The Rise of Lana Del Rey
David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
hen I first watched Lana Del Rey’s video for “Video Games” a few months ago, I had mixed thoughts. Ultimately, I didn’t write a post about it on Their Bated Breath because something felt off. No, it wasn’t the talk about her being a big phony, because I saw the video well before any of that. I didn’t know anything about her beyond the one song. When I like a video or song, but feel cautious writing a post about it, I put it on my personal facebook page for followers to enjoy. Then I try to look up the artist, learn more, find more music — do research so-to-speak. So, why didn’t I write a post about Del Rey, and what was my initial impression?
There’s no doubt “Video Games” is a good song. I liked it then, and still like it now. Although, I find I’m more tepid about it then the major music blogs. But there were a couple of things about the video that gave me pause. It wasn’t the music, but rather the style and allusions within the video. At first it was Del Rey’s pouting lips and my initial perception that she was preening like an 80s Valley Girl. She sounded like someone mimicking Cat Power or Fiona Apple. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All kinds of musicians sound like other musicians. Bright Eyes and The Tallest Man On Earth have made a living edging on the territory of Bob Dylan. Lots of bands sound like My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division, The Velvet Underground or The Rolling Stones. And nearly every band I know has something false about its presentation. Entertainment is a strange commingling of falsity and authenticity. It takes fashion, film, style, art, talent and turns it into a commodity, which always shades the art part of the equation. But watching “Video Games” gave me the feeling I was tacitly agreeing to something that didn’t feel like me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but I proceeded slowly.
Del Rey is without question talented. And let’s face it, it takes a lot to make music nowadays, since everyone with an internet account thinks they’re a music critic. The criticism surrounding Del Rey is of two minds: One, that she is inauthentic — an argument that is neither here nor there for me. The site Hipster Runoff first began posting crass, yet pointed comments, about Del Rey being a fake with a nose job, lip injections, and a re-invented schtick after a failed mainstream effort. The site also mocked her meteoric rise into indie darling-hood, saying it came at the hands of a bunch of well-heeled suits and cooler-than-thou poseurs that make-up online music writing. In other words, she was the ultimate Trojan Horse. However mean-spirited, Hipster Runoff is at least being honest, and is well within its right to form any opinion it wants. But I don’t mind Del Rey trying to reinvent herself. I don’t care if someone seeks out plastic surgery or even if they try to hide that fact. Musicians can do what they want, and listeners can love whatever music they want. And there’s nothing wrong with a band using public relations people behind the scenes. Most bands have it, and frankly, need it.
However, I am of the same mind as music blog writer Zach Hart at We Listen For You, who seemed to suggest that the big stink is less about the singer than it is about major indie-music sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum knowingly swallowing Del Rey & Co.’s press release and canned bio. What exactly did they do? Take Pitchfork for example: The first post they’d written about her back in August 3, 2011, begins with this sentence, “On her stirring debut single, New York singer-songwriter Lizzy Grant transforms into the more bombastically-named Lana Del Rey and absolutely wallows in it.” So, what’s the problem? Well, Del Rey had already completed a record last year, and it was later scrubbed from the internet as she began re-casting herself. Plus, she was already re-dubbed Lana Del Rey in 2010, so its not as if she was immediately transforming with their write-up of her single.
So, why would a massive music site like Pitchfork couch their post like that, and why did other music sites simply follow suit? Hart says they want to lay claim to having discovered her, when in truth she’s already been out there. They purposefully failed to mention it, and certainly knew well enough that this wasn’t simply a girl who happened to pop up on the internet with videos. Hart and a few other blogs argued that Del Rey isn’t the little guy, because she’s worked with David Kahne in the past, a man who was once the Vice President at A&R at Columbia Records and Warner Bros., and who produced artists like The Outfield, The Strokes, Sublime and Sir Paul McCartney. To add fuel to the fire, her father is apparently an millionaire internet domain-name honcho, and suggestions were that connections gave her a boost. Del Rey says in a Pitchfork interview (Aug. 30, 2011) that she sent a demo tape to Kahne, and he called her back after 10 minutes to produce her real first record. As Hart said on his soundcast, after Pitchfork was caught, the site continued to go further down the rabbit hole, in wag-the-dog fashion, by asking Del Rey cardboard questions that allowed her to distance herself from her past. On Sept. 15th, 2011, the site took photos of Del Rey’s ‘secret show’ and presented her in manipulated, flowered-looks that fit her motif, as opposed to the normal concert shots it usually posts. But that’s on Pitchfork, not Del Rey.
The irony is that serious music lovers demand honesty in their music, so being honest has to be central to any band or music site. Certainly, Del Rey is being micro-analyzed like she was Lady Gaga before she’s even had a full-length EP under her glitter belt. But maybe she’s partly to blame too for some of the backlash — referring to herself in quick PR bursts like “Lolita in the hood” or “The gangster Nancy Sinatra.” Admittedly, indie-music writers can be overly-territorial pissy frauds themselves, quick to judge and suckers for soundbite descriptions. But listening to music is serious for a lot of people. And it should be. It means building a relationship with the artist. They create music and we open our hearts and wallets. No one wants to think they’re being hoodwinked by a bunch of execs pulling strings. No one wants to go out to music taste-making sites and think they’re being sold the concept of an artist simply because the site wants to bask in the warm glow of self-propelled success. (Odd Future much, anyone?)
My gut reaction to “Video Games”, when it first hit my screen, was that it was play-acting. It felt like the feigned torment of a Bel Air debutante. I could hear the real pain of someone being treated badly by a lover in the song, but the presentation felt detached from what was being expressed. Watching “Video Games” felt like being asked to empathize with Paris Hilton after she was unable to find a properly fashionable collar for her pet poodle. My eyes went directly to Del Rey’s lips, mouthing the words “Whistling my name …” It’s natural to assume falsity in one physical respect, means falsity in others. Del Rey tilted her head back like how an actress might present sensuality if asked by a director. Maybe that’s part of the problem with videos where the artist stares directly into the camera. We know that they know they’re being watched, so every slight move is subconsciously analyzed. How someone looks into a camera leads a watcher to ask questions like, “Is this vulnerability real?” And that leads to doubts about authenticity in general. But to be on camera is to act, no matter the musician. Is her acting any different than Annie Clark walking down a dirt road in “Marrow”, building on the appeal of her strangeness and good looks? Or is it different than LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy getting dressed up like a woman in the video for “Drunk Girls”, proving that the band is oh-so indie cool?
Del Rey’s voice is pretty and affected in “Video Games”. Not in the pejorative sense, but like Bruce Springsteen on “Devils & Dust”, when he wants us to feel like he’s shed his Jersey-boy roots for a countrified vibe. It’s difficult as hell to view a person on screen, hear them sing, and make a judgement about whether their emotions are real. I’m still not sure that’s my goal as a music blogger. The video screen itself is a falsity regardless of the artist’s intent. There’s a thin line between art and manipulation, and maybe that’s what blog sites like Hipster Runoff are feeling, however indelicately expressed. In so many ways, the presentation and marketing of Del Rey is brilliant. Her real name is Lizzy Grant, but her nom de plume holds shades of Lana Tuner and Cali beach-front vista drives. She only has two official tracks, both released via video, in an age when a YouTube music-posting means you’re worth rooting for against the crumbling major labels and stadium-packing bands with massive commercial appeal and a lack of creativity. But I also don’t think Del Rey should be a pariah for wanting to find any way to get her music heard.
Her buzzed-about videos showed her in highly-stylized takes, inter-spliced with vintage Ektachrome Super-8 film footage, creamy come-hither looks, and an aesthetic just shy of Calvin Klein’s soft-core print advertising circa 1995. I can understand there’s something off-putting about placing yourself at the center of a video, starring into the camera, asking watchers to “desire me”, especially if it’s without irony and staged by lawyers and handlers. It becomes a magazine front. Only in this case, grainy footage and lo-fi quality can become a sort of air-brush by way of non-airbrush. In Del Rey’s defense, these are lo-fi video montages she presumably made herself, so what better to fill the frame then the image of the singer and the images she loves? But I can also see the other side, who see “Video Games” as a type of sales job, hitting all the right demographics. There are old Hollywood shots of paparazzi snapping their flashes in what could only be Del Rey’s direction. There’s the coyness and wallowing in nostalgia. Boy skaters show their moves, girls in swimsuits with their cheery camaraderie, the Hollywood sign like a beacon, the old Los Angeles, and the Americana of motels and neon signs. It’s so easy to fall into kitsch-love. Take a look at Del Rey’s pimp-faux three-finger ring spelling out the word, “BAD”. Hard to fault her for that, while I’m blasting M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” or Tupac’s “Picture Me Rollin'”, right? There’s something decadent and alluring about it all, in a dingy kind of way.
Del Rey draped herself in imagery, a fetishistic idealization of glamor and youthful rebellion, which in a way is at the heart of all new music. I don’t fault an artist for image sculpting. Madonna did it, Springsteen does it, and even Radiohead have an image they want to project. And they’re all classics. I reserve judgement of Del Rey more than I do for music sites that perpetuate the myth of having ‘found’ her, or that missed the backstory out of laziness. Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Gorilla vs. Bear all jumped the gun too eagerly. As for Del Rey, she’s young and her music sounds pretty good. It’s what you do next with the image you’ve created, and most importantly, what kind of music you make that counts. It may not be a good sign that her interviews have been highly selective. (Pitchfork will give me that immediate indie cred, right?) But there are other artists who I love, that irritate me with this same strategy. Then again, people act like selling yourself and making money isn’t part of the process. Isn’t Sleigh Bells trying to make a buck? And don’t most artists perform, write, sing, in order to become heard and to have careers?
Hype can also backfire. Listeners can be fickle. It’s the nature of the beast. Del Rey’s quick rise does bring up interesting questions about art, music writing, and marketing in the cynical ‘age of American Idol’. What is authenticity? Does it matter who an artist is or how they got where they are? Does it matter if a music site falls into the PR machine? Does it matter that Del Rey was previously a failed mainstream artist? That kind of information colored the post-“Jagged Little Pill” career of Alanis Morissette, but didn’t stop her from being beloved and selling over 33 million units from 1995-1998. Does it matter if an artist is partly cashing in on their physical beauty? That’s a more interesting question, and more of an industry/fan issue that it is the artist’s. Does personality matter? Is the song and video for “Runaway” less of a work of art because Kanye West is an asshole? Milli Vanilli were complete frauds, but that doesn’t change the fact that millions of people still don’t care who sang, “Girl You Know It’s True”. Maybe there’s too much being read into Del Rey and her two videos. Maybe she’s really what her songs profess. Maybe not. Maybe Pitchfork really cares about its readers. (Well, let’s not go overboard. They don’t even allow comments on the site. It’s a well-paved one-way street with a sign that reads, “We tell you our opinions, but we don’t want to hear yours.”) Maybe the truth really is grey, and none of us knows what the hell we’re doing?
In all likelihood, Del Rey is as complex as most people are, both vulnerable and shrewd. She’s surely a talented singer who loves glitz and wants to be heard. Maybe the criticism of Del Rey comes from those few that always hate overnight success. When is the last time a 25-year-old girl with two official songs to her name played on ‘Later With Jools Holland’, on a show that also featured Peter Gabriel? Critical backlash eventually comes back in equal measure to all the swooning. Now, even Del Rey’s positive mainstream media write-ups find ledes like this one by UK Guardian/Observer writer Rosie Swash: “We crave a popstar who is authentic, who thrives because of their talent, not PR. So when you stumble across someone like Lana Del Rey – her popularity apparently born online and growing per YouTube click – it’s hard not to be sceptical as to whether she’s actually too good to be true …” In the end, this all might be much ado about nothing. Del Rey could create a gorgeous full-length LP. Pitchfork could go back to writing about music, rather than patting itself on the back. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve since heard some of Del Rey’s other songs, and though they aren’t stylistically the same as her current music, there are shades of real quality. I suspect she will become an even bigger sensation. But she’s still trying to find out who she is as a singer. That’s why, on the one hand, the refrain of her track, “Gramma”, sounds like a girl who has yet to get past Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita”. But at the same time, you can listen to “For K Part 2”, with its waltzing rhythm, subtle flute, warped noises — and sigh heavily over just how marvelous a creation it is.