Monday, May 14, 2012


Here’s everything I knew about LANA DEL REY before last week: She is a pop star. She is attractive. A guy in my local paper dismissed her as “Blahna Del Rey”, which I found comic and which is how I thought of her for four months until last week. She had a supposedly terrible deer-in-the-headlights performance on “Saturday Night Live” a few months ago that seemed to be discussed everywhere I looked, even though I wasn’t looking (which was then followed by a backlash to the backlash, saying the performance was just fine). I didn’t see it; I’d never heard her, and like most mersh pop, nor did I want to.

Last week, I heard her “Born To Die” album.

Here’s everything additional I learned about Lana Del Rey since I first heard her record last week: She’s considered by people who write about this sort of thing to be an already-peaked internet phenomenon, someone who generated an incredible amount of “buzz” in 2011 and just a few months ago with some music videos, only to squander it (the telling goes) because she apparently was less-than-indie in the way she and her “team” worked to put together her image, her fake name, and even her sound. While her record has in fact sold quite well, there appears to be some sort of mass lingering skepticism about her across the board, as if the actual music on the record counted for nothing, and the “package” and how it came together was something that mattered.

When it comes to popular music that makes it to the charts and into mass consciousness, I’m about as clueless as it comes. If I know a song from, say, Lady Gaga or MC Hammer or whatever it is the kids listen to today, it’s because I heard it in a store or at the gym, and I connected the lyrics to a title I’d read about. For instance, here’s a recent connection: Katy Perry = “Firework”, one of the most god-awful things I’ve ever heard. So “imagine my surprise” when I heard Lana Del Rey’s song “Blue Jeans” and said “Holy crap – what is that?”. A gothic, soaring torch-singing cross between David Lynch’s LA-based movies and the languid, studied, blasé trip-hop of Portishead? This is what’s so popular and so controversial? I’ll admit, I was so totally taken in by the vocals, the pacing, the cabaret-style retro-ness of it all, I decided to listen to the whole album on Spotify.

I’m here to report that "Born To Die" is a fantastic record, popularity or commerciality or dumb-ass controversy notwithstanding. When I was much more insecure and in my teens and twenties, anytime a respected critic/writer of underground music started trumpeting to his readers about some “lamestream” act that I didn’t like or understand, it usually just bugged me because it felt like tokenism. I’m thinking about this guy Frank Kogan who constantly talked up Madonna, or even my pal Tim Ellison, who loved late-period R.E.M.. It’s not that I have an aversion to commercially-successful bands, necessarily, but the law of averages and the much more fertile territory of the underground points to not spending even a moment trying to connect with what mass culture is buying, because when you’re repulsed 99.9% of the time, there’s really not enough time in the day hoping that this time, maybe, that 0.01% chance will pay off.

So respectable people can disagree with me, and I’m sure most will. I truly don’t care if Lana Del Rey is pretty, if she’s putting on an “act”, that she maybe can’t pull this material off live, or that she maybe didn’t even do much more than vocalize these tunes in a studio. Whoever it was that made this record did a phenomenal job combining a very modern production and a totally dazed but plush retrograde film soundtrack that they dressed up with Del Rey’s heavy-lidded, drugged-up bad girl/good girl vocals, and called it an album. Then they applied a very light sheen of hip hop “imagery” (a few whoops in the background of some songs, and a few parts in which Del Rey regrettably sorta-raps), and a HUGE gloss of syrupy strings that make you imagine all sorts of Lynch-ian imagery from Twin Peaks to Mulholland Drive. I remember when Lynch trotted out Julee Cruise as “his” pop star – I so wanted to like her. I have a soft spot for that sort of thing, and I’m not really sure where it comes from.

Del Rey’s a hundred times better. She reminds me of a similar singer/songwriter named COURTNEY TIDWELL whose operatic "Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up" I fell for in 2006, but whom I think has stopped writing and performing. While both have incredible vocals and some commercial pretensions, their music is truly dark-night-of-the-soul Brechtian cabaret stuff, dressed up with strings, bells and synths. In Del Rey's case, and on about 8 of the 12 songs on her album, she sticks to this "formula", and it's a very large, enveloping sound that begs to be listened to at top volume. I'm sure teenage girls and gay men all over the world are doing that as we speak. Only on one insipid track, "Diet Mountain Dew" does she sound like she's making a play for a Banana Republic sampler CD, and it's to her and her label's credit that her singles are the haunting "Blue Jeans" and "Video Games" - both of which are great.

I wish her well, and I’m going to continue to try and follow her music and veer clear of the noise surrounding it. There are numerous articles out there in highbrow publications that try to dissect this woman and the reaction to her, and there’s definitely some entertainment value to reading it. I suppose there are statements about feminism, post-feminism, the wildfire effect of the internet and social media, the state of the music industry in 2012, and the “hipster’s” complete and utter lack of foresight and credibility. At the end of the day, there’s this record, and it is good.

Play Lana Del Rey - "Born To Die"