It all started when a couple of music videos went viral. In August 2011, singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey posted a clip to YouTube of her song ‘Video Games’, a grainy montage of 1950s and 1960s cartoons, Hollywood icons and Americana, spliced with shots of the singer facing a webcam and mouthing a sultry ballad about love tinged with loss. One month later, ‘Blue Jeans’ was posted. It had a steadier beat and more rhythmic feel, but the overall impression was similar – vintage California, faded palm trees, loving someone so much it hurts, and a luxuriant appeal due in no small part to the singer’s languid movements and mournful, smoky vocals. When the videos went viral (to date, the combined YouTube views for the songs exceed 52 million) the blogosphere stirred. Who was this girl with Bardot hair and Hepburn eyes, and what was so darn catchy about her music? Especially when she had no forthcoming album to speak of, and all you could buy on iTunes was a four-track EP consisting of the two songs and a couple of mediocre remixes?
Del Rey’s catchiness is perhaps not too difficult to account for. She is a delight to watch, and the deep timbre of her vocals suits her chanteuse-noir style perfectly. Her greatest charm, however, is the self-indulgent aesthetic of her videos. If you’ve looked at a social-networking website recently, you’ll know that photos filtered through Instagram (a smart-phone application for sharing photos) are rife; their vintage feel seems to represent a nostalgia for a glamourised past that never really existed. As such, Del Rey’s clips are like a flip-book of a Tumblr site: pouty self-portraits, old-school Los Angeles and real 1960s images flash by, as Del Rey inserts herself into the dreamscape that Instagram-ers try to effect. ‘I adore this video because it makes me miss California so much that it hurts,’ the blogger at Coffee and Heels laments. Del Rey’s visual opulence increased when the ‘Blue Jeans’ music clip was re-filmed in the Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont swimming pool under the directorship of Yoann Lemoine, and Del Rey’s second official single, ‘Born to Die’, was filmed by the same director in the Palace of Fontainebleau, France – replete with live tigers and a shirtless, tattooed man who can’t get his hands off her. [ ]
Del Rey’s popularity was certainly on the rise, commercially speaking, by the start of 2012. ‘Video Games’ was voted number six in the 2011 Triple J’s Hottest 100 and was used during an early episode of the American CW television network’s Ringer. Del Rey was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show with David Letterman during January, and Vogue UK featured her on their front cover. Once her debut album, Born to Die, had been released in February, the record topped charts in Australia, the UK, the US and seven other countries throughout Europe. She arranged a tour of the States and booked shows in Australia.
As Del Rey’s success unfolded, another story came to light: the story of the ‘real’ Lana Del Rey, also known as Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Grant, a young singer who moved to New York City to perform in the local club scene. According to old photos lurking on the internet, Grant’s hair was dyed blonde, her face make-up free and her clothing a simple combination of T-shirt and jeans. In 2010, she landed a small record deal and released an album called Lana Del Rey AKA Lizzy Grant, which she withdrew from iTunes a few weeks later after buying back the rights.
Soon after, her hair became bigger, her eyes more defined, her clothing more retro, her lips even puffier (or so it would seem – she denies having plastic surgery). Once aware of her history, music bloggers everywhere became outraged that their indie-idol appeared to be faking it. Del Rey was subsequently slammed for affecting a mystique that was not authentic. Rumours abounded: her father was a millionaire and covertly funded her rise to stardom. She was manufactured by a record company that was conspiring to launch the next Britney Spears from an indie fan base. She moved to a trailer park to garner indie respect. She didn’t edit her own videos. She was the puppet of a satanic illuminati cult because the way she held up her hand in one of her videos looked like a picture of the devil – or something. Never mind that none of Del Rey’s detractors provided any evidence for their claims, or listened to what the singer herself had to say, or even talked about the music. Del Rey had committed the ultimate crime of branding herself as independent while (ostensibly) following the trajectory of a mainstream pop star. One of the most memorable comments I came across was on Hipster Runoff, a hipster-esque music blog with a focus on buzzbands and the indie-alternative scene, published in September last year:
Her career works against the indie ideals that if you are ‘talented enough’, u can make it [sic]. She repackaged herself as a brunette with collagen filled lips packaged as a lofi diy broad [sic]…Will Lana Del Rey continue to fool the indiesphere, or will blogs protect our tastemaking voice and rally against her?
Unsurprisingly, a number of ‘indiesphere’ members posted back in defence of Del Rey and pointed out the hypocrisy of the author’s position. (‘I suppose you were catapulted from your mother’s womb into the indie “blogosphere,”’ says one respondent.) But Carles, the blogger from Hipster Runoff, wasn’t the only one who felt duped by Del Rey. Jessica Coen, one of the editors at feminist blog Jezebel, stated in January:
I really hate Lana Del Rey…I don’t like that the whole thing feels like some sort of ‘pre-fabricated indie’ affair. And the Restylane (just a guess) combined with her apparent artistic reinvention just makes it seem all the more ‘fake’.
Though Coen later qualified her words – admitting she couldn’t really articulate what frustrated her about Del Rey – I was surprised that a self-proclaimed feminist was willing to publicly admit she ‘hated’ a female artist because of alleged cosmetic surgery and inauthenticity. Ironically, commentary like this has probably given Del Rey more attention than she would ever have otherwise received.
The Lana Del Rey backlash became particularly vicious after her January 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live. It’s safe to say the show wasn’t her best work: her voice sounded hollow, was occasionally out of tune and she compulsively brushed her hair out of her face, which made her look nervous, though it seemed designed to make her look alluring. The American MTV website quickly reported disparaging comments that celebrities had tweeted during the show – Juliette Lewis noted that ‘Wow, watching this “singer” on SNL is like watching a 12 year old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform #signofourtimes’. Similar comments were left under the YouTube clip of the performance in a rabid frenzy of slander, and even her fans struggled to defend her, putting the poor performance down to nerves for her first televised performance.
And yet, despite the harsh response, commentary from fans and detractors alike finally seemed to be focusing on the one thing Del Rey had actually claimed to do, rather than what she was rumoured to have done: sing. It took five months for the Del Rey debate to actually centre on her musical skill, but it got there, and perhaps most importantly, it gave fans an open platform to state what they liked about Del Rey. Unfortunately, comments degenerated quickly. ‘I’m not going to comment on how she sounds horrible so I’ll comment on how she looks like a cheap old hooker who got too much work done on her lips,’ declared one YouTuber. Suffice to say that everyone was left feeling sheepish a few weeks later when she performed live on the Late Show with David Letterman and absolutely nailed it, her voice loud and full and her hands far away from that shiny, shiny hair.
That commentary so quickly reverted to cheap insults, and that even Jessica Coen was willing to admit open prejudice, suggested to me that anger at Del Rey comprised more than mere distaste at her ‘pre-fabrication’. The offending icing on the cake seems to be that Del Rey doesn’t realise her own failure. After the SNL debacle, MTV News quoted Del Rey as saying, ‘I’m a good musician … I have been singing for a long time, and I think that [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] knows that … it’s not a fluke decision.’
Whether it was a fluke or not, it’s still not clear whether Del Rey is a good musician in a live setting. The earnestness with which she tries to affect mysteriousness, both live and in her videos, makes her glam-nostalgic aura appear, well, affected – but not ironically or self-reflexively enough that she might be interpreted as playfully celebrating the nature of style. ‘You can’t pull the wool over our eyes,’ those who hate Del Rey seem to claim. ‘And how dare you even try!’
While Del Rey speaks clearly, her speech is punctuated with ‘likes’, ‘you knows’, and incorrect grammar. She uses the word ‘sonically’ a lot, occasionally in the wrong context, and frequently refers to the ‘Chateau’ (the Chateau Marmont) as though it were her oldest haunt. When she explains how she selected images for her music clips, her statements are somewhat vague. This is what appeared in a Face Culture interview in November 2011:
I think a lot of the reasons why I chose the clips from the era of the 50s and the 60s is mainly because I actually just liked the quality of the film that the directors used during that time. It’s not so much about the message of the clips that I used, in terms of the videos … it’s more about what strikes me visually. Just what I find to be beautiful, and that leads my narrative. I don’t have a very strong narrative going throughout my songs, it’s more just what appeals to my eye, visually … it doesn’t really make sense – I just like it.
What is perhaps most interesting about this quotation is that Del Rey admits there is no sense to her videos; they just look pretty. So when, in a MySpace interview, she stated, ‘I had a vision of making my life a work of art and I was looking for people who also felt that way,’ it’s hard to know what she means. Does she intend to transform her entire life and personage into one enormous, musical and aesthetic spectacle? Perhaps so, although in another interview, she swears she is a ‘writer first’, suggesting that her lyrics are more important than the visual or aural aspects of her work.
It’s probably unfair to pick over interviews in this way, but I am not doing it to intentionally denigrate Del Rey’s work; rather, to demonstrate how she gives the impression of having stumbled into fame after writing songs in her bedroom. To be even less fair, she just doesn’t seem smart enough to be conspiring against everything indie for the good of her bank account.
Despite the furor she has stirred up, Del Rey seems unfazed; she continues to rather guilelessly enjoy her songwriting career, as seen through how candid she is about her appearance and persona. In an Absolute Radio interview, when questioned about why she described her style as ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’, Del Rey laughs. ‘That was something I put on my YouTube page for fun,’ she explains, ‘and as soon as the song sort of got more attention, people grabbed that phrase off of my YouTube and started recycling it before I could even get a hold on it.’ In the same interview, Del Rey is equally as honest about her stage- name. ‘I just really wanted a name that was as beautiful as I thought the music was gonna be … I wanted something that sort of sounded like faded seaside glamour, and that was something that sounded beautiful, but sonically, I just kind of liked the way it rolled off the tip of the tongue.’ And whatever happened to Lizzy Grant? Is she anything like you anymore? ‘Definitely, very much me.’
She also admits, ‘I’m usually singing about the same goddamn person, so … I’ll love him forever. But, you know, it’s all good. It’s all good.’
It might not be enough to break your heart, but since the overarching theme of her record is self-destructive and doomed love, it was enough to remind me that Lana Del Rey is just a regular 25-year-old girl who crushes on guys who sometimes don’t like her back.