Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lana Del Rey – “Born to Die”


So, in case you’ve missed it, apparently Lana Del Rey is quite the controversy. I suppose it’s my duty as a music reviewer to weigh in, but I’m more intrigued by figuring out exactly why she’s so controversial than I am picking a side. More than that, though, I’m interested in actually reviewing the album, which gets lost in the ridiculous shuffle, since most of the lovers and the haters battled when Lana had still not even released her full length album.

Okay, so she tried to make in music already under another name. Then her daddy’s finances helped out. Then she re-branded and changed her name. In the pop world, this is called normal. Case in point:

Katy Perry? She’s Kathryn Hudson, and a former Christian singer. Lady Gaga is Stefani Germanotta. Elton John is famously Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Nicki Minaj’s real name is Onika Maraj.

But, of course, what separates Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant) is not that she changed her name or had a former career, it’s that she was marketed to the indie circle, burning up the blogs with the outstanding track “Video Games”. The indie crowd values, perhaps above anything, this new super-value of “authenticity”. They want something that is real, man. In this generation it’s almost better to be real than to be nice, good, or courteous. On reality tv this leads to ridiculous arguments where someone lays out a barrage of unsuspecting insults in the name of “being real”.

So then Lana, faced already with an entire group of people who hated what she represented, goes onto SNL. The Indie Infiltrator herself then bombs spectacularly, mumbling through her own song as if she doesn’t know how to hit a note. An already tense blogosphere exploded, and Lana now represented perhaps the most controversial artist ever to have not quite released an album yet.

Notice what we haven’t talked about yet? Her actual album. It reached a new level of absurd frankly, with everyone taking a side for or against the girl without actually trying her music. And I think we all know that we can either love or hate something depending upon our predisposition, even if we don’t want to admit that. I try my best to approach every album without any inkling how I’ll rate it before listening to it. That wouldn’t be fair. What I found shouldn’t be surprising: with Lana-haters touting her as a pariah and Lana-lovers adoring her interesting style, the actual music lies exactly in the middle. In some ways, it’s just mind-blowing that a 3-star album could cause this much trouble.

The album actually starts with surprising strength. “Born to Die”, full of soft strings and steady beat, is particularly strong when Lana hits her higher levels on the chorus. “Off to the Races” is as pop as the album gets, but it’s also one of the most fascinating sounding songs on the album. Lana, playing the temptress at her best, squeals her way through the chorus like a little Marilyn Monroe (“I’m your little scarlet, scarlet/singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”). And then “Blue Jeans”, produced as it may sound, and full of James Dean references and questionable rhymes (“you fit me better/than my fa-vor-ite sweater”? “I still remember, that day we met in December”? Ouch.), is still just sorta fun and provides a perfect extension of the character she’s created (or fine, that her label created…*doomful noise*). Then we have “Video Games”, the nearly untouchable single, which landed in my best of 2011. It’s even better with the video. Four tracks in, and I was left wondering what the big deal was.

Imperfections certainly do creep in. “Diet Mountain Dew”, which immediately jumps off as an odd song choice for someone looking for “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, is forgettable and overproduced. “National Anthem”, featuring plenty of talk-singing, also fails to grab, and may even annoy with the delivery of lines like “money is the reason we exist/everybody knows it, it’s a fact/kiss, kiss”. “Carmen” is also forgettable, and while perhaps the women readership may find more to like in a song called “This is What Makes Us Girls”, the decent sounding song fails to connect with me.

But there’s plenty more to like here. “Dark Paradise”, another song that makes use of strings, delivers a swarming pop tune. Heavy on production, yes, but here’s a song that at least makes good use of those studio strings. “Radio”, one of the more intimate of the songs, captures a hint of an emotional core in a generally (and seemingly intentionally) emotionless album. Elsewhere “Million Dollar Man” is positively cinematic, and “Summertime Sadness” is a capable ballad. And don’t miss bonus track “Lucky Ones”, which in some ways feels closer to Evita than pop radio. And I mean that as a compliment.

I don’t mean to over-compliment the album though. While many tracks sound good individually, they also tend to sound similar. Lots of production, lots of strings. I’m not opposed to those things in principle, but they appear so much that the album can blend together unnecessarily, especially towards the middle and very back of the album.

If this album was marketed purely as a pop album, we might be looking at an artist who found minor success on the charts, and a few indie fans who enjoyed her on the side. Instead we have controversy. But really, who cares? Did you like the album? Did you hate the album? Have you even heard the album? Isn’t the album truly, when it gets down to it, “pretty good”? No, Lana-haters, this is not garbage. Her past are facts, and these facts do not in any way influence the way that the notes combine with the lyrics and the vocals. But hey Lana-lovers, let’s remember that some people do value authenticity, and that any appearance that an artist can’t replicate their music live does turn people off. Let’s face it, she’s right in the middle, with songs worth hearing and songs worth avoiding. She’s not evil, she’s not a godsend. She’s Lana Del Rey, pretty good artist, branded persona, owner of a 3-star album that I don’t regret buying.


  1. I have to admit, the only time I heard her was on SNL, & I (along with everyone who watched) thought it was terrible. BUT I also know that performing on SNL is a big thing. I could tell that her style of music wasn't for me, regardless of the fact that she bombed it on the show. I just really enjoyed the follow-up they did on her the following week on the "Weekend Update" :)

  2. I think the first time I heard about Lana was post SNL. I guess she didn't do so hot but I do like what I've heard elsewhere, including the two songs you posted. Especially like Off To The Races.