My dear fellows,
I’m feeling a little bit like Lana Del Rey right now. Not fake: I don’t think that’s what’s crucial about her, and I agree with Carl that dwelling negatively on her hetero-drag simply reiterates an old prejudice: “the notion which gained ground during the 19th century that mass culture is somehow associated with woman, while real, authentic culture remains the prerogative of men.” As literary critic Andreas Huyssen, who identified this idea in his book After the Great Divide, would recognize, Lana Del Rey’s untrustworthy allure echoes all the way back to Emma Bovary. Dozens of glamour girls, femmes fatale, teen dreams, supergroupies, and Madonna wannabes paved the way for her. Why are we taken aback?
What I feel at 12:48 a.m., writing in a hotel room after a long day of post-holiday obligations while my kid sleeps on the foldaway nearby, is dead. Exhausted, bereft of personal agency, inert, only able to reflect others’ desires instead of realizing my own. (I’m exaggerating! Sort of.) Dead is what Lana Del Rey is, too, I think, in her music and the persona Lizzie Grant has so cannily constructed. The David Lynch/Laura Palmer connection’s been made well by Mark Richardson in Pitchfork, and carelessly by many others. But again, we can go farther back, all the way to the Victorian obsession with ghost babes like Ophelia and the Lady of Shallot.
The affectless tone of Lana Del Rey’s voice and the airlessness of her undateable vintage sound, combined with her lyrical and videogenic embrace of the victim role, drain her music of the vital ingredients that made rock and roll, for example, so much fun: youth, sexiness, laugh-out-loud humor, blessed impropriety. (I guess she showed some deadpan wit in going with the headsmackingly obvious “Born To Die” as her second single.) Instead, there’s the draw of necrophilia, the frisson of going deep with someone who’s surrendered her own free will. It’s not a surprise in the least that such a figure would be compelling in an era ruled by vampires and zombies. Lana Del Rey’s closest peer might be the Kristen Stewart of the Twilight movies, a heroine who’s really a sacrifice.
It’s possible that Lizzy Grant will make something powerful from this old material. More likely, her imminent new album will tread—or just lie there—on familiar ground. I wish she’d take some pointers from Kate Bush, who at Grant's* age was also interested in ghosts, but made them shriek and fly and bang on windows. Jody mentioned the return of the Great Kate in his first missive this year. I couldn’t be happier about the success of the beautifully cohesive 50 Words for Snow, or of the Kate-style lifeblood that surges through the music of Laura Marling, St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, Fay Wolf, and many other young women who could easily take down Lana Del Rey with a Kung Fu kick.
By the way, the album that roundly squashed Del Rey’s chance to be 2011’s most despised artist—Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu—is also about a woman born to die. I am one of the very few defenders of Loutallica (shoutout to Glenn Kenny, who wrote well about it on his blog), partly because I just love its audacity, but also because I still treasure Lou Reed’s voice, in all its craggy, ugly, pugnacious, self-indulgent glory. Applying that blunt instrument to every character in Frank Wedekind’s century-old story of fatal feminine allure, Loutallica made something no one would call adult contemporary. What Lulu is, though, is grown up: an artistic experiment with range and guts, pursued by seasoned artists playing not for the hive mind’s approval, but for their own edification and fuck-it-all enjoyment. If it failed, it failed with more might than many of the year’s successes mustered.
Okay, now it’s nearly closing time (which reminds me, Tom Waits released a fine album this year too!), and I gotta get some shut-eye. Let me conclude simply by listing some of the fleshy, loud, fully embodied folks releasing music in 2012, whom I hope we’ll be discussing this time next year.
There’s the young Texas bluesman Gary Clark, Jr., set to lead the latest revival of that inextinguishable tradition. There’s Stew & the Negro Problem, reflecting on Broadway success and romantic failure in the terrific Making It. There’s the mighty Erika Wennerstrom and her Heartless Bastards, making arena rock for your Ikea-furnished living room. There’s Elle Varner working it in sassy Solange mode, and Michael Kiwanuka stepping into Bill Withers’ big shoes. There’s Allen Stone, who proves that retro-soul can be unstudied and even reckless. And there’s the first Internet buzz sensation I’ve been able to unabashedly embrace: my beloved classic rockers the Alabama Shakes.
So let’s meet here this time next year, and talk about the arguments and the trends and the weird phenomena—and most of all, not to be overly earnest or anything, the music that makes us feel alive.
Correction, Dec. 31, 2011: This entry originally misstated Lizzy Grant's surname as "Wright." (Return to the corrected sentence.)