The big debate regarding haunting, hip-hop fueled, singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey has become less about her musical output, and more to do with her image and it’s authenticity. Seemingly rising out of nowhere with her viral hit “Video Games” last year, Del Rey appeared to be a fully-formed pop princess, destined for future chart success. But then came the shouts of “fake” and “fraud” from cynical critics and angry music blogs. The criticisms have been written about many times before: she was already signed to Interscope Records, she already had an album under the name Lizzy Grant, her Dad is a rich businessman, she used to dress differently, she has had lip surgery etc.
My stance on this debate? Who cares? Many artists have changed their image over the years, either in search for success or because it felt like a natural progression. The Black Eyed Peas went from a semi-socially conscious hip hop group to a sugar coated pop outfit rapping about “My Humps”. P!nk started out as another of many R&B divas in the late 90s, and then transformed in to a rock-chick. Christina Aguilera went from “girl next door” to “dirrrty” to “soul singer”. Rick Ross was a former correctional officer for christ’s sake, and constantly raps about being a gangster don.
So what if Lizzy Grant changed her name to Lana Del Rey and started wearing sun-dresses? Isn’t it just like David Bowie becoming Ziggy Stardust? Or Stefani Germanotta becoming Lady Gaga? It’s not as if Del Rey’s musical style particularly changed, her Lizzy Grant album features the same slow, love-lorn, bad boy obsessed, Lynchian influenced ballads, and she was making homemade “Video Games” style music videos back then too. Everyone got caught up in the Lana Del Rey hype, and now music websites like Pitchfork are embarrassingly back-tracking, oblivious that they were part of the cause.
But with that out of the way, lets just try and judge the album for its own value, shall we?
Stuck to my bedroom door is a poster for the David Lynch film Mulhollad Drive (http://bit.ly/wWTMHG), featuring a palm tree bordered road leading to Hollywood Hills, and the two female stars staring at something off in the distance. The tag-line for the movie is “A love story in the city of dreams”, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate description when thinking of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. Like the film itself, Del Rey’s album focuses in on the allure of Hollywood, role-playing, and self-invention.
Lana Del Rey plays a character, in fact she plays many characters, and her songs are like mini-movies. Her album is full of tragi-romance stories, conflicted heroines, road trips, bad boys, whiskey, and sun dresses. Wild at heart with weird on top, to quote another David Lynch line. She drifts in and out of these personas with relative ease, from the gullible lover in “Off To The Races” with its girly chorus, to the young femme-fatale in “Carmen”, to the seductress in the march-along “National Anthem”.
Del Rey harks back to the days of 1950s starlets, perhaps most specifically Lana Turner, who she shares her namesake with. “You fit me better than my favourite sweater”. Dubbed The Sweater Girl, Lana Turner was a beautiful blonde actress with a troubled past. Here is a short description of her from Michael’s Movie Mania blog:
“In real life, there were many shadows in Turner’s world. Her father was murdered, reputedly for gambling debts, when she was a child. She struggled with alcoholism all her life and had many famous and a few notorious boyfriends, including billionaire Howard Hughes, pretty-boy actor Tyrone Power, and Tarzan star Lex Barker. Turner eventually married seven times.” (http://bit.ly/AhzUHo)
If that doesn’t sound like direct influence and inspiration for Del Rey’s entire burn Hollywood burn outlook, then I don’t know what does. Artifice has always been a part of pop music, and Del Rey has perfected that, she comes under criticism because in this age of paparazzi and blogging, the media feel a need to know everything about you, and not just your public life but your private life too. But regardless of Del Rey not actually living the lives she sings about, her music is relatable in the sense that we can all empathise and sympathise with heartache, love-loss, and pain.
The sound of the music itself doesn’t stray too far away from internet crossover hits “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans”. Del Rey delivers her whispered, slightly slurred, sultry vocals over sparse, hip-hop influenced beats, every so often accompanied by sad pianos and swooping string arrangements. Production credits go to Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie, who between them have worked with the likes of Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Beyonce. Del Rey doesn’t aim for the big notes like her British counterpart Adele, instead she wallows in a low register, creating a heartbroken yet mesmerising sound.
There are times when Del Rey is covering the same subjects, her lyrics can often descend in to cliche, and perhaps none of the other tracks quite reach the heights of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans”, although “Born To Die”, “Off To The Races”, “Summertime Sadness”, and “National Anthem” are only a whisker behind. But with Born To Die Del Rey has created a very good pop album, an album that will unfortunately never live up to the hype surrounding it, but a welcome alternative to the Katy Perry’s and Kesha’s off this world.
by Martin Holmes