She’s Not What She Seems
Pop stars reinvent themselves all the time. Why has Lana Del Rey’s reinvention caused such a stir?
Photograph by Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images.
A few years ago, the singer and songwriter Lizzy Grant reinvented herself online. This seems overwhelmingly unremarkable behavior in the 21st century, particularly for a would-be pop musician, but it proved scandalous. Grant, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from upstate New York, recorded an EP and an album in the late 2000s. Some time before the summer of 2011, according to a recent Billboard story, she deleted her social-networking profiles and a site bearing her name, and withdrew her album, Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Rey, from iTunes. Last August, she uploaded a music video to YouTube under the stage name Lana Del Rey—goodbye Grant. The clip was for “Video Games,” a beguilingly morose love song. Helped along by music blogs and BBC Radio 1, which supported the track early, the video became a hit: Today, it’s been viewed more than 22 million times.
There seems to have been nothing more duplicitous in Del Rey’s jettisoning of Grant than there was in Dylan’s jettisoning of Zimmerman, but when the fact of her previous incarnation came to light, the response from online detractors was irate and impassioned: This was no diamond in the digital rough, pure and uncompromised. Grant’s debut album had, it emerged, been produced by David Kahne, an industry big with Paul McCartney and Sugar Ray on his résumé. She had, in fact, signed with the powerhouse major label Interscope a month before she’d uploaded the “Video Games” clip. A particular point of scrutiny were her lips, which appear significantly plumper today than they do in photographs from the Grant days, suggesting a surgical procedure—further fakery. In posts and comment sections on many of the same blogs that had helped Del Rey take off in the first place, listeners lashed out as though they’d been betrayed, expunging the abject corporate product they’d accepted so trustingly into their hearts. In this blood sport, the blog Hipster Runoff played the (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) head cheerleader: “She was basically a failed mainstream artist who is being ‘rebranded’ behind major label dollars,” one post sniped.
On the one hand, the controversy was good for Del Rey because it meant that far more people would listen to her music than might have done so otherwise. On the other hand, listeners drawn in by bad publicity tend to come to the table with their knives out, or at least with their guards up—not ideal attitudes for open-minded listening. In January, Del Rey sang two songs on Saturday Night Live, swaying awkwardly, brushing at her hair self-consciously, her voice bottoming out into leaden notes. The booking itself was surprisingly controversial: had she truly “earned it,” or somehow cut to the front of the line? Brian Williams, an avowed indie-music fan, groused that Del Rey was “the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history.” Stilted, underwhelming SNL musical performances are commonplace. Del Rey’s appearance didn’t buck the trend. But it did give detractors fresh ammunition: We were fooled by a charlatan, and an inept charlatan at that!
Last week, Del Rey’s proper debut album, Born to Die, leaked online; it arrives in stores this week. I like the album better with each listen—the more time I spend in its company, the more I feel as though I’m approaching it on something like its own terms. The mood on “Video Games” is one of elegant confusion. On paper, the song resembles an over-the moon love letter, with lines like “Heaven is a place on earth with you,” and “It’s all for you, everything I do” —but that’s not the way it sounds. Strings, central to the album’s arrangements, swell sweetly, but the song’s dominant motif is a muted, desultory piano figure that suggests Cat Power at her broodiest. Del Rey’s delivery is somber and vaguely recriminatory, as though her boundless affections aren’t being sufficiently reciprocated by their object. The video is a mélange of tones, too, alternating found footage of couples cavorting carefree with paparazzi video of Paz de la Huerta stumbling drunkenly. Del Rey herself appears in shots that seem both intimate (they’re naturally lit and haphazardly framed) and distant (her posture is stiff, her affect dead-eyed, her retro-Hollywood make-up laid on thick).
Del Rey spends most of that song singing in a languorous, husky tone that can slip into the soporific; her voice is more limber than this performance lets on. On the chorus to “Off to the Races” she adopts a naughty-baby voice and a rapperly cadence, both reminiscent of Gwen Stefani. Del Rey dips into this same style on “Lolita” and “National Anthem”; the latter song also features a lovely little slaloming vocal on the hook that wouldn’t be out of place on a ballad by gentler, airier singers like Ben Gibbard or Ingrid Michaelson. Del Rey sprinkles her songs with hip-hop catchphrases (“ride or die,” “fresh to death,” “chasing paper”) and brief spoken interludes that nod back to the ’60s girl-groups. The tempos are laidback, but the drums are hard-hitting. The result is vibrant, frequently goofy, and, at times, unpleasantly schizophrenic: a let’s-see-what-sticks barrage of voices that Del Rey hasn’t fully refined into “her voice.”
This speaks to a larger sense that Del Rey’s true crime isn’t against laws of authenticity (whatever those are) but, to the contrary, against laws of show-business: She has yet to master the theatrical-alchemical transformation that we expect from successful pop stars. It’s strange, really, that much of the blog-borne backlash against Del Rey slammed her as yet another automaton gliding squeaky-clean and jumbo-lipped down the assembly line. It would be more precise to say that she’s unconvincingly fake: She botches the disappearance of the fumbling aspirant into the grand, naturalized pantomime of the pro.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.