When I first heard a song by Lana del Rey, I was tipsy-drunk and wondering whether or not we were going to run out of alcohol in the midst of an escalating party. The song was “Video Games,” her first, immensely popular single, and it only took a few moments of hearing the pleasant strings and gentle vocals of that song to convince me that I loved the woman who was singing to me. “Video Games” is about love in all of its idol fascination, and argues that the only true reason for living is “if somebody is loving you.” Even in my rum-fogged state of mind I knew that was a special moment. I had found the woman for me—Lana del whatever—and we were going to have a lovely life together. I downloaded the song within the hour and our love affair began amidst the din of chatting partygoers and the haze of hard drinks. I think Lana would have preferred it that way.
Lana Del Rey (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is the face that launched a thousand think pieces. She was born in New York City and sings songs made for hot, sultry Manhattan summers. The following is some historical perspective:
After “Video Games” was released on her MySpace page, the music world was abuzz with speculation and expectation regarding this self- styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Who was this girl who seemed so aloof and elusive in interviews? How do we react to a young woman who openly admits to choosing her stage name because it evokes a ”faded seaside glamour” aesthetic? Doesn’t she realize that you can’t be this honest about image creation with music critics? Name dropping Williamsburg and claiming that she “had a vision for making her life a work of art” in interviews didn’t help the question of authenticity. Authenticity. It became hard to refer to Lana Del Rey without at some point mentioning that troublesome word. And all of this was before her wealthy upbringing came to light. She didn’t fit the indie motif she peddled. Occupy Wall Street and Brooklyn co-ops were cool. Trust funds and cocktail parties in the Hamptons were not. Yet the indelible quality of “Video Games” could not be questioned. It was what Betty Draper would have listened to if she could have taken a break from shooting birds and vomiting in cars. 1960’s glamour is cool, right? Keep in mind all of this was before her full-length album “Born to Die,” was even released.
All of this expectation was smashed by an SNL performance in mid January, two weeks before the official release of “Born to Die.” Lana Del Rey looked nervous and sounded shaky in what some called one of the worst SNL performances ever. The expected backlash burst forth. SNL parodied her performance and Lana’s perceived awkwardness was confirmed for many– mere few days before the release of the LP. I’m sympathetic towards Lana’s SNL performance. Selecting the worst SNL performance, music or otherwise, would be an almost impossible task for anyone due to sheer volume of possible selections. But I digress, and the story continues.
Reviews were mixed when Lana’s “Born to Die” was finally released. Pitchfork, Paste, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly all gave it less than stellar marks. Pitchfork, the Death Star of music publications, compared the album to a “faked orgasm.” Ouch?
Let us conclude this bit: due to sky-high expectations and an environment of hype usually reserved for new Radiohead albums, coupled with her own innate ability to raise questions of authenticity and arguments pitting sincerity against phoniness, Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” is hyper- scrutinized and her inability to live up to all of the buzz seems to disturb. And thus concludes the back-story of Miss Elizabeth Grant.
There is a serious tension in the cultural discussion of Lana Del Rey. The combination of the hype and her own Devil-may-care attitude toward any criticism has moved perceptions of Lana Del Rey away from the actual quality of her music (let’s give her a solid B) to a her role as an emblem of greater culture values. Does the fandom of Lana Del Rey illustrate the end of authenticity in music? The perpetuity of narcissism? Or is she just another weird trend-celeb that vapid music “fans” can gravitate towards?
Lana Del Rey’s own music only adds to this exchange. Her song “National Anthem,” a love song to materialism and decadence, which if performed by any other artist would be considered social commentary, but feels sincere in LDR’s hands, talks of “blurring the line between the real and the fake;” her own admission that she “wanted to be part of a high-class scene of musicians…hoping that (she) would meet people and fall in love and start a community around (her), the way they used to do in the ‘60s,” sets her up as an architect of her own public personae. Again, is she real or is she fake? Does purposely trying to construct an identity make it any less authentic once it’s achieved? At some level, I would argue that all artists are trying to purposefully create their own perceived realities. While no artist admits to this, LDR seems proud of her “vision for making (her) life a work of art.” The femme fatale personae feels contrived and overly produced; Lana Del Rey simply doesn’t give a damn that it bothers.
Rather than address the authenticity of Lana, I view Miss Del Rey’s place in popular culture as a remedy for an affliction: the constant need for icons of cool.
Popular culture rides on the ebbs and flows of consumer tides, and the concept of “cool” is the moon to these mercurial obsessions. Modern cultural taste develops from one artistic icon of reality to another. Consider the following: real life occurs (the 1960s), art creates a perspective on the actual event (books and tv shows about the 1960s), a particular piece of art is constructed rather well (AMC’s Mad Men), this exceptional artistic snap shot becomes associated with the authentic “real life” and established as cool (critical acclaim and 1960s themed cocktail parties) and the new icon is born. For those who didn’t experience America in the 1960s, art such as Mad Men is now the widely accepted version of those real events. In essence, Don Draper as an icon of American masculinity and complexity informs the new perception of the 1960s, bringing with it the label of cool due to proper artistic construction. Perhaps in 10 years a different historical era will emerge as cool, but for now Mad Men serves as the icon of cool that leads to a potentially misplaced nostalgia. It is this process of icon creation and the subsequent cultural attraction to these icons that powers the machine of Lana Del Rey. It may be true that at one time Lana Del Rey may have “just wanted to be seen as a good singer, and not much else,” however she now seems more than pleased to become much more. Lana Del Rey is a machine: a hype machine, a sex machine, a beautiful, glassy eyed machine that provides all of our pop culture remedies.
Lana Del Rey has attempted to build herself as yet another icon of cool, taking advantage of the storehouse of nostalgia in modern pop culture created by past icons. What makes Lana Del Rey ultimately so compelling is not her attitude or questionable authenticity, but rather the positioning of herself in perhaps the most potent “cool” icon factory of all: the cultural tradition of New York art.
New York City seems to always find a warm welcome in the American mind, and this New York mythos of popular imagination provides the appropriate blueprint for understanding the Lana Del Rey machine. Countless articles can and have been written about New York as a nexus of art, culture, and as an idea; Lana Del Rey has inserted herself within this context and seeks to gain from the established affection for New York art. When I refer to New York art, I do not just mean art that has been created within the geographic confines of the five boroughs and surrounding landscape, but more specifically art that directly addresses and reflects the varied manifestations of New York City in popular perception. Let us briefly examine a few select New York icons of cool:
For the bibliophile:
Few American novels are held in such high regard as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a series of slices of the elite New York lifestyle revolving around the exploits of the determined-in-love Jay Gatsby, the ever-observant Nick Carraway, and the dynamic duo of Tom and Daisy Buchanan during the Roaring Twenties. Booze- filled parties, philandering husbands and a prevailing carefree attitude define the lives of the Long Island socialites. Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die would have been played on loop at one of Gatsby’s rollicking parties while she downed cherry schnapps with three lacrosse players in the moonlit pool. The Great Gatsby’s legacy as an icon of cool? Drinking became sexy and the high school prom theme of the “Roaring Twenties” was born.
For the classy music fan:
So he was born in New Jersey and he spent an unhealthy amount of time in Las Vegas– Frank Sinatra has still become almost inseparable from any pop culture representation of New York, thanks in part to his music and his legendary affection for Gotham City’s nightlife. When she describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” Lana Del Rey isn’t leaving too much up to the imagination. Yes Lana, we get the connection you’re making. Sinatra in New York? Yep, that’s about as cool as it gets.
For anyone who has ever met a sorority girl:
The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name, is sublime. I hated this movie the first time I saw it, and then I awoke from my dream, ate some cake, and realized the whole thing is genius. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is one of the most iconic characters of all time. Go into ten female freshmen dorm rooms in an American university and I’d bet at least six of them have a poster of Audrey wearing that black dress and those pearls, holding a cigarette in that hoighty toighty way of hers. Breakfast at Tiffany’s took the raging party fun of The Great Gatsby out of the Hamptons and into the Upper East Side. Mix in some implied prostitution, a struggling writer, mobsters, and some uneasy racial tension on the part of the audience (sorry Mickey Rooney), and you have a New York tale forever engrained in popular consciousness. Holly Golightly would have probably listened to Born to Die after waking up with her cat wrapped around her neck. Lana Del Rey simply modernizes and continues the iconic party-girl aesthetic popularized by Holly Golightly and her New York escapades.
For the angsty, barely-holding-onto-the-y yuppie:
Don’t worry, The National has nothing in common with Lana Del Rey…except for the song “Available.”
“Did you dress me down and liquor me up, to make me last for the minute, when the red comes over you, like it does when you’re filled with love, or whatever you call it.”
Yes, Lana Del Rey could have easily written those lyrics. Watch it, Matt Berninger.
For the same people who listen to The National:
Mad Men has already been referenced enough in this piece, but it bears reiterating the important role that this show has had on creating a modern perspective of the 1960s, a perspective that paved the way for Lana Del Rey styling herself as a throwback to the newly imagined glamour and swank of that decade. Without the “cool” icon creation of Mad Men, it is hard to imagine that such a high level of expectation would have existed for LDR’s 1960s personae.
In an attempt to provide an alternate interpretation of Lana Del Rey, I find comfort in viewing her as yet another icon of cool in the New York City tradition, rather than just the most recent vapid addition to the female pop star carousel. The image of Lana Del Rey as a machine is crucial to this understanding: she knowingly creates the remedies for popular culture’s desire for new emblems of cool, conveniently packaging all the allure of past icons into one sexy and, admittedly, talented machine girl. It seems that Lana got what she wanted after all: her life has become a work of art, and we’ve all been caught staring.