In defense of Lana Del Rey

February 5, 2012

In defense of Lana Del Rey

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who are sick of hearing about Lana Del Rey and those who don’t know who the hell Lana Del Rey is. Rumoured to be a manufactured, prosthetic, plastic piece of pop candy engineered to perfection, Del Rey (née Lizzy Grant) suggests otherwise.

With a start as a Brooklyn jazz singer, Del Rey was something of a New York City wanderer; stumbling through the city with a talent she brandished each night in clubs and around agents, not necessarily expecting a break. You know, like any living, breathing middle-class human ‘with a dream’ aching to run away to the city that never sleeps. The cliché is endless.

But what makes Del Rey just a wee bit different is her sudden leap to stardom, seemingly overnight. As Lizzy Grant, she released a three-track EP called Kill Kill in 2008, and then in 2010, her first full-length studio album, now called Lana Del Rey, A.K.A. Lizzy Grant. Produced by powerhouse David Kahne (Paul McCartney, The Strokes, Stevie Nicks), the album isn’t an entirely far off cry from Born to Die, Del Rey’s current chart topper. With the same dulcet, moody reverberating voice, the album is just a little less sensational and a little more moody.

All in all, Del Rey sounds like your average female pop success. So what makes her different? One easy-to-boil-down-to factor. As Lizzy Grant, Del Rey was something of an average girl: pale face, light hair, small package, big voice. As Lana, she’s a stunner: big hair, toonie-sized eyes, Angelina-like smackers, and that same big voice. You can’t look away; in every image and performance, she is hyper-sexualized. Via pin-up style marketing and taking full advantage of the Amy Winehouses and Lily Allens before her, Del Rey is a vision—aesthetically and musically.

Catapulted to viral success, her debut self-edited video, ‘Video Games’ features fresh vocals, a gloomy sound with actual substance and beautiful lyrics. The video itself casts her in a shadow of mystery, with a seemingly irrelevant culmination of nostalgic shots of skateboarders, the Hotel Marmont and Paz de la Huerta stumbling around drunk. Somehow, in its genuineness and innocence, it worked, drawing in millions of overnight fans. But that only heightened the expectations of fans and skeptics alike, bringing another million finger-pointers along for the ride.

With an unfortunately weak January performance a week before her album release on Saturday Night Live, in which she droned into her microphone as her body drooped in a single spot on the stage, Del Rey did not set up quite the comeback to her mounting audience—half of which had been incessantly rooting for her to fail. Considered a manufactured sexual object, she’s popped onto our screens with her own brand of ‘sadcore’ music with a lot to defend.

And this entire furor has bred from one thing: her look. Branding is one thing, but enhancement is another. Del Rey grew and dyed her hair, discovered cosmetics, fake nails, and a 1920s look suiting not only her voice and body, but her entire image. The new name itself, inspired by the car and Lana Turner, gave the singer the touch she wanted, describing it as, “’Lana Del Rey’ reminded [me] of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.” And yet, the only part of her that truly appears ‘manufactured’ is her blatantly botoxed pair of lips (which she denies having done). But so what? Del Rey seems to be held up for possibly having tricked international audiences into somehow falling for her wooing brand of music—something new, something fresh—despite having been ‘manufactured’ by record companies and promoted by her own millionaire Internet promoter father, Rob Grant. I call bullshit.

The easy pandering, hastened suspicion and immediate predatory stone-throwing of Lana Del Rey has epitomized her as an incredibly modern object of an oddly nouveau sexism. The key word here is easy.

In defense of Lana Del Rey

In Dodai Stewart’s Jezebel article, “Why do you hate Lana Del Rey? I do not know why I hate Lana Del Rey,” she discusses the so-called manufacturing of the star with fellow editor, Jessica Coen. Coen ineffectually describes her shallow dislike and hate for Del Rey, but cannot find a way to define it nor find the reasoning behind it. She just feels like a “fabrication”, “constructed”. Coen later says, “Maybe it’s also that the character/act isn’t convincing, and that’s where one feels ‘tricked.’”

But building a character and reinventing oneself is what pop music is about – from Madonna to Britney to Lady Gaga; from Michael Jackson to David Bowie to Justin. I’m not saying Del Rey is the next Gaga or Timberlake. I am saying that she may have indeed created a character, but why has that become the reasoning behind her incredible media lampooning, when that’s the age-old recipe for pop success?

Speaking to Billboard, Kahne says, “I think she wanted to be Lana Del Rey and didn’t want to be Lizzy Grant. She wiped [out] this other person. I think she actually thinks that she’s that other person, and she probably is. So that was the decision that she made, that she didn’t want traces of that whole person around, as far as I can tell.”

When Jezebel’s Stewart jokingly suggests perhaps Coen simply hates women, the editor responds, “I am not going to lie, the lip bothers me. Good cosmetic work, great, go for it — but bad cosmetic work bothers me in general. The poor construction of a character combined with the poor use of injectionables is just too much. Makes it impossible for me to buy what she’s selling.”

So how exactly did Lana Del Rey get reduced to an object with lips? Again: easy.

It is very, very simple to reduce a celebrity persona down to one part of his or her image. And when they are particularly hyped, as is Del Rey, we find a part of them we simply cannot buy, like Coen. And in this case, it’s her lips. It’s the way she’s described herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” a “Lolita lost in the hood.” Sure, sounds like bullshit. But also, these statements sound like Lana’s genuine thoughts, paying less credence to the fact that’s she’s hiding behind an image.

In defense of Lana Del Rey

“My publicists say that never in the history of their long careers have they ever seen an artist been so fictionalised,” Del Rey says. “I never had anything to hide. My father, he really wasn’t a millionaire. I really did live in a trailer park. I never did that to have an effect on people, that’s just the way my life turned.”

The singer calmly insists she’s had control over every step of her image and marketing, from video production to album marketing. She rarely sounds bothered by the controversy, and was satisfied with her SNL performance, despite media backlash

Her first album was originally available on iTunes for download, but was later rumoured to have been taken down for control over future distribution. “The only reason it got taken down (from iTunes) was because they didn’t have any money to fund it,” says Del Rey. “There’s nothing mysterious about – There’s nothing mysterious about me. I’ve been completely open and truthful about everything.” The album hasn’t vanished. Every track is still available online, with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, with plans to re-release it later this year.

Signed to major label Interscope (with Born to Die poised to take the No. 2 spot on Billboard this week), while supposedly spinning and engineering a new indie reputation, a fake past, an erased history of music and a new set of lips—Lana Del Rey may as well be the easiest scapegoat in music in the past decade. And her gender just makes it that much easier.

What’s being overlooked is her music in general. Bringing a fresh sound to a new brand of music (sadcore, pop-blues, modern jazz, whatever you want to call it), she’s a fresh pop artist. Having performed for years as a struggling singer, she’s a nervous performer. Del Rey is the target of millions waiting to see her fail—and they may have gotten that chance with her SNL performance. But I wouldn’t count her out just yet.

Lizzy Grant did reinvent her image—there’s no denying that. But whether or not she has no say in that reinvention, and whether or not that reinvention is genuinely her is inconsequential, as it always has been for any other artist. What has become a viral stoning and high school level bullying of a new mainstream artist is a clear representation of the still very much alive sexist and scapegoat-hunting music community today. Yeah, her hair’s longer – her lips are a little more plump. But her music is good; it’s new, unique. And she’s got talent. So what about that?