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.