Yesterday saw the release of arguably the most argued-about album in eons: Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. I can’t remember the last time music fans worked themselves into such a froth over an unproven artist. The official reviews are decidedly “meh”. Entertainment Weekly gives Born To Die a C+, while Spin gives the album an almost apologetic 6 out of 10. “This record is not godawful. Nor is it great. But it’s better than we deserve. We broke her; we bought her,” Spin critic Rob Harvilla declares. I wish somebody would bother to explain to me why there is so much vitriol directed towards Lana Del Rey. So, I’m going to try to figure it out myself.
I first heard about Lana Del Rey on Facebook, in an idle, we’re-all-quasi-stalkers-now social interaction. A friend commented on their friend’s posting of the clip for “Video Games”, Del Rey’s debut single – which, as of tonight, has racked up a mind-boggling 24 million views on YouTube. Them’s Gaga numbers. I followed the link, heard a pretty ballad, and moved on. And soon after, the Internet exploded in debate. As far as I can figure out, the following things are the world’s decree of What Is Wrong With Lana Del Rey:
1. She bought her way in. We oftentimes forget that the music business is just that – a business. If sheer talent was enough to get you into the winners’ circle, most of my friends would be diamond-selling megastars by now. There’s a lot of tsk-tsking about Del Rey possibly having a millionaire father, which paints her as the spawn of the 1%, though it doesn’t necessarily appear that he pulled any strings in getting her signed. Much is also made about her once living in a trailer park. So, we don’t want Del Rey to use her family’s money to further her career, but we’re outraged if she lives far below the means that her family’s money could buy her. Clear as mud.
2. Her persona is a construction. Um, she’s attempting to become A POP STAR. Last I checked, pretty much every major pop star we have these days has a constructed persona. Especially the women. Nicki Minaj alone appears to have about 8 different identities rattling around in her pink-bewigged head. Full disclosure: “Perry” is not Katy Perry’s real last name. Shocker! (Though the boobs appear to be all hers.)
I will say that the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant’s persona is a strange one, though, in that it seems she’s trying to be every female pop archetype at once. She sings of being raised on hip hop and hanging out while her man plays video games, like Gwen Stefani’s little sister. She tries to rock old-school glamour while being an accessible, modern, kinda-bad girl, like Miss Perry. She sings smokily of love gone wrong, like a chip off of Fiona Apple. All her videos are these strange melanges of glamour shots, hot hipster boys, and found footage of Hollywood (is that Paz de la Huerta in the “Video Games” clip?). It’s confusing. Not because it’s a construction, but because it’s so much of one. No woman can be every woman, no matter what Chaka Khan once sang. While we’re speaking of construction…
3. She’s too sexy. Again, when did this become a problem with our pop stars? You don’t have to be hot to be a success; otherwise, the face of 70s rock would have looked substantially different. But, let’s face it, most pop stars are folks you wouldn’t kick out of bed. Lana Del Rey is beautiful, but something is, I concede, a bit off. She looks a little like someone tried to make an Amanda Peet fembot, and then dressed her in Chloe Sevigny’s wardrobe. Del Rey’s very attractiveness becomes as confusing as the rest of her persona. Though, honestly, I DON’T CARE IF SHE HAD LIP INJECTIONS. Maybe this is where daddy’s money went. Maybe she was born with those. Maybe she just really OD’s on Venom Flash. Why the fixation?
4. She rose too high, too fast. Getting signed to a major label with very little buzz beforehand – and playing Saturday Night Live after you’ve done, like, three live gigs – is pretty damn impressive. Practically unheard of these days, unless you manage to charm Simon Cowell, Christina Aguilera, or Steven Tyler on national TV. There had to be some glimmer of talent there that attracted Interscope to take a chance on her. Either that, or the American Idol-assisted idea that a singer cannot merely just sing these days, but be “the whole package” took hold. Be visually stunning, be independent (writing your own songs helps), be creative, and oh yeah, be able carry a tune. Which leads me to…
5. She simply can’t fucking sing. I watched that Saturday Night Live performance on YouTube just now. Yikes. I’m still not 100% sure that she CAN’T sing, though. While the simplest explanation may be that she was terrified being on live national television (as her body language seems to prove), the problem may spring from her construction. Lana Del Rey comes off on SNL like she’s trying too hard to sing – like she’s trying to get all her Sybil-style vocal emulations into one lyric. I wish she would tone it down, because when she’s not trying to be 800 singers at once, her clear inspiration emerges: Tori Amos. Really. Lana Del Rey sounds like Tori Amos to me. Think about it, Tori fans (and don’t hurt me). I now sort of want to hear Lana Del Rey cover “Past The Mission”.
OK, I think I’ve got it. I keep coming back to the idea of trying too hard. What Is Wrong With Lana Del Rey Is That She’s Trying Too Hard. The overinflated persona, lips, look, rise to our national consciousness. Lana Del Rey needs to pick one idea and stick to it. Is she carrying the torch of trip-hop, arriving like the second coming of Esthero? Is she a bad girl gone good, a reverse Rihanna? Is she a lovestruck Amy Winehouse type? Songs like “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” do, to my ear, hold promise. If Lana Del Rey can figure out exactly who she is, and refine her act from top to bottom, then she may not be born to die after all.