Sad songs of a sexy baby
Lana Del Rey fails to live up to her own standards
Let’s clear some things up: Lana Del Rey isn’t her birth name. It’s Lizzy Grant. Her dad made money through buying and selling domain names online. She moved to New York City from upstate New York to try and make it in the record industry, and now she’s signed to Interscope. Her straight-to-Youtube single, “Video Games,” arrived on blogs’ figurative doorsteps swaddled in misty nostalgia and glum Kodachrome majesty. The resulting adulation generated massive hype, led to a dreadful Saturday Night Live appearance, and culminated in absolutely scathing backlash. Cue the beard-stroking blog entries and web forum posts about the nature of capital-A Authenticity in pop music in 2011. Nobody blames you if you tune out right there.
But there’s a point that ought to be made about Lana Del Rey’s debut record, Born To Die, which is that it’s a pop record, one that’s by turns fascinating and terrible. On the one hand, Del Rey, and whomever her exact songwriting team consists of (pro songwriters, a computer, a dartboard, a parrot who repeats phrases from Urban Outfitters catalogues, etc.), have managed to suffuse the record with a peculiar and terminally interesting atmosphere of moody, doomed Hollywood glamour. On the other hand, well, let’s not beat around the bush: Born To Die sounds like Etsy Dido.
It’s a shame. In songs like “Video Games” and late-album highlight “Radio,” Del Rey displays a wonderful grasp of how to use her voice like an instrument, gliding effortlessly between an aloof, pouty simmer and delicate airiness at exactly the right moments. And it fits in beautifully with the sweeping, cinematic trip-hop-inflected pop.
Elsewhere on the record, this command of her skills and of the songs’ atmosphere falls apart, leading to embarrassing moments like the “I’m a very sexy baby”-isms and extra-syllabic theatrics of “National Anthem” – nowhere else in pop history has “ovation” been pronounced “oh-vay-she-awn” – and, well, the whole of “Off To The Races,” wherein our heroine alternates between sounding like a calliope wearing vintage clothing and like Jill Barber on a horse-tranquilizing dose of Quaaludes.
There’s every reason to believe Del Rey is “authentic,” insofar as this is the music she’s interested in making and this is the Americana she wants to explore. But because she turfs the execution so badly, Born To Die is at best a curio, a fully realized aesthetic worth figuring it out, if only so we can understand how good ideas go bad.