Lana Del Rey: The Meta-Discussion

Lana Del Rey’s music is the least interesting thing about her.  In fact, Lana Del Rey may be the least interesting thing about Lana Del Rey.

If you haven’t heard of Lana Del Rey, good for you.  In a way, I feel I should apologize for disturbing your blissful ignorance.  Her new album, Born to Die, was released today, landing her on the front page of Google News, something you don’t often see from debuting “indie” acts.  (Yes, I put the word “indie” inside scare quotes.  More on that later.)  The Lana Del Rey (or LDR, if you’re a Twitter user parsimonious with her character count) meta-discussion began a while back when her unreleased songs first hit YouTube and sparked a debate among music bloggers.  Then everything exploded when she made her ignominious television debut as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back, drawing criticism far and wide, including from NBC News anchor Brian Williams.  But I’m skipping a bit.  A nice overview of the LDR story can be summed up in the medium so adept at summing things up:  Taiwanese News CGI.

If you want a little more in-depth treatment of pre-SNL LDR, including the hipster backlash (and backlash-backlash) this Vulture article is quite good, even though it was written way back in September of 2011(!).

If you’re familiar with Del Rey, it’s probably because of “Video Games,” which went MP3-blog viral (meaning not that viral) in August, or because of the crankiness surrounding her rapid rise to Internet fame. If you’re not, allow us to break it down for you.

The singer released an EP under her real name — Lizzy Grant — before reinventing herself as retro siren Lana Del Rey. She’s up front about the role that managers and lawyers played in creating her new, highly stylized fifties pinup persona, though she’s less willing to talk about her pre-makeover career. The visual for “Video Games” — edited by Del Rey herself — makes the most of her aesthetic, splicing sultry webcam shots of Del Rey in with video clips of Paz de la Huerta falling down. Predictably, it garnered some attention. After receiving a “Best New Music” designation for the track, Del Rey gave a selective interview to Pitchfork, avoiding questions about her management and volunteering her thoughts about sleeping with the boss (“It doesn’t get you anywhere”). Then came a second webcam video (“Blue Jeans”) and last week, an industry secret show at which Del Rey was photographed dreamily, cementing her status as indie music lust object.

Next came the backlash. Hipster Runoff took notice, writing a typically obnoxious but no less relevant post about Del Rey’s dubious origins. Meanwhile, the Village Voice‘s Maura Johnston wondered, as part of a larger post about the secret-show trend, whether Del Rey was the indie Kreayshawn — meaning a manufactured sensation based on YouTube views rather than actual musical talent. (Or even musical product: Kreayshawn scored a $1 million record deal based on the merits of a single video.) Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus chimed in with a blog post titled “The Problem With Lana Del Rey”; it turns out there are a lot of problems, and most of them are America’s, but Klein also takes issue with the way that Del Rey markets her sex appeal.

Then, of course, you can view the SNL performaces for yourself:

My initial reaction to the SNL songs was a whole lot of meh.  I’ve re-examined that initial reaction a couple of times, but it doesn’t get me very far.  (I have noticed an interesting effect, though.  When I just listen to the performances, they sound worse than when I watch and listen; but when I watch and listen, the overall effect of the performance seems more awkward than when I just listen. Odd.)  But, I have to admit, it’s not like she’s the only artist ever to sound terrible on Saturday Night Live, nor (probably) is she the least talented.  Looking over a complete Saturday Night Live episode list, there are several mediocre acts.  My response to Brian Williams’ worst-ever designation is the same as Kip Dynamite’s: “Like anyone can even know that.”

But, as I said above, Lana Del Rey’s music is the least interesting thing about her.  (To me, it seems to have been recycled from inferior immitations of Fiona Apple and Mazzy Star, with a heaping helping of trashy retro-sex appeal layered on top of that.  But not nearly as exciting as that sounds like it ought to be.)  In the second decade of the Twenty First Century—more than four decades since Andy Warhol first silk screened a Campbell’s soup can, called it art, and had his factory minions making mass reproductions—it should hardly be surprising that there are musical acts out there that are pre-fabricated and pre-packaged.  But what makes Lana Del Rey notable and controversial is that she’s aiming for “indie.”  If Lana Del Rey had tried dance-pop, music bloggers would have ignored her and hipsters would brush her off, if they ever learned her name at all.  She would have been (at most) yet another Ke$ha or Katy Perry, certainly much less interesting than Lady Gaga, who has raised the technique of manufacturing a persona to … well, to something, that’s for sure.  But because Lana Del Rey is posturing to the indie-rock crowd, she’s offended their sensibilities and (intentionally or not) created quite a stir.  This Good Magazine article puts forward the thesis that the faux-controversy surrounding Lana Del Rey is a result of indie-music-hipsters clinging too dogmatically about “authenticity”:

The controversy over Del Rey isn’t about her music. It’s that she’s “inauthentic,” apparently the worst thing an indie music star can be. …

[F]or indie music, “authentic” designates anything but genuineness—it’s just a fetishized form of cool. When artists are labeled authentic by indie tastemakers, it means they’ve internalized a standard image of indie success and have re-invented themselves accordingly.  We congratulate them for saying and doing on their own what they (or Pitchfork) wanted them to say and do all along. Is this so different than Del Rey saying and doing what she is “told” to do?

This is a fair point, though I think it’s overstated.  (Is it really fair game to criticize Amy Klein, a former member of Titus Andronicus—a band that’s seen a fair amount of critical praise, but is unlikely to ever find fame or fortune—as having a “personal stake” in the indie genre?  Artistically, maybe, but certainly not in a business or financial sense.)  Moreover, I think the idea that hipsters and indie tastemakers will turn on something as soon as it becomes popular is more of a tired cliche than a truism; I rarely see indie rock fans or critics solemnly declaring anyone a “sellout” anymore.

But backing up a bit, I think the “authenticity” question is where the discussion starts to become interesting.  Is authenticity meaningful?  What is it?  Is it snobbish, or naive, or perhaps both, to suggest that you want musicians to whom you listen to be “authentic”?  Does that even mean anything, and if so, by what yardstick does one measure authenticity?  Can a created persona still be authentic?  Does persona or context even matter, or should the music be judged on its merits alone?  Can authenticity be evaluated by reference to the music itself, and nothing else?

The concept of “indie” itself music is very amorphous and uncomfortably ambiguous; it resists definition.  The most obvious one fails almost immediately, I think: bands can be “indie” without being signed to an independent record label; and, conversely, belonging to an independent record label doesn’t make a band indie.  You can document it or create a history for it, suggest signposts that lead you there.  Prior to indie, it was “alternative” (before that label got applied to everything grunge and post-grunge); before that  “post-modern” or “modern”, earlier “new wave,” “post-punk,” “punk,” and so on, at least back as far as the Velvet Underground, arguably the great-great-granddaddy of all indie rock bands.  (It’s worth pausing to note that the Velvet’s first album was “produced”—although it’s hard to imagine him doing any of the tasks you typically think of a record producer as doing—by none other than Andy Warhol, bringing our discussion full circle.)

But if you can’t easily define it, than how is indie rock as a genre different than non-indie rock, or even pop?  One possibility (as discussed in the article above) is that indie rock is different in its preference for a degree of authenticity (or low tolerance for inauthenticity).  But see the issues outlined above when you try to delve into the questions of authenticity.  And that’s just scratching the surface.  Can objective authenticity even exist?  (Here we go again.)  Is it ultimately just subject and a matter of taste?  And who gets to be the arbiters of taste?  The fans?  The critics?

As a catalyst for these types of thoughts and this meta-debate Lana Del Rey is an excellent discussion starter.  Even if I don’t think much of her music, and can’t help but thinking (despite myself and judgementally) that neither should you.

23 thoughts on “Lana Del Rey: The Meta-Discussion

  1. If you don’t understand the backlash, maybe a closer look underneath all the bubble gum persona & imagery, will reveal a more realistic view of what it takes to “MAKE IT” in the industry. the plastic surgery will be the least of your worries, I assure you. I’m not a hater but an Educator.

    It’s funny how people blindly accept the next packaged “artist” even with all the backlash
    people STILL aren’t getting to the core of the Industry.

  2. The problem with authenticity is that most artists like to delude themselves that they aren’t entertainers and are somehow something more like philosopher-kings. They just pretend that their authenticity is anything more than meeting a narrow market and providing what that market wants. It’s fine to have your own voice. But this self-delusion that they aren’t involved in exactly the same game is just silly.

    Now lots of artists don’t have their own voice. They are generated by committee and a cynical attempt to meet a particular market niche. I don’t think it fair to say indie bands are just doing that. (Although I often think many are but obscure it well) But there’s an aspect of that you can’t escape if you are making music for money.

    The biggest problem is that the same people who criticize Madonna, Britney Spears and now Lady Gaga for having the context matter more than the music are the same people who place context so high in indie music.

  3. This debate is mostly silly, but if authenticity means anything and matters at all then it means pretty much the same thing as that old sayiing: “You don’t have to be the greatest musician in the world, you just have to mean it.” In other words, it has to be your thing. Your words, your music, your passion. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to always write all your own music and lyrics (though that certainly helps) but it does mean that, if you’re going to create a consistent image and sound to present to the public, it should be one you believe in, not just the one that was most successful in the focus groups.

    In the end, though, you’re either talented or you’re not. I would say that this artist, whatever you call her and however you dress her, is just not very talented. The only thing that offends me a bit about her is that she got a shot on SNL that a lot of bands and singers would kill for, and she got it by doing not very much at all. Is it too much to ask that, the folks in charge of venues like that hand out those slots to artists that have actually proven themselves? YouTube views should not be enough to get you that kind of exposure.

  4. I don’t even buy the “your words, your music” bit. There are plenty of amazing studio musicians who are helping other artists. Art is frequently a collaborative project. The very question of “authenticity” involves a romantic ideal of the solitary artist that at best is rarely true and at worse is pretty much a slap at lots of artists.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think we can all agree that the latest Disney or Nickelodeon boy band or girl idol are inauthentic. But at a certain point the very debate is in itself a kind of critique of the audience enjoying music as a product.

  5. Studio musicians are not what we’re talking about, though, Clark. We’re talking about bands and singers that are trying to make a living with the public, not just trying to get jobs in the studio playing with other musicians. Yes, art is often collaborative (which is why you see many bands give credit to all the band members, plus others, even when the music and/or lyrics are written by one person). But no matter who writes the music and lyrics, the artist or band has to be responsible for the vision that is being presented by the words, music and image that the artist or band is presenting. If the artist or band does not have anything to do with creating that vision and doesn’t believe in it, it’s not authentic.

    That’s a long way of saying something that Dylan said a lot more simply: “All you need is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth.” It’s the truth part that people respond to, and it’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about authenticity. If you can’t even tell the truth about yourself, who you are and how you feel, then there’s not much point in anyone listening to you.

    Compare, for example, Florence Welch with Lana Del Rey and you’ll see what I mean. Some of it is just talent, but it’s more than that. You can say music is a product, and you’re right, but some artists never let us think about that, and some never let us forget.

  6. I’d never listened to Lana before the Vulture article. I found her music pretty dull. Analogies to Cat Power just fell flat for me — Lana just doesn’t really seem to have it.

  7. I agree one has to take responsibility. However taking responsibility is somewhat different from the overly romanticized notion of authenticity often trumpeted in the indie world. I think Dylan talked about the truth because he was a political singer and was talking about what he viewed as political truths. I don’t know much about Dylan but I have my doubts he bought into this authenticity romance.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Del Rey. I’m more just critiquing the way she is criticized. To me the best criticism is just that she produces an uninteresting and unenjoyable product.

  8. That’s one criticism alright, but if you’re saying that authenticity just doesn’t exist, I disagree.

    Let me try another example. Back when U2 did Rattle & Hum, they came in for a storm of critisism, some of which was valid and some not, but the part they really took to heart was the idea that the marketing campaign for the movie was trying to make them look like movie stars rather than just the normal Irish guys they had always portrayed themselves to be. They looked at the airbrushed images created for the film and found that they didn’t recognize themselves in the images that the studio was creating. The problem was, they didn’t have any contractual control over the images used to market the movie, or their albums for that matter. From that point on, they tried to change that, and one of the things they did immediately was that they created images that they were in control of, so that the images being used by the studio and the label would be drowned out by the images they created themselves. That’s why Bono started appearing as the MacPhisto character and The Fly character and the Mirror Ball Man. It was an attempt to take control of their image, and have any public image of the band be something they created and believed in, rather than a marketing image dreamed up in a board room somewhere.

    That’s authentic. An image created by a label or a manager which an artist adopts only as a means to sell music is not. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but in Lana’s case, people are saying that her image smacks of a marketing strategy rather than an authentic artistic choice on her part. I think they are probably right about that.

  9. MCQ: “The problem was, they didn’t have any contractual control over the images used to market the movie, or their albums for that matter. From that point on, they tried to change that, and one of the things they did immediately was that they created images that they were in control of, so that the images being used by the studio and the label would be drowned out by the images they created themselves.”

    This is an interesting example. So when U2 sought to regain their authenticity, they did so by moving their career into its phase that was mostly dominated by post-modern irony. Huh.

  10. Clark: “I think I’m saying ‘authenticity’ is a problematic category as used.”

    That’s similar to what I was saying with this post. And yet, part of me (the indie-music fan part, no doubt) wants to believe that there really is something called authenticity that has value, no matter how hard or problematic it is to intellectualize.

    I think Bob Dylan was keenly aware of the whole authenticity problem and often toyed with it throughout his career.

  11. Greg, that’s part of the problem with authenticity is that it runs head long into problems when you have playfulness and irony. A few thoughts. First, was U2 inauthentic when they did Rattle & Hum? Should I discount that album because of their inauthenticity? And when they became authentic by embracing the inauthentic trappings (ironically of course) what on earth does that mean. To me it means that the very meaning of authenticity (which used to be all about control, sincerity and a lack of artifice) we deconstructed and destroyed.

    It’s pretty hard to reconcile authenticity with the ironic distance of Gen-X. It’s much easier when looking at the 60’s and even 70’s. Although the 70’s run headlong into trouble due to the thorny problem of production – after all punk held up Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin as the pinnacle of inauthenticity and was a backlash against that. But it’s hard to think of a person more worried about authenticity and control than Roger Waters. (Who arguably injected a lot of that irony into his work such that’s it’s hard to figure out if there is any artifice about)

    This isn’t just a problem of Gen-X (indie or otherwise). The problem of irony is that you can’t really say who is being authentic or not. The exact same behavior could be authentic or inauthentic. But those holding authenticity up as the great standard really are talking about the appearance of authenticity which (ironically) is a totally inauthentic way to think about authenticity.

    So Del Rey may have struggled as a song performer and decided to take control by doing viral videos, adopting a faux-40’s siren personae all in a deeply controlled fashion. Thus her total personae would, by the standards of Bono, be deeply authentic. Arguably more authentic since she may have no irony at play. However because it appears to be dreaded pop style over substance (as opposed to the ironic style over substance as style of Bono) the indie crowd must label it inauthentic. Not because Del Rey lacks control, sincerity or the like but because she doesn’t comport to the expected behavior of authenticity. That is, to be authentically indie you either have to coincidentally like authentically what everyone else does or else being manipulated into the appearance of authenticity in a deeply inauthentic fashion.

    Which is partially why Gen-X’s ironic distance developed — because the whole debate about authenticity was honestly kind of dumb. So bands like Nirvana, U2, and everyone else (many considered inauthentic by the indie crowd because of their success if not their irony) played up all the silliness of the artifice of the system. At a certain point ones head is spinning. Especially when controlling artists whose entire personae is artifice like Madonna or (now) Lady Gaga are either completely inauthentic or completely authentic. Depending upon whether one likes them. And one hopes ones like at some point has something to do with the music – but one never can be sure.

    It reminds me of when I was a kid at the height of the Madonna mania and David Letterman interviewed a bunch of girls at a Madonna concert dressed in the style of Madonna. He asked why they dressed that way. The reply? “To express our individuality.” How could the 90’s have been anything but an ironic reaction to that?

  12. “So when U2 sought to regain their authenticity, they did so by moving their career into its phase that was mostly dominated by post-modern irony. Huh.”

    Maybe, but for purposes of this discussion, that’s irrelevant. Authenticity is not dependent on content, it’s defined by its source.

    Clark, it seems like it’s only problematic because you want it to be. Authenticity is like pornography in one sense: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s also pretty crucial to a lot of people’s appreciation of music and other types of art, so I don’t think you can remove it from the discussion just because you have a cynical view that all artists are engaged in marketing a product.

  13. Weird.

    I hadn’t heard a thing about this woman until last week. I listened to her Born to Die BBC session track on the radio. I ignore about 99% of what I hear on the radio but for this one I kept the radio on even when I had parked so I could find out who she was. So, oblivious to the hype, I still seem to have been sucked in. That says to me that the music is pretty good, actually.

  14. Musically, she’s not awful, but I’m kind of surprised you liked it Ronan. To me, she’s pretty sleep-inducing.

    Milli Vanilli are long past being able to embrace anything, but that’s a bit of a different issue, in my book. There’s a difference between inauthenticity and outright fraud.

    I did wonder about all the people who listened to them and loved them prior to the revelations about lip-synching and then hated them afterwards. Why is that? Well, turns out the public is put off when they feel they’ve been duped. People are just funny that way.

    There’s something of that in the indie backlash against Lana Del Rey as well. People are acting like she’s trying to put one over on them and they’ve found her out.

  15. She has a great voice that has a certain addictive quality in it that makes you wanna listen to her more and more, and I didn’t even know anything about how she got famous and I didn’t need to see her sexy videos, just those songs on youtube and the voice modulations and the deep dark sex appeal in it. She can sing. And that talent is about

  16. Do we need every artist to be authentic? your next door neighbour is authentic, doesn’t make you want to watch them sing. I don’t think much about Lana is real, nothing about Marilyn Monroe was real and she’s lasted longer because we don’t know who she was. Lana has mental health problems, I think that she uses this like a Shamen to show us her fragile soul, true stars are all themselves and all image at the same time. She uses her depression like many great artists and turns her weaknesses into strengths.

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