Lana Del Rey is a magnet. People are drawn to her, and to her music, and everyone that hears her or knows about her has an opinion. Four or five months ago, you probably heard far kinder things being said about her compared to today, where the inevitable backlash has reared its ugly head and nearly swallowed her whole. All this before her major label debut album Born to Die even sees release. To be fair, the build up and press surrounding Del Rey has been huge – she is signed to a major label and the sky high hopes of executives are that she’ll eventually join the ranks of a Lady Gaga or a Beyonce in the realm of pop superstardom. That’s a very real possibility no matter how much crap she puts out there, so long as it sells. This is coming from the same world in which Ke$ha has a lucrative career despite being one of the more reviled pop stars in recent memory. But what is it about Del Rey that has drawn such ire from people? There’s a laundry list of things, so let’s try and break it down.
Lana Del Rey’s real name is Lizzy Grant. She had a privileged upbringing in New York that eventually resulted in a trip to boarding school and a stint at Fordham University. She dropped out of school to pursue a music career, and built a relatively respectable reputation as a Nancy Sinatra-esque, classically inspired crooner. Doors were opened for her, but not exactly the right ones or the ones she was looking for. As such, she invented her own persona and drastically changed her look to go along with it. Gone was the plain Jane Lizzy Grant, and in her place was the glamorous, full-lipped Lana Del Rey. Under the new name and style she quickly flourished, and though her 2010 debut A.K.A. Lizzy Grant went largely unnoticed, last summer she released the single song “Video Games” and the internet grabbed hold of it with a fierce intensity. It was a matter of months before Interscope Records came calling on the wings of yet another new and excellent song, “Blue Jeans”. It seemed that Grant was getting everything she wanted via the transition into Lana Del Rey. But was it too much success, too soon?
Early Del Rey detractors started by citing her fake persona. She couldn’t make it with her real name and real style, so she had to invent a character instead? How disingenuous of her! Not only that, but her character of Lana Del Rey is this pretty, platinum blonde with pinup style that appears to sell her sex. Listen to the lyrics of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” as well and you’ll notice she’s singing about needing a big, strong man to keep her safe and warm, and how she’ll stick with him and essentially live to serve him while he goes off and plays video games. She’s playing up antiquated notions of women, that they’re supposed to slave in the kitchen all day, stay home with the kids, and generally accept whatever their husbands want. It’s a far cry from today’s women, fiercely independent and proving they’re equal with men on every level, even as the pay scales still don’t entirely reflect that. So yes, the controversy surrounding Del Rey is understandable. Many have undoubtedly been rooting for her to fail, and their wish is swiftly being Grant-ed. A few weeks ago she turned in a disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live, one that sent the internet abuzz yet again, this time with far more jeers than cheers. As NBC News anchor Brian Williams said, it was foolish of the show to put Del Rey on when her album hadn’t been released and her only notable accomplishments were having two songs popular with the online community. Very few people have gotten so far by doing so little. We’ve finally reached the apex though, the moment that will truly make or break Lana Del Rey – the release of her much-anticipated album Born to Die.
From start to finish, Born to Die feels like a statement. It seeks, as a whole, to try and be the official definition of what and who Lana Del Rey is. The two tracks that made her a rising star, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” both show up early on in the record, and right next to one another. They are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the grandiosity and melodrama in place here, yet they also provide ample evidence that perhaps she doesn’t have much going for her otherwise. The opening title track signals its arrival with a rush of orchestration and sweeping majesty, quickly paired with a very basic electronic beat that holds steady for the duration. From the very start Del Rey is in a sad emotional state, wandering the streets in her heels, hoping that when she arrives at her man’s house he’ll open the gate and let her in. That theme of neediness and essentially pleading for acceptance extends through much of the album and is also a mirror to real life, in which the pop singer tries everything she can to ingratiate herself to a less than adoring public. Things change in a remarkably interesting way on “Off to the Races”, wherein Del Rey seems to want some street cred. She tells of how her “old man” is an evil gangster, involved in everything from drugs and maybe even murder, but she doesn’t care about that because he holds her hand and loves her with every beat of his “cocaine heart”. He sips Cristal while she swims around topless in the pool for his enjoyment. But she also says that she’s crazy and demands money and gold so she can go to the races and spend money all over town. The coup de gras in all this comes in a few lines in the chorus in which she says, “I need you to come here and save me/I’m your little scarlet starlet singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”. Sure, it’s bad enough just to read it, but the WAY she sings it, in the most innocent, high-pitched baby voice a la Betty Boop, feels like an affront to women everywhere. Yet thinking about it from a different perspective, perhaps it’s just the opposite. A ruthless and tough girlfriend of a gangster one minute and an innocent young girl in need of saving the next, it appears she’s playing the latter role with her man to obtain money and access. Again, we’re dealing with parallels to real life.
Lizzy Grant is playing the role of Lana Del Rey. She must know the stereotypes she’s portraying and is either comfortable with lowering herself to obtain success, or is doing it to be ironic. In a perfect world it’d be the latter, but at the moment it appears to be the former, or at most a little from column A and column B. If she gave a little wink or even a smirk now and then, it’d be easier to say she was faking it to get people talking about gender issues and to work that much harder to change how success is obtained. Instead, everything about her, from her videos to her interviews to her live performances and the songs on Born to Die, smacks of overwrought sincerity. Yet it’s difficult to think a person would purposely sell their entire gender short just to earn money and popularity. Maybe Lizzy Grant really does have more in common with Lana Del Rey than one would reasonably think. Maybe she’s not a good person in the least. Or maybe she simply needs an outlet through which she can channel a life and emotional state built upon sadness, allowing the character to live and work through the situations she herself has trouble dealing with. What we’re searching for is clarity. Something to help us truly understand how Lana Del Rey came to be, and where she might go in the future. The record doesn’t provide any answers, or at least appears not to. What you get instead are a mixture of heavy ballads and tracks that take closer cues from hip hop and R&B, each one like the layer of an onion peeling back to try and explain or re-explain this persona Lizzy Grant has created.
After a moderately strong first 5 tracks, which include the aforementioned singles and most likely future singles “Diet Mountain Dew” and “Off to the Races”, Born to Die slowly descends into bland and boring ballads that are overlong and similarly styled to what came before them. They reiterate many of the same lyrical points as well, only with less emotion and less compelling melodies. The second half of the record is a chore to listen to in many ways, and the 3 bonus tracks on the deluxe edition only make it worse. Somehow 60 minutes with this thing feels nearly twice as long. Perhaps it’s the lack of briskly paced, faster tempo pop songs that are the main source of the drag. In an alternate universe somewhere there’s a 10 track, 35 minute version of Born to Die that is nearly perfect. The reality is we don’t need songs like “Dark Paradise” or “Million Dollar Man” as they feel more like padding than legitimate attempts to write smart or engaging songs. That’s a talent we know Del Rey has, because in spite of all the bitching, “Video Games” still completely devastates with every listen. It’s the high watermark she will continue to try and return to for the rest of her career, however long it may last. And though almost all of Born to Die doesn’t live up to the stratospheric expectations that were established for it by months of hype, you have to admire the risks it takes to even make a record like this. For a major label release of course there’s a couple of blatantly commercial elements to it, but between the dominance of 50’s-style melodramatic ballads and the brazen commitment to a purely fictional character, it’s got more of a story to tell and is more sonically adventurous than a whole lot of other big name artists. At least Lizzy Grant is trying something unorthodox, whether it’s for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Will it all work out for her in the end, or will she end up like one of her lesser songs – sad, pathetic and antiquated? That’s for you and your wallet to decide.