III. The Backlash: It’s About the Music, LOL
The issue with Lana Del Rey is not whether she is some corporate test-tubed ingénue, but why we are unwilling to believe that she is animated by her own passion and ambition — and why that makes a hot girl so unattractive. The big question here is not: Is she real? But, rather, why it seems impossible to believe that she could be. Del Rey has started to reveal herself as a real girl, and the Internet musters only unconsidered hateration.
On the surface, the Lana Del Rey Authenticity Debate swings between two depressing possibilities: (1) That’s she’s all but the fourth Kardashian sister, Frankensteined together by old white guys in ties in order to exploit the now sizable “indie” market, or (2) that she is a moderately talented singer who is getting over by pushing our buttons with nostalgia and good looks. This is the distracting crux, the long shadow of a pointless debate that falls over Born to Die. For critics and anonymous commenters alike, the prospect of an attractive female artist who sings plainly about her desire because she has it, with a vision that is personal and not manufactured by others, who writes her own songs and makes her own videos, who understands what it takes to be a viable pop product and is capable of guiding herself to those perilous heights, this is an unsolvable equation. Yet, Lana Del Rey is doing it all, before our very eyes.
Being sexy and serious about your art needn’t be mutually exclusive, even when your art involves (in part) being a pop package. Defending herself to Pitchfork last fall, Del Rey said, “I’m not trying to create an image or a persona. I’m just singing because that’s what I know how to do.” Her intent is certainly more ambitious than to “just” sing — if not, she would still be making the rounds of Brooklyn open mics, not making a record on which the Philadelphia Orchestra appears — but she is making an attempt to refocus our attention on her music. Which, for a time, was why anyone really cared about her. Perhaps, if she made more of a stink and showed some enmity toward the music industry’s decaying carcass or faked us out with a record on an indie label like Merge first, her ambition would be palatable, rather than outrageous.
The mistaken assumption that’s constantly central to the argument against Lana Del Rey is that she is a valence for DIY/indie culture, which she’s never purported to be. She played daytime industry showcases at overlit venues in Midtown for years, taking meetings at majors since mid-2010. These are the steps you take when you want to get over as a pop artist, not get noticed by Matador. Blogs and tastemaking websites just assumed that they noticed her first, when, in fact, they were two years behind a pack of lawyers and A&R scouts, eager to sign an artist who was pre-formed, a total package.
While a few blogs got on the Del Rey wagon early (Arjan Writes reviewed “Diet Mountain Dew” in May 2010 and Lizzy Grant’s “Kill Kill” in October 2008) — successive waves of attention in late spring of 2011 were prompted by press releases. No one rightly discovered her, even the coolest blogs were being jumped into by publicists or grassroots marketing firms like Wiredset, and they were gladly repeating the story fed to them. Many of these same blogs are now indignant, fronting like they got duped into caring about her or lending her credibility, but they weren’t so discerning before. They were just eager to claim “first,” as is the law of the jungle.
In the weeks surrounding the release of Del Rey’s Born to Die, every interview and TV performance became a new proving ground. Video interviews showed Del Rey as both self-aware and funny, as when a VH1 interviewer condescendingly comforted her by saying “their loss,” about not being named to this year’s Coachella lineup. She deadpanned, “Aw, thanks,” before cracking herself up. Her much-maligned Saturday Night Live performance sounded just as uneven and awkward as every other band that performs on the show. (Consider the fact that she was booked before she was ready as evidence that whatever “machine” is driving Lana, Inc. might be anxious and impulsive rather than calculated and slick. Or that traditional approaches to artist development and rollout are about as relevant as a cassingle.) Still, this was taken as resounding proof that she was Born 2 Fail by no less an authority than NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
In other interviews, Del Rey has talked about studying cosmology and a six-year stint volunteering for homeless outreach, suggesting that she’s more engaged in the real word (and its physics) than her ardent critics. Speaking to writers, she’s humble to the point of guilelessness, telling MTV, “I consider being able to pursue music a luxury, but it’s not the most important thing in my life. It’s just something that’s really nice that ended up working for me for right now.” Still, she doesn’t bother hiding her ambition — she’s cited the self-help classic Think & Grow Rich as her recommended reading.
Surprisingly, it’s still easier for people to believe the ancient model of a major-label star system — girl of moderate talent is groomed and posed to appeal — rather than accept that a young woman could plot her course by her own animus. Meanwhile, sexist critiques of Del Rey’s appearance, songs, and videos get spun as incisive discernment, offered up as knowing analysis of a deceptive product. Her songs are assailed as “trying too hard” to be sexy, as if we have Rip Van Winkled through the past 25 years of liberated pop-diva sexuality — Madonna/Janet/Britney/Rihanna — and are now shocked by Del Rey’s slight approximation. She’s a by-the-book star, and yet she’s seen as somehow breaking the rules — as if we would be anywhere close to as intrigued by a woman more subtle, refined, and modest. As an audience, we do this big kabuki about wanting the truth, but really, we’re only interested in the old myths of what a girl can do.