A version of this article also appears on kevchino.com
I’ll admit it, I was late to the party on this one. By the time I got around to Googling her name, Lana Del Rey’s album had already dropped, her infamous SNL performance was a fading memory, and the hype surrounding her “Video Games” video seemed like a lifetime ago. I’d like to think this made me an unprejudiced listener, but as I mentioned, I did Google her—so I was pretty well caught up in about two-and-a-half minutes.
The narrative that emerged in those minutes was deceptively simple: Lana Del Rey’s music video for her first single, “Video Games,” was released to critical acclaim, she was branded a kind of hipster princess, and she was promptly launched, like a collagen-inflated rag doll, into the mainstream. Then, after an underwhelming appearance on Saturday Night Live, her past life as the singer Lizzy Grant came to light, the curtain was pulled back, and she was revealed as a talentless phony.
Of course, by this time the story had entered a third phase, in which the narrative was deconstructed ad nauseam, by critics and fans alike. I found myself thinking the same thing that plenty of people were already saying: how could we criticize Lana Del Rey for manufacturing an image, or even for singing badly, when so many of our favorite pop stars made a business of doing just that? Everyone knows Madonna didn’t grow up with that name (or that accent for that matter). Reports that Britney Spears lip-synchs in concert hardly ruined her career. And though I would be the first to admit that Brit-Brit is a subpar singer, I would also argue that she produces some of the catchiest, most compelling pop music out there; the fact that she is not solely responsible for it is entirely beside the point. And so, too, should be Lana Del Rey’s vocal averageness, her less-than-impressive stage presence—right?
I can’t deny that Born To Die has a certain something. Producer Emile Haynie fashions a vast, glittering atmosphere lush with surging strings and slinky hip-hop beats. The music is heady and portentous, evoking the smoky menace of a mid-60s noir and sung with the blithe sensuality of a Lolita-esque seductress. Born To Die seems tailor-made to appeal to a certain demographic—twentysomethings striking a cynical pose, pining preemptively for their misspent youth. “Remember how we used to party up all night,” sings Del Rey listlessly, carelessly, on “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” “Sneakin’ out, lookin’ for a taste of real life/Drinkin’ in the small-town firelight/Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice.”
After fifteen languorous tracks, however, Del Rey’s posturing wears thin. She sounds a lot older than she looks, but her voice is flat, lethargic; the languid music calls for a much stronger vocal presence, someone on the order of Florence Welch or Fiona Apple. No doubt—Born To Die does not live up to the hype.
That said, it puzzled me that the album should elicit such vitriol from critics. Granted, it wasn’t all that impressive, but it was completely listenable and at times—dare I say it?—enjoyable. I decided it was time I watched that notorious SNL clip. How bad could it be?
It was bad.
It’s hard to explain, but something about Lana Del Rey’s performance on Saturday Night Live stirred the same irrational hatred in me that it did in everyone else. Was it her vacant expression? The awkward swaying? The stilted hand gestures? She’s no singer! She’s a fake! I thought. That’s clearly why everyone hates her so much.
I was wrong, of course. Lana Del Rey enrages us not because she isn’t exactly who she seems to be, or because she is not as talented as she was originally thought to be, but because she is so utterly transparent. The truth is, we want nothing more than to be fooled. When we watch Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift, the fact that they were groomed and sculpted by a mighty, rich, image-making industry doesn’t matter. They all possess some indefinable quality that convinces us that they have earned the right to be on that stage.
When we look at Lana Del Rey, we realize that anybody—anybody—can have a singing career, given the right connections and a pretty enough face. How can we idolize her if we know she’s no better than the rest of us? We aren’t mad because she faked it; we’re mad but because she doesn’t fake it well enough.