puppeteer’s hand all too obviously, shaking the listener’s already wobbly suspension of disbelief. Del Rey seems to have shot her wad a bit, so to speak, with her breakthrough track “Video Games.” I am guessing the major-label gatekeepers figured this as a “buzz track,” and it did indeed spark the ensuing buzz-a-thon that still holds quite a charge. “Video Games,” however, may have been Del Rey’s strongest hand to play, and everything in its wake seems a bit more contrived. It’s a delicate tightrope walk: “Come take a walk on the wild side, let me kiss you hard on the pouring rain” she pleads on “Born To Die” – veering towards iconic cliché, but just skewed and absurdly overwrought enough to avoid fatality. The overreach, in fact, becomes an integral part of the style – with every song on Born To Die, Del Rey appears to be searching for paradise by the dashboard light – but sometimes she lands with a splat. Del Rey actually has the temerity to name a song “Lolita,” a move so unsubtly on the nose, it takes all the fizz out of her anomie: why didn’t she just go all the way and call it “Catcher in the Rye”? Or “Rebel Without a Cause”? Is titling a song “Diet Mountain Dew” arch pop-art commentary, or the height of major-label product placement (or both)? Where “Video Games” was delightfully weird and catchy, with no obvious paradigm on the charts or radio, “Diet Mountain Dew” evokes a junky mélange of M.I.A., Amy Winehouse, and Britney assembled in a board meeting, down to its whatever chorus (“Baby, you’re no good for me, but baby, I want you”). “Off To The Races” has a hook, meanwhile, that could come straight from a Demi Lovato single; it’s trying too hard, declaiming the pop-cultural references frantically like a laundry list, never quite setting a sultry mood like we’ve come to expect. Elsewhere, “National Anthem,” sounds like Del Rey trying to sound like Katy Perry, when it would suffice to have her just sound like herself.
The more conventionally pop and slick Del Rey becomes on songs like this, the less infectious she actually proves. “Video Games” created her pop persona, which succeeded because it was simply more interesting than the other options out there; when Del Rey resembles those other options in a blatantly derivative way, it lessens her impact considerably. More effective is a track like “Summertime Sadness,” which commences with a Moby-esque string melody to evolve into a mesmerizing dirge that suggests an Interpol anti-hero anthem played at half speed. Del Rey tries to seemingly head off the issue of contrivance at the pass: “Our dreams and our rage/Blurring the lines between real and the fake,” she sings on “National Anthem.” It’s a cop out, in a way – just because she lets us know she’s aware of the contradiction doesn’t make the issue vaporize. It does still make her more enthralling than the usual vapid stab the music industry makes at creating an American idol. At least with Lana, they’re trying to vary up the product a bit, and the self-conscious cynicism of the whole gambit makes for half the fun.
“Like a fucking dream I’m living in/Baby love me cause I’m playing on the radio/How do you like me now?” So goes the most memorable lyric on “Radio,” and in a way it encapsulates where Lana has arrived in the journey: yes, she conquered the blogs and Pitchfork, but now she is on the radio, and on television, and in the print ads – just like the traditional pop star the major labels have always felt comfortable producing. It’s literally a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation, and the cakes are flying out the factory’s industrial ovens. Lana now has what Arcade Fire has, and now she’s got what “American Idol” and “The Voice” and Gaga have attained, too: mass appeal. By this time next year, she’ll probably have a Grammy, too, and similar headlines paraphrasing Adele’s “Isn’t it amazing she saved the music industry?” narrative. The triumph of Lana Del Rey may have changed the pop landscape forever: as she sings on “Million Dollar Man,” “One for the money/two for the show,” which seems like a pretty accurate calculation of her whole phenomenon. As far as manufactured pop stars go, so far she’s a real standout – I’d rather listen to Born To Die over anything by, say, Mariah, but I’m not sure yet if she’s in the same league as Madonna. Is she the embodiment of a new formula that’s born to die, or a genuine dissident whose heart will live on like that song from Titanic? Chances are, we’ll only know until the next Lana Del Rey comes along; until then, we’ll have to make do with the real fake thing.
-Matt Diehl @iammattdiehl
Matt Diehl is the author of four books: his most recent is Drinking With Strangers, the memoir of Butch Walker, which Diehl co-authored and will be published by William Morrow in late October. Elsewhere, Diehl’s writing has appeared in the likes of Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, SPIN, W Magazine, and Interview, where he is Contributing Music Editor. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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