With her album coming out in a few weeks, I wanted to take some time out to get the typical Lana Del Rey Thinkpiece out so this stuff doesn’t clutter up the review. And, while I’m at it, I’ll look at a few of her songs today.
It’s gotten to the point that the difference between obscurity and fame can be as simple as one YouTube video. Such is the case with Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant); she started as a failure-to-launch pop star in 2010, underwent an extensive image makeover, released the song “Video Games”. That song caught on, and since then, she’s done interviews, released other videos, and made TV appearances (including a U.S. debut on SNL this weekend). It’s not something that we’re used to when it comes to internet stars. We’re used to politely tolerating their existence until they wear themselves out (I could see this happening with Karmin), or watching them dick around with their new-found fame without doing much until they peter out, like Kreayshawn. Lana, meanwhile, seems like she’s doing everything in her power to become a real pop star.
And right about there is where things get controversial. Much like how Kreayshawn sparked a lot of talk about color and gender in rap, Del Rey’s ignited discussion around authenticity and what’s pop versus what’s indie. Realistically, if you just hear her songs, she sounds like a not fully constructed pop star; it’s only once you get to her image that she starts drifting more and more towards the Pitchfork/Stereogum crowd. What seems to frustrate a lot of people and generate so much discussion is that she’s essentially a pop artist whose chosen portrayal smacks of indie. Last year, I mentioned in a post that pop is starting to be able to mimic indie, and that’s what seems to piss most people off with Lana Del Rey: she’s proof that you don’t have to be indie to sell indie.
Regardless, her Old Hollywood glamour fashion, darkly romantic music, and drawing lyrics have gotten Del Rey a fanbase that, at its most intense, is somewhat more fanatic than Ron Paul supporters, but not quite as far gone as Beliebers. At least, that’s what her millions of views and thousands of YouTube comments have led me to believe. It’s actually kind of fascinating; here we have an artist whose album has been tagged as one of the most anticipated of 2012, but doesn’t have much of a real world/video/song airplay presence. The controversy may have given her more exposure, but it’s still limited to mostly online. And part of me thinks she really needed that controversy.
Because at the heart of it, Lana Del Rey isn’t really a compelling artist. Yet.
Alright, I’m not saying she’s bad artist. Whenever I hear one of her songs, I’m generally ok to leave it on for the next four to five minutes. Of the four “real” releases I’ve caught so far (“Video Games”, “Blue Jeans”, “Born to Die”, and “Off to the Races”), “Video Games” is the clear favorite; the lyrics are poignant, and Lana’s navel-gazing actually has a point. How the other three fall really depends on my mood that day: “Blue Jeans” is probably the most consistently enjoyable of the bunch with a head-tilting beat, while “Born to Die” feels like a slightly more ornate “Video Games”. I still can’t make my mind up on “Off to the Races”, though. On one hand, Lana sounds awake for the first time, but on the other, something about her verbal tics in the song gets annoying, and some of the lyrics strikeout (“Fire of my loins”).
So far, what’s really hurt Del Rey (but not critically) is that there’s just not enough to her yet. In terms of actual music, her songs drift through sparse, repetitive string and piano arrangements wrapped up in dense production. It doesn’t make for bad listening, but the songs feel very inert, and drag on repeated listenings. “Video Games” in particular squeezes four and a half minutes out of a seldom changing arrangement, and “Off to the Races” has a clunky and unnecessary bridge that makes the song about a minute too long. As a performer, Del Rey doesn’t have a lot of stage presence, either; she ends up blending in uninterestingly with the music. Sounding like she was recorded in an echo chamber doesn’t help.
But there’s plenty of positives, too. Aside from the odd misstep, the songwriting’s really sharp, and probably the biggest draw. As mentioned, “Video Games” is the strongest of the bunch, but “Blue Jeans” does a bang up job as well, and “Off to the Races” has some killer stream-of-consciousness lines. And even though they are repetitive, the arrangements are pretty good, and make good “stare out the window at the rain” music.
I think her Born to Die album’s so anticipated because people want to see if she can actually pull it off. What we’ve heard so far tells us who she is and what she does, but I’m curious to see if she can sustain the “sad girl next door” image for a whole record. I’ve listened to these 4 songs a bunch, and the only real conclusion I can come to is that her output so far has been promising, but I can’t make a real call until I get to hear a full album. Should be entertaining, either way.