Lana Del Rey, "Born To Die"

>> Friday, January 27, 2012

I'm going to be a contrarian, sort of (who, me?) and admit I'm here to praise Lana Del Rey, not to bury her. As you may or may not have noticed, there's been a huge hipster backlash against the synthetic siren since the awesomeness of "Video Games" leaked out onto the Internets; first she was getting a lot of great Indie Pop buzz, which snowballed into enormous Facebook and Twitter buzz, which morphed into a bunch of Facebook hatred and blowback, and then, regrettably, Saturday Night Live happened.

Shitty videos like the one at the top of this post probably don't help her case any, but "Born To Die" is a slick, awesome song; it totally sounds like a Pierce Brosnan Bond song in a good way, with Del Rey's voice wafting over the clickiness and strings and samples. (Oh, and I totally would have gone to see a '90s Brosnan Bond called Born To Die, wouldn't have you?) I grok that part of what Del Rey is trying to market as part of her image is a kind of trailer park chic, I just don't think it works for the song and I'm not sure it's still working for her ever since it became public knowledge that she had a previous incarnation as a preppie kid with a previous failed record to her name.

I've talked a little about authenticity in pop music here and there in the blog, and I think I've tried to say that authenticity is overrated. Most of what gets pushed as "authenticity" is itself a kind of schtick. one of Bruce Springsteen's musings on the irony of inauthentic "authenticity" always seems to me worth repeating: "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending," he sang in "Better Days, "A rich man in a poor man's shirt." I don't think it makes Springsteen's work less sincere or less-powerful that he's a millionaire who regularly takes on the personas of blue-collared regular Joes and of the oppressed and distressed; I also don't think the fact that "Bruce Springsteen" has become (no, really, always has been, going all the way back to Asbury Park) a character played by Bruce Springsteen makes "Springsteen"/Springsteen any less relevant. "Bruce Springsteen" a.k.a. "The Boss" is a character not just played by Bruce Springsteen, but is so closely based on Bruce Springsteen that it's likely only his family and closest friends clearly know the difference. They're kinda the same guy, only different. And it's completely to Springsteen's credit that he obviously gets this, understands the irony, and is willing to acknowledge it and take shots at himself for it.

I feel like I should also say that I'm not sure you have to take on an alternate persona to go on stage for a crowd or record a record, though the examples that come to mind are actually people in bands like Pink Floyd where the members sort of hide behind the band identity or are subsumed into it. I'm not sure the relatively lesser solo success of Floyd's individual members can be entirely attributed to the strength of the Floyd brand versus the conscious choice the members made at the height of the band's success to keep their pictures off the album covers and bury their names in the credits; it plays a part, yeah, but there's also the matter of Gilmour, Waters and Wright not really being the kinds of guys to step into the acting role of rock star; Gilmour and Wright were never, forgive me for having to say it about two of my favorite musicians, really all that interesting as individuals (not interesting in the way David Bowie is interesting, I mean) and Roger Waters, although he's mellowed a lot, has always been kind of a dick (he's never really managed to be anybody else and it's off-putting when he embraces it). Syd Barrett might have had the capacity to wear the mask of a popular entertainer, but he went dysfunctional before anyone could find out how well he could have pulled it off. (I'm not neglecting Nick Mason on purpose, there's just nothing much to say beyond I loved Inside Out.)

I bring all this up because you have to be sort of a natural at it for it to work for you, or at least choose an entertainment persona that you can slip into, and I think part of Lana Del Rey's current problems come down to her either not being good at it or choosing unwisely. The idea of a sort of low-rent, Lynchian, mysterious chanteuse has some potential, and (although I've heard bad things about the rest of her upcoming album) the three tracks she's released thus far are slick and magical enough to convey the possibility. Though, having said that, I also feel obligated to point out that, as cool as Floating Into The Night was for several months at the beginning of the Nineties, I think almost everybody stopped paying attention to Julee Cruise as soon as David Lynch got bored and wandered off to make movies again; I realize that's horribly cruel and unfair to Ms. Cruise, but it is what it is; anyway, I mention it not for the cheap and ugly shot, but because even if Del Rey pulls off her new record in spite of the backlash and bad press, I have to wonder what the next trick would be.

I'm not sure the part Ms. Del Rey means to play is a natural fit for her. I get what she's trying to do and that there's probably available space in the zeitgeist for it, I just think she may have set herself up to be the pop music equivalent of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing: not nearly as bad as anybody ever makes him out to be, and yet nonetheless miscast and woefully out of place, obviously floundering in high waves he chose to jump into. I'm also wondering if she's getting some bad advice or acting on some weak instincts: I get that there's a temptation to strike while the iron is hot (especially when your first shot at a career silently flopped), but if you're already bordering overexposed from hype it probably doesn't make any sense to further overexpose yourself, especially if the whole bit you're doing is supposed to be built on being all enigmatic and out-of-nowhere. You might think that getting as much attention as you can is a good way to bring in a bigger audience or at least cash in while the getting's good, but exposure is really pretty toxic to maintaining a mysterious profile. And, of course, it doesn't help at all if you're just not ready to play in front of a live national audience; there is always the pragmatic consideration of whether your ability can keep up with your ambition.

I wish her well, but I suspect Del Rey's counting down her fifteen at this point. If so, it was fun while it lasted. I don't care that "Born To Die" is a slick, processed confection, it's a damn good piece of pop music. Take pleasure in it.


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