Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Sorry, Internet Meanies, Lana Del Rey's Album Is Actually Awesome
Okay, okay, I'm late to this Lana Del Rey party, I admit it. Or rather, I was all over the pre-party--drinking down all the tasty cocktails Ms. Del Rey served to us slobs at the open bar of the Internet last year. They were all lush drinks with hifalutin names like "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans" and "Born to Die," and each had an epic, dramatic, sugary sweep to it (and a mango-coconut aftertaste). After that hella good pre-party, I was ready for the main event, a full album.
In these early days, Ms. Del Rey, of course, had her critics--plenty of them, all over the interwebs. Folks who hated her because she was beautiful and she knew it, like that woman from Weird Science, or hated her because she was "inauthentic," having changed her name from Lizzie Grant to Lana Del Rey and allegedly gotten lip implants or some shit, or hated her because... oh, fuck it, just because. The tug of war between the lovers and the haters meant that by the time Our Lady of the Immaculate Lip Augmentations was ready to release an album and start pimping it, the Internet was ready to self-destruct and it would only take one measly little trip wire to make this happen.
My Lana's appearance on SNL the weekend before the release of her album Born to Die was that measly little trip wire. Things got mean and a little weird. Though the songs she sang, "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans," should have sold themselves with ease, her performance was wobbly and unsure. I figured she'd just been thrust too soon into the spotlight and hadn't honed her stage craft enough. And, like any human, she was probably nervous. It seemed the Internet, which predictably exploded with hatred and mockery in the wake of the appearance, came away with an altogether different impression about the quality of Lana's music. But the criticisms were already locked and loaded long before Del Rey was booked on the show: she's a fake, a cynical creation of managers and record labels, the Twitter trolls said. And, ha, look, she can't even sing live, so we were right all along.
Then, like clockwork, upon the album's release, the nation's critics came stampeding from their outhouses, clutching to their breasts their feverishly typed diatribes about how Born to Die was a barely alluring failure, a style-over-substance catastrophe, a big glitzy red carpet leading to a fancy porcelain toilet with a big golden turd in it. Pitchfork was first out of the gate with a dismissive grade of 5.4 out of 10 (this from a site that had hyped Del Rey from the very beginning). Bloggers shot their wads all over the place, engaging in Big Conversations about how Lana Del Rey was a fraud, an empty vessel, a talentless hack, as well as a bad role model and a terrible development for feminism, girl power and self esteem. The Village Voice even managed to compare the beats on the album to those of '90s trip-hop also-rans Sneaker Pimps. That's not at all a fair comparison, because if you've ever listened to the Sneaker Pimps you'll know that you always came away from their music feeling molested to within an inch of your life by their loud-ass beats, whereas Lana's are classy, clipped, and easily swept over by all the lush orchestrations. But anyway, congratulations, VV, on your Googling skills. Even the Onion's AV Club, usually a level-headed bunch, lost their damn minds, giving the album a D. A D! What? I got a C in high school chemistry and I was terrible in the lab. (And I had no lush string accompaniment.) Props to NPR and the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones for their thoughtful reviews of the album, but they were really alone in the wilderness on this.
And I'll admit: after reading so many headlines about how awful the music was, I shoved Ms. Del Rey into the back of my head and figured I'd revisit her at a later date, after the dust had cleared. That later date came just a few weeks ago and I'm now officially aghast--aghast, I say--at the treatment this album received upon its release. Because I'm just gonna say it: Born to Die is second only to Beach House's Bloom as my favorite album of the summer. It's true!
It begins with the title track, which is all glossy lament and breathy drama, enveloped in a thick swirl of strings. Then there's "Off to the Races," which has been criticized for the white-girl rapping, but I think it's just nifty. (Coincidentally, "Nifty" is my street name.) Then more drama on "Blue Jeans" and "Video Games" and "National Anthem." None of the songs sticks around for too long, which is an unusual choice for an album of, basically, torch songs. But there's also pop: "Lolita" and "The Lucky Ones" and "Diet Mountain Dew"--all smashing, with heavy doses of moxie and just enough Betty Boop squeak. Basically the album is a sumptuous mess of strings, coos, and hooks, hooks, hooks. "Radio" is the most effervescent pop tune I've heard all summer, accept for this one by The School, which just might make you smile for days.
Okay, yes, Lana Del Rey has a few hiccupy vocal ticks that will grate on some folks' nerves. And yes, she sometimes has a sad, irritating face in some of her videos. And okay, she might sing too much about loving up on hot boys and needing them to be her hero. But her reference points are just retro that way, and she's got an elegant way of matching her voice perfectly to the turns of phrase she's spouting--turns of phrase that are largely pretty sharp. (High-pitched squeal for "Gimme them gold coins, gimme them coins"; low, deadpan delivery on "Says it feels like heaven to 'im.") And if her videos of swimming pools and naked hotel room getaways and pet tigers are any indication, she's having a blast. So let her have her fun, because her fun is your fun, even though you're not hooking up with hot boys, you're just sitting there eating Chee-tos, listening to her sing songs about how she's doing it all the time, forever. It's still fun, though. She doesn't nail everything she attempts, but she shows she's got bigger balls than most pop starlet wannabes with the chances she takes, so I can forgive her her sometimes irritating face.
Finally, regarding the dumb debate about authenticity, I'll just say this: In the "Born to Die" video, we have a bombshell beauty with a lazy, languorous voice, singing a sultry torch song while sitting on a throne in a Sistine Chapel–like cathedral, wearing a crown of blue flowers, and flanked by two lounging, mirror-image tigers. How do you even begin a conversation about "realness" when faced with such a tableau? The answer is: you don't. You can't. It's not possible for a thinking person to do that.
So what you should do instead is say, "huh, this bitch is cranking the elegance and drama up to 11 in a hilariously rarefied way and so should be worshipped, probably."