“It’s you, it’s you/It’s all for all for you/Everything I do…” – by the end of last year, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ had taken the music industry by storm; a wispy ballad of swirling strings and lovelorn lyrics, it found ground in both pop, indie and alternative music circles. It soon became the song of 2011 and launched Del Rey to international stardom. Controversy then ensued.
Indeed, let’s be straight from the outset. Yes, ‘Lana Del Rey’ is in many ways a creation. Yes, she she came from a very privileged background and may have had lip enhancement. But beyond all this controversy of plastic surgery, marketing gimmicks, bad SNL performances and a millionaire father, one fact remains: ‘Video Games’ is a bloody good song. In reality, the critical backlash that was so fierce against Del Rey’s persona was exactly because the song was so widely acclaimed.
The question on Del Rey’s authenticity should therefore be rendered irrelevant in the context of the music on Born to Die; more importantly, it should focus on whether Del Rey is a one-hit wonder or has more musical gems up her sleeve.
In fact, this question was answered already with second single ‘Born to Die’, which is both title and first track of the album. The song follows the same musical approach as ‘Video Games’ – textured melody, twanging strings and eerie vocals create an emotional ballad just short of the aforementioned. Similar is my personal favorite ‘Blue Jeans’, which mournfully flows through the Americana style and narrative that is so prevalent on the album – and the image of Del Rey herself. ‘Video Games’ then crops up and hits you again with its emotional richness. It also makes it clear why it’s such a big song in that it is timeless; you can listen to it several times and somehow its appeal doesn’t wear off.
Yet, it is easy to be mislead by an artist’s singles and, to some extent, Del Rey’s singles do exactly this. There are no more emotional, melodic ballads that resonate so much with the listener. That’s not to say that the other songs are a change of theme or don’t match the same level, but there is a clear change in musical style.
‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and ‘Off to the Races’ are about as close as she gets to her self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra” style, mixing R&B beats, pseudo-rap and flowing choruses. It seems Del Rey is trying to put out a Lily Allen-style attitude, but it all comes across a bit forced and urban-girl-band-like. ‘National Anthem’ continues this trend – as somewhat of a balance between Del Rey’s pop-side and her love of trip-hop sounds – and it actually works better as a grower with a bit more power and melody.
Indeed, Del Rey prospers better when she goes for a pop feel, as there she is capable of venturing in various directions. ‘Carmen’ has an eerie and gothic feel, while ‘Summertime Sadness’ is both gloomy and beautiful with its harmonies showing off Del Rey’s vocal abilities. By the end, Del Rey has taken you through a long journey of cinematic nostalgia and American mystique.
The flaws? Well, Del Rey struggles lyrically, even reusing lyrics on songs. The majority of the rest of them seem to have been written from the view of a teenage girl who has lost her first love. Moreover, her obsession with the 50s ‘American Dream’ – that was first seen in the grainy homemade video for her first single – gets a bit warring; it’s not always obvious, but the whole concept oozes out of every pore of the album. Indeed, by the end of the album, you just want to tell her to lighten up a bit. Nothing in life deserves this much theatrical melodrama and melancholy (well, actually they do, as Del Rey is obsessed with both love and death, but that’s exactly not brilliant either). And then the killer: the song ‘Radio’ is radiantly catchy and shows a softer side to Del Rey’s vocals, but is one of those ‘stick it to the man’-type songs and takes her persona to a new level. “No one even knows how hard life was” and “How do you like me now?” are both lyrics from the song. Really?
If this was an album released without pressure, it would be a seriously acclaimed debut record. Yet, with expectations extremely high, and with fans and critics expecting an album full of ‘Video Games’, the album creaks under the weight of its own hype. Indeed, it won’t silence the critics, and Del Rey will have to contend with rumors of inauthenticity and blandness from music snobs for a while yet. In all seriousness though, it is a good pop record; and if it’s manufactured, who cares? There are countless artists who aren’t manufactured and will never produce an album of this quality.