So…Lana Del Rey.
If you’ve perused any music blog in the last month, I’m sure you had her name thrown at least into your periphery. (If you frequent Hipster Runoff, it’s probably been legitimately shoved down your throat, complete with a side of vitriol.) She’s the songstress behind “Video Games,” the song that has divided Internet-using music fans into two camps: those who decry the “shocking inauthenticity” behind Ms. Del Rey’s melancholic neo-torch song, and those who like the self-proclaimed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” and find themselves confused by the extreme backlash against her.
I fall pretty firmly into the second category, and after watching the polarizing singer’s SNL performance this weekend, I find myself even more confused by the backlash. Yes, she was awkward on stage. Yes, she was pitchy in spots. Chalk that up to an inexperienced singer making her debut to the American public at large as a musical guest on a television institution. Everybody has an off day, and poor Lana happened to have hers on Saturday night. Unfortunately, in today’s information-saturated culture, we (myself included) don’t often drop back in on someone or something to give them a second chance, and after her iffy performances Saturday, it’s safe to say that she didn’t manage to convert a lot of new fans.
However, her live performances aside, many people wrote Del Rey off before even giving her a legitimate chance. Appearing initially as Elizabeth Grant in 2010, Lana Del Rey independently released her first album of original tunes (now called a “Demo LP” on Wikipedia) before ducking out of the public eye, only to return a year later with a new hair color, a new name and a major record label contract with Interscope Records. Suddenly, bloggers around the Internet began dragging Del Rey’s name through the mud, particularly after the homespun collage-y music video for “Video Games” went viral, claiming that she was nothing more than a product of meddling record label executives creating a persona they thought people wanted to hear.
Because she has signed with a major record label, it seems very likely that Del Rey has indeed worked with record executives to create a stage persona for herself, designed to sell as many records as possible. The real question here is why is that a bad thing? Look at the pop princesses currently ruling the charts: Katy Perry was born Katy Hudson and released a self-titled gospel album in 2001 while Lady Gaga was born Stefani Germanotta and is very vocal about her carefully constructed stage persona, and these ladies have sold millions and millions of albums and singles. Why should Lana Del Rey be subjected such intense scrutiny for undergoing some of the same behavior that her peers in the music industry do?
I think the crux of the matter comes in the identification of the crowd that Del Rey appeals to. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are not appealing to your average hipster, who likely values authenticity and lo-fi music more than the flashy bells and whistles that KP and LG offer. Del Rey, however, with her unique voice, quiet arrangements, and her roots as an independent artist seems like she was “designed” with alternative music fans in mind. And because hipsters hate fakes and have blogs, Facebooks and Twitter accounts, it wasn’t long until Lana Del Rey’s name was being slammed from all corners of the Internet simply for taking a year off and reinventing herself.
I firmly believe that artists should be judged first and foremost on the quality of their work, so if you have listened to “Video Games” or “Blue Jeans” or “Born To Die” and you aren’t a fan, so be it. I’m not so naive that I think everyone should love all musicians. But don’t tear the poor woman down without giving her a proper chance first; yes, she’s almost overhyped, but this is one of the cases where I think the hype is justified. Lana Del Rey is unlike anyone else currently recording in the American music industry: she possesses an entirely unique voice that glitters with unpolished talent, she writes songs that marry nostalgia and melancholy with an unbridled love for fame and money, and she has a clear vision of her artistic identity. Just look at her breakout single: “Video Games” is a haunting look at the nuances of love, featuring a striking vocal pitched low in Del Rey’s smoky range amidst sparse piano arrangement. Similarly, her new single, “Born To Die,” is a scorching lament to love that burns hot and fast, yet is doomed in the end. These two tracks are exquisite distillations of Del Rey’s potential, and hopefully she will only continue to improve, particularly from a live standpoint.
Relatedly, my friend Dut mentioned that he thinks Lana Del Rey’s current music is a natural evolution from the material on her first album, and I wholeheartedly agree. Listen to “Oh, Say Can You See” or “Kinda Outta Luck” and tell me you can’t hear the roots of “Video Games” and “Born To Die” there. She may be garnering advice and assistance from her record label bosses, but Lizzy Grant knew her artistic direction long before she decided to fully embrace her Lana Del Rey persona.
This blog was intended to be an analysis of the pros and cons of being overhyped and how some artists/works deserve the buzz (and it was supposed to pull in a discussion of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, because I am just unconvinced of the merits of that novel), but as I was writing it, it was clear this defense of Lana Del Rey was kicking around the recesses of my brain, asking to be written. Basically, all I’m asking is for anyone who reads this to give the girl a legitimate chance. She shouldn’t be held to any different standards than the other pop starlets of today, and the backlash against her is unwarranted and unfounded. If she succeeds or fails in the music world, it should be on her artistic merit and that alone, not on her supposed inauthenticity.