Comment: The rise and fall and rise of Lana Del Rey

As she re-releases her debut album after a year of wrestling with public opinion, Lauren Martin considers the love-hate phenomenon that is Lana Del Rey.


Words by: Aimee Cliff

Lana Del Rey’s latest video Ride is a strange and muddled example of how popular culture can fold in on itself. Taken from the Paradise Edition of ‘Born To Die’, the opening monologue pits Del Rey as the exceptional lost soul struggling to find her way through a miasma of daddy issues, drugs and a slightly nauseating romanticisation of prostitutes. Looking back, the monologue could have been her big reveal – a chance to deliver a genuine albeit stylised heart-to-heart about her tumultuous journey so far – but instead it was a now typically florid spiel of hers that purported to bare her soul but actually said very little at all.

Lana Del Rey – Ride

The most revealing part is when she says that she “was always an unusual girl. My mother told me that I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing me due North, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and wavering as the ocean.” Before you balk at such Livejournal-esque profundity, consider that this inadvertently alludes to the centre of The Great Lana Debate of 2012 – the rigidity of her persona. Ride may be her most ambitious video to date but the mixed reception to it once again proves how divisive her work has become, and so feels an appropriately uncertain end to a year in the life of a pop star whose detractors have sharpened their talons to a fiendish glint.

As chameleon-like and indecisive as she may like to portray her “inner self” Lana Del Rey has come to be undeniably Lana Del Rey and not Lizzy Grant in the same way that Marilyn Monroe was undeniably Marilyn Monroe and not Norma Jean Baker; a persona that remains permanently self-aware in its constructedness and with never an eyelash out of place. When Lana says that “controversy was the last thing [she] expected from this project” I can’t help but picture her saying it with a wry half-smile because a project is exactly what she is, and a totally fascinating one in its controversy too.

The trajectory of Lana’s success has been powered by a passion and vitriol that few other pop artists this year have managed to command. Since she signed with Interscope in October 2011 The Artist Formerly Known As Lizzy Grant has claimed a multi-million selling debut album, modelling campaigns, a Vogue cover and a Mulberry handbag which bears her name. Her stratospheric rise has been meticulously documented and criticised ever since that lethargic ode to modern Americana Video Games appeared on YouTube. A beautiful woman with a curious voice, Lana portrayed a quasi-‘Perks of Being A Wallflower’ perspective on tortured young love with a wistfulness that appealed to an access-all-areas internet generation desperately grasping for nostalgia.

Lana Del Rey – Video Games

Despite attention to the video’s filtered Super-8 look and the song’s lyrical content the defining feature of Video Games was not that it was original and interesting. It was that she sang it. It was all about her, undeniably so, and barely a week has gone by since without feverish attempts to dissect and analyse every fibre of her being. The diagnoses have varied wildly too. To some she’s a post-modern pin-up dream. Her Veronica Lake curls, cupid bow lips and languid stare evoke screen sirens of old Hollywood, and her deliberately uncomfortable demeanour has become endearing to an audience bombarded with the supposed naturalism and casual relatibility so adored by tabloid confessionals which insist They (the stars) are just like Us (the buying public). In this sense her nervous energy is massively appealing to many. If she wasn’t signed to a major label she could be smoking in the toilets of Dawson High, missing her call for the beauty contest she’s a sure bet to win because she’s too busy daydreaming of being a Kennedy.

If she wasn’t signed to a major label she could be smoking in the toilets of Dawson High, missing her call for the beauty contest she’s a sure bet to win because she’s too busy daydreaming of being a Kennedy.

To others the construct is a matter of ridicule. Backed by her millionaire father Lizzy tried and failed to achieve major label success in her own skin, so she shed it to become the “gangster Nancy Sinatra”; a meticulous re-assembling of pop culture references that merely hints at contemporary themes of fashion, cinema and music rather than directly engaging with them. She’s theatrical yet seems barely able to take in her own script, so her performances are more affected than affecting. She seems shallow in co-opting well-loved characters and plots for the sake of aesthetics rather than insightful content, and this carries on beyond her music into other facets of her persona; that coyness and passivity is a dangerous stylisation of female victimhood and she can now lay claim to the world’s first Instagram music video. To the sceptics, Lana Del Rey is a vulture looming over the carcass of routinely visited elements of popular culture, and she’s thrusting down the decaying scraps with smug relish.

Lana Del Rey – National Anthem

The two sides have fought tirelessly and having gone from genuine intrigue with Video Games to us “discovering” en masse Lizzy Grant through an expose by Hipster Runoff, the ensuing comic derision has been an ever-present element in her story. This expose caused manifold unforeseen problems. When Pitchfork championed her last summer and rode the wave of interest , the backlash in part from her disastrous SNL performance meant that P4K went from support to reproach in a matter of months, eventually culminating in a bombastic editorial rejection of her by slating ‘Born To Die’ with a 5.5 and effectively using the rating as leverage to regain an element of their taste-maker status lost in the burgeoning meme storm.

The internet frenzy began to get the better of some publications and they either continued to slate her with glee as a point of consistency, or felt it necessary to find ways in which to turn praise into spite in order to toe the contemporary sardonic line. Unless of course you’re Hipster Runoff, in which case the #LDR joke has never let up. This backlash hasn’t just been a crack of the whip to the ankles over one incident like Rihanna being photographed smoking a blunt on holiday or Vanessa Hudgens getting her nude photos leaked online, but a constant outpouring of spite about her; her voice, her face, her clothes, her stature. At this point, the type of sandwich she has for lunch will have its nay-sayers.

Lizzy Grant – Kill Kill Kill

All this talk of artifice and how you react to it depends largely on your degree of cynicism about the pop music industry and how you regard much-debated and frankly tired issues of authenticity. Lana is one of the most overt lessons in the fragile art of pop culture myth-making in recent memory, but looking back this didn’t necessarily have to have been met with such vehement criticism. No one pulls up Lady Gaga for coming from a wealthy family, worshipping Bowie and not wearing ornamental lobsters on her head in high school, so why have we treated Lana Del Rey with such venom? She may be the direct opposite of artists like Adele who has endeared herself to the public with her “everywoman” image and stellar voice, but who are we to criticise Del Rey for artifice? It’s a well drawn-out point that pop music is partly founded on re-invention, so to attack her for being inauthentic can be seen as a shallow critique.

No one pulls up Lady Gaga for coming from a wealthy family, worshipping Bowie and not wearing ornamental lobsters on her head in high school, so why have we treated Lana Del Rey with such venom?

Perhaps a moment in the LDR story that better illustrates the problem we have with her persona is not when we’ve tried to strip her of it and find the “real” woman underneath, a la Hipster Runoff, but when she’s fully committed to the role in true, unashamedly Lana style. Her recent modelling campaign for H&M produced a TV advert which sees her standing in a room set up to mimic a scene in David Lynch’s seminal counterculture classic ‘Blue Velvet’. Awkwardly as ever, Lana sings the title track to a collection of H&M-styled actor misfits and fulfils the wishes of both fans and detractors in one fell swoop by wringing dry a notable indie aesthetic oft-attached to her. She’s regularly been described as “Lynchian” but I’ve always failed to see how this can be little more than a lazy reference to his female characters; the lounge singer in the corner of the ballroom with porcelain skin and a deadened stare. Again blogs added the video to their arsenal of derision for crimes against good taste, but this advert is a perfect example of how Lana has toyed with the gap between indie and commercial pop sensibilities in the most open and borderline laughable way.

When asked by W Magazine in early 2011 if she was inspired by Lynch, she replied “When I was younger people would say that I was inspired by David Lynch, so I went and watched his stuff. I’ve never seen his movies in their entirety, I’m more interested in him as a sort of subcultural icon.” With such an arguably inverted route to his work and H&M’s flaccid re-hashing of quintessentially Lynchian elements detractors would like to assume that Lynch himself would be horrified by the whole thing and slam her for it. Quite the opposite. Lynch has praised Lana. He thinks she has “some fantastic charisma and – this is a very interesting thing – it’s like she’s born out of another time. She’s got something that’s very appealing to people. And I didn’t know she was influenced by me!”

What the past year has shown us is that pop music has reached a point where artifice is no longer necessarily a deception.

You can take this one of two ways. You can either wring your hands in the air over the cannibalisation of one of the most innovative and forward-thinking cinematic talents of our generation, shedding a single tear for the crassness of someone like Lana Del Rey co-opting his vision to sell cheap costume jewellery and polyester mix sweaters to the indifferent masses, or you can accept with perhaps a heavy heart how porous the layers separating the indie and mainstream have become in order for Lynch to be appropriated with his approval, and how easily an aesthetic can be broken down given enough time, money and apathy. If the advert tell us anything, it’s that we’ve now reached a point where the visionary can praise the mimic, everyone gets paid, and we take comfort in the fact that irony is one of the few hiding places left for us.

What the past year has shown us is that pop music has reached a point where artifice is no longer necessarily a deception. Twitter and Instagram may be showing up our pop stars as normal people who drink Starbucks and have twee iPhone cases, but I don’t want to know what Lizzy Grant had for breakfast. I don’t want to know Lizzy Grant. Lana is Lana is Lana is Lana, and for the sake of pop, I hope she never takes a day off.

Interscope/Polydor released ‘Born To Die: The Paradise Edition’ on the 12th November 2012.

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