February 13, 2012
Sound Noir: In Defense of Lana Del Rey
True, she’s part artifice, not the strongest singer, trades on retro, torch singer cliches. But we dig her. Deal with it.
By Nancy Staab
“Video Games” may be the latest, viral YouTube video sensation with over 28-million hits that launched a thousand polarizing views about this sultry songstress. And her recent, bloodless Saturday Night Live appearance did nothing to improve her reputation. But we’re betting Del Rey takes her cleverly concocted look, image and sound all the way to the bank!
Lana Del Rey the 24-year-old, smoky brunette from New Jersey trailer parks (AKA Lizzy Grant the blonde, folk singer kicked out of prep school from Lake Placid) seemingly surfaced in the pop imagination out of nowhere, and very insistently-- primarily based on her homemade video to her first single “Video Games,” which she posted on YouTube in August. Who was this bee-stung lipped, Lana Turner-locked, husky-voiced, torch singer crooning about undying love while her indifferent beau played video games? The video (made by Del Rey herself) was equally moody-- splicing images of skate parks and vintage Vegas footage with Hollywood paparazzi scenes inspired by film noir. (It’s worth noting that David Lynch is one of Del Rey’s cinema idols). The world didn’t quite know what to make of this self termed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” (a hook that sounds more manufactured by a marketing team than authentic) or her flawed but seductive singing that veered wildly between whispered Betty Boop coos and whiskey-toned growls, world weariness and girlish innocence, accomplished vocal stylings and amateurish renderings. She sounds a bit like Mazzy Star-meets-Anne Margaret as she breathily sings on “Video Games”:
“It's you, it's you, it's all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time Heaven is a place on earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls
Honey, is that true?”
And Del Rey’s combination man-eater/man-yielding ways have certainly got the feminists all in a tizzy. She calls her music “Hollywood sadcore.” Before her debut album Born to Die was even released in Jan. 27, 2012, or before she had time to pay her dues, Del Ray was invited to play a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live on January 14…and her performance was less than stellar. She was also scooped up by Interscope Records, not to mention Next Model Agency. This kind of instant success can breed resentment. It also reminds us that artists rarely emerge fully evolved from the womb. And maybe seeing the visible cracks in the perfect façade makes them more interesting compared to our slickly-manufactured, auto-tune pop stars. Imagine if Lady Gaga had been thrust to international fame in her seedy NYC club days prior to her seasoning and coaching by industry specialists into the entity and designer-clad artist she is today, or Madonna, for that matter. Yet that’s kind of what happened to Del Rey and she’s paying the price for her premature fame with lots of carping and backlash in the press and blogosphere.
She also gets a hard time for her beauty too. Sure, the cultivated Mad Men-moll look has garnered her pieces in W and the cover of the Russian version of Interview and British version of Vogue this March, but some music snobs think she’s trading too much on her pin-up looks and perhaps artificially plumped lips. But when did pretty equal untalented? In fact, the original, pretty, indie bad girl rocker, Liz Phair is really interesting on the topic. She wrote a whole op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal on the subject of Del Rey, supporting her fellow femme fatale songstress: “Lana Del Rey seems to be bothering everybody because she allegedly ‘remade’ herself from a folk singing, girl-next-door type into an electro-urban kitty cat on the prowl (of course I like her), and they feel she is inauthentic. I would argue that the uncomfortable feelings she elicits are simply the by-product of watching a woman wanting and taking like a man.”
In the end, there is something “there” there. Critics may not be able to put a finger on it but there is something in the mix of the persona, image, songs, languid, haunting lyrics, etc. that captures the attention and imagination. And some press has even gone to bat for del Rey—from The Guardian to Pitchfork, while New York magazine diplomatically states that she “overreaches charmingly” on her first album.
Lastly, keep in mind that many of our best performers have been polarizing, at least in the beginning. And let’s not even talk about the artifice argument: Example A: current chart-topper Lady Gaga or the more subtle but equally calculated, retro fashionings of Adele. All art is to some extent theater and self-fashioning, even if your image is an authentic-to-the-bone folk singer. Yes, she changed her name from Lizzy Grant to Lana but so did David Bowie to the infinitely more razzle-dazzle Ziggy Stardust, etc. etc. “Video Games” may be the best song on her new album, but there are several other compelling tunes in the collection, penned by Del Rey, such as “Blue Jeans,” “Born to Die” and “Millonaire Man.”
She may not live up to her self-confessed, eclectic musical idols—Frank Sinatra, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley and Eminem (interestingly all male) just yet---but we think this diamond-in-the-rough gal has plenty of future torch songs up her sequined sleeve.
SAMPLE LANA DEL REY’S MUSIC VIDEOS HERE:
Born To Die:
Million Dollar Man:
Kinda Outta Luck:
(Video by Lana. This song is not included on the Born to Die album. This tune has a peppy but sinister chorus and ganster-moll vibe with vintage femme fatale images of Rita Hayworth etc.)