MusicWeekend

Fifty Shades of Lana Del Rey

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1. 

In a world where pop superstars perform in flashy costumes, stiletto heels, and headset mikes, with giant screens broadcasting their every move to sprawling audiences of a hundred thousand people or more; in a world where the most widely respected celebrity alive keyed her Video Music Awards show to the word “FEMINIST,” in all caps, towering in the background behind a stage full of backup dancers and elaborate lighting; in a world where your dress, shoes, hairstyle, and/or pantsuit can inspire more journalism than the contents of your platinum album; in a world where the inspirational ballad has become a cash cow; in a world where virtually every woman who sings melodic pop songs with upbeat electronic backing does so in Madonna’s shadow — given our present musical climate, the emergence of a countertype was all but inevitable.

For many, the mere existence of Lizzie Grant and her alter ego Lana Del Rey serves as a cold slap in the face to the big-budget feminist empowerment campaigns enacted by even richer and more famous people like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Here we have a woman whose ’50s nostalgia celebrates not just the glamour and craft she perceives in film noir but also the idealized sexual archetypes that still prevail in Hollywood, a woman who slips behind the mask of some weird retro persona to sing songs about being powerless before men. Her voice, all childish and pouty and sensual, admits and flaunts more vulnerability than is considered politic among stars of her caliber, and her slow, lush music packs none of the electrobeat-fueled punch that you hear blaring from the radio nowadays. It’s not that she believes in these idealized sexual archetypes, of course, not when she also sings songs about fucking her way up to the top because she wants money power glory. But when you listen to a Lana Del Rey album for the first time and hear her sighing and moaning about what a bad girl she is, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Lana Del Rey fits every definition of the massive superstar — unusually for such an idiosyncratic artist, she caught on commercially long before critics decided her brand of hedonism might be worth some acclaim. Her roundly panned major-label debut, Born to Die, proceeded to reach #2 on the Billboard 200 in January 2012 and has since gone double platinum in twelve countries, with 2014’s Ultraviolence well on its way to similar sales records since being released in June. Her singles and especially music videos typically dominate their respective media channels, and she even tried the lucrative if tasteless Lady Gaga marketing strategy of tacking new extra collectorama onto a repackaged and rereleased album in November 2012 when she produced Born to Die: The Paradise Edition, which consisted of the original album plus the half-hour Paradise EP, and added a modest million or so onto said original album’s sales record. Her shows sell out, especially those at festivals like Lollapalooza or Coachella. Judging by international metallurgical certifications alone, she seems to be especially popular among the French, which I would have guessed immediately, and the Polish, in whose country Ultraviolence has already gone platinum. But within the great big world of superstardom, she’s an anomaly, fitting into absolutely zero current musical genres or trends. And because she luxuriates in a passive, regressive, female-identified submission that seems not just removed from but deliberately antithetical to the display of autonomous self-assertion that unifies all corporate auteurs across market shares and genre lines, her name never gets listed in the pantheon of current major pop artists. She occupies her own cultural space.

Nevertheless, she has mass appeal in spades. This is an artist who can sell a million albums and yet retain a certain perverse credibility in the alternative rock scene, many of whose denizens feel like they discovered her before anybody else, some when the “Video Games” single came out in 2011, while others came around only upon hearing the shuddering, sensual “West Coast” in 2014. As a pop star in spirit whose formal proclivities differ substantially from those prevalent on the pop charts, she may well have a wider audience range than your average cause célèbre. What she lacks is motivational ethos of a kind that has taken the modern music industry by the horns. Most big pop artists are about power, control, a spectacle of mastery. Lana Del Rey is about hedonism, submission to pleasure, the sweet feeling of seduction.

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Lizzie Grant is a nice Catholic girl who grew up in Lake Placid with a loving upper-middle class family. She sang in her church choir when she was little and generally seems to have had a relatively normal childhood, although in her teens she did have a drinking problem. She went to boarding school in Connecticut, spent a year in Long Island as a waitress, and studied metaphysics at Fordham. She became a singer-songwriter around the time she started college, playing a lot of small shows in Brooklyn. Eventually she started sending out demos to labels and signing contracts, and so began her journey toward life as a professional musician.

Lana Del Rey is a mysterious, glamorous femme fatale whose origins are shrouded in a thick puff of cigar smoke. Maybe she grew up poor, maybe she grew up as a Beverly Hills princess who fell to the dark side when she started listening to indie music and using psychedelic drugs and having sex, but nobody knows for sure. She’ll gladly seduce older men with shady jobs and too much money, only too often she’ll fall madly in love with them, and then all she can do is quietly put on her lipstick and makeup and stare at the floor and pout. She likes to smoke cigarettes, but only when men are watching. She calls all her boyfriends “daddy” without a smidgen of irony. She has a way of gazing thoughtfully and solemnly into the distance that makes you think she’s wise beyond her years, that she’s been hurt too many times and seen too much for a girl still so young. Around her boyfriends she acts sultry and sensual almost to the point of parody, yet underneath all that exaggeration she seems insecure, scared of emotional connection, and incredibly sexually frustrated; yet at the same time she seems unaware of her frustration, as if she has not yet realized how unsatisfying her life is. She often vaguely and fatalistically compares herself to Lolita.

Many pop stars tinker with funny voices and alter egos, but Grant takes this kind of acting to a different level of magnitude. She never breaks character, never even breaks a smile, never allows even the faintest hint of her true self to shine through. Imagine the artist who once recorded “My Name Is” only performing as Slim Shady without giving equal time to Marshall Mathers the private human being and Eminem the public celebrity and you’ll get a good idea of how completely and obsessively she plays her persona on record. Because the Lana Del Rey construction is so far removed from Grant’s actual social reality, she is often accused of insincerity, inauthenticity, and similar spurious charges by publications from Rolling Stone to the Independent to the Chicago Tribune; this is like dismissing Lolita for not accurately depicting Nabokov’s personal life. Disingenuous roleplay isn’t just an aspect of her art, something one can critique separately from everything else she does; it defines and is inextricable from her art, the context in which everything else is framed. Every phrase she turns, every note she croons, anything you hear on a Lana Del Rey album exists within quotation marks, attributed to said fictional creation.

Thus she leaves discontented not only conservative gatekeepers who demand that all rock if not popular music equal total and earnest emotional expression from a real person’s eternal soul but also megapop-conscious moralizers for whom the assumption of a persona should equal a charitable and empowering act of role modeltry, both of whom react negatively toward having to sort through more shades of meaning than with your average pop star. After all, it’s not that she has nothing to say–she just says it with more distance and irony than mass audiences as large as hers expect. Simply by virtue of existing, Lana Del Rey the dramatis persona packs plenty of socially redeeming statements into her music, statements about sexuality, about gender relations, about class; she also leaves so much ambiguous that anybody unwilling to suspend his or her disbelief will find her incomprehensible. Lana Del Rey is not a character you like, exactly, and much about her feels monstrous. But this only adds to the allure of a charming, familiar, and also novel figure straight out of classic American myth yet reimagined for the present modern world.

Some depictions of this figure feel sharper than others. There were a lot of songs on Born to Die in particular that basically add up to a dubious embrace of West Coast affluence. And her ultimate significance as a fictional character remains up for debate, since if the same person is supposed to be singing all these songs, she contradicts herself every other minute. Even within the bounds of distant, ironic representation, Lana Del Rey does some pretty tasteless things on record, and whatever your commitment to glitzy artifice it’s easy to imagine getting impatient with such a specific and perverse personality. She fixates too much on wealth, for one, too much on the various lucrative and usually sketchy professions of her fictional lovers, dropping too many brand names and getting too excited over the diamonds they buy her. She highlights too strongly her music’s tragic/fatalist edge, making too many grand proclamations about the nature of femininity (“This is what makes us girls/we don’t stick together cause we put love first”) and others about absolutely nothing (“In the land of gods and monsters/I was an angel/looking to get fucked hard”). She treats with too much reverence her beloved ‘60s idols like Jim Morrison and of course Marilyn Monroe, whose appeal for her lies less in their art than in the projected glamour that naturally accrues around romantic entertainer-heroes who die young. And as with all charismatic, questionable entertainer-heroes, none of these bad qualities detracts from the impact of her own art — especially if these are obsessions you yourself share, which many of her fans do.

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Lana Del Rey’s greatest and most definitive song, I think, lies not on Born to Die or Ultraviolence but on 2012’s Paradise EP, a fairly patchy but also fascinating slice of interim product that bridged her two longer albums musically and concentrated on the ‘50’s/’60’s nostalgia thematically. It’s not the one where she announces that her “pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola,” or even “Gods & Monsters” itself. It’s the quiet ballad toward the end, “Yayo,” a dark, sumptuous jewel of vocal intimacy and stylized sexuality. One of the slower, subtler songs in her catalog, “Yayo” gradually builds and swells over the course of its five and a half minutes, but it does so with muted shifts in tone and accompaniment rather than the sweeping synthesized orchestral arrangements that otherwise dominate the EP. Its careful piano chords start soft, understated, not echoing exactly but somehow veiled in moody atmosphere; she sings over these chords for a good while before introducing the bassline and a light overlay of strings. Eventually these drop out and are replaced by a high, haunting bell progression that seems to tease the listener, lightly dancing upon the rest of the music. The strings and bass come in more heavily as the bells drop out and the song reaches a climax of sorts, smoothly sliding into its refrain. “Let me put on a show for you, daddy,” she coos, and by moaning her phrases in a detached, breathy whisper so sensual her words become sighs and her sentences become love cries, she does exactly what she says, subjecting some notes to fluttering melisma and coldly puckering her lips around others, slurring the entire song’s melody into a single erotic wail. When she growls the third and final refrain an octave lower than before, the show reaches its masterful and inevitable conclusion.

All pop music is a show in one sense or another; most pop music is extremely manufactured and focused on presentation; more pop music than we would like focuses a little too much on image; even when it doesn’t seem that way pop music is almost by definition an artificial construction, preoccupied with surface. By playing the obviously imaginary, shrewdly insincere, and thrillingly faux character of Lana Del Rey, Lizzie Grant heightens these facts and contradictions in a new context, calls our attention to them afresh, makes them interesting again.

3. 

Despite massive sales and a voice that everybody recognized was unique from the beginning, Lana Del Rey was not kindly received when Born to Die came out. Most critics hated her. Whether the pans were inspired by the awkwardness of an embarrassing Saturday Night Live performance that introduced her to most of the world, or by the inevitable disappointment suffered by those who fell in love with “Video Games” a few months earlier and formed unreasonable expectations for its corresponding album, or by the reflexive distaste for novelty common among journalists concerned with appearing thoughtful and serious, in 2012 Born to Die received everything from patiently ambivalent to explosively nasty reviews from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, the A.V. Club, the Observer, the Independent, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, even the typically generous Allmusic Guide, and the New York Times, with the latter’s Jon Caramanica condemning both the album’s empty artifice and its kneejerk, authenticity-crazed detractors. Indeed, a few of the above reviews did express queasy discomfort at her persona play, especially when compounded with her forward sexuality. Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz infamously comparing Born to Die to a faked orgasm was one of many examples. But class was just as big a factor — the general perception was that the Lana Del Rey character constituted among other things a received, enamored fantasy of grotesque wealth in America, and that she crossed the line from representation to advocacy.

Between January 2012 and June 2014, Born to Die went platinum, “Summertime Sadness” appeared on radio stations across the world, Grant recorded the bestselling single “Young and Beautiful” for the Great Gatsby soundtrack, and her tunes must have crept up on a lot of people. Beyond the inevitable twists and turns of self-conscious postmodern taste, how else to explain the sudden acclaim surrounding Ultraviolence? Not much distinguishes her follow-up musically from her major-label debut. Both albums consist of sultry torch songs dominated by strings, keyboards, and her searing vocals; both albums are delivered entirely in the voice of the Lana Del Rey character; both albums pile on the drama; hell, both albums use the same exact set of melodic devices. Even when there are measurable sonic differences, they feel so slight, such tiny variations on such a specific style, that pointing them out feels like an absurd exercise in pedantry. Yet Grant has somehow become a critics’ darling, with many of the above publications selecting Ultraviolence as one of the best albums of 2014. And without a doubt I agree; Ultraviolence is a much fuller, richer, and sexier album, as these things are measured, than Born to Die.

The consensus around Born to Die was basically justified. Although I enjoy her glossy hooks and theatrical segues a lot more now than I did at the time, at the time the sheer vulgarity of her materialism made me sick to my stomach. Arch little numbers like “Radio” and “Off to the Races” flow smoothly enough, but more typical is “National Anthem,” in which she swoons over her lover’s Bugatti Veyron, begs him to take her to the Hamptons, and hopes he buys her lots of diamonds. The constant celebration of the almighty dollar, augmented by a stream of brand names including such refined aphrodisiacs as Cristal, Bacardi, and Diet Mountain Dew, felt ridiculous; who knows whether the wealthy really resemble their portrayals on Gossip Girl, but in lusting after that imagined life Born to Die seemed drenched in the ugliest kind of class envy. That this implied a certain distance from said ruling class on Lana Del Rey’s part eluded many, and that her songs still glow with a fabulous hummability remains a tribute to her immense talent. Nevertheless, the album had its fair share of ick factor, with defenders of the sort who enjoy feeling contempt for their ironic objects of titillation.

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Subtle, scary, elegant, lighter on the designer couture and heavier on both the American myth and the erotomania, Ultraviolence made her persona more distinctive and more irresistible. The main theme is sex, which includes descriptions of her boyfriends and how they treat her and how she treats them and how she feels so good and how she feels so bad; from “Sad Girl” to “Pretty When You Cry” to “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” her songs focus on received and/or inhabited paradigms of femininity whose reality often borders on male fantasy and whose limitations haunt her. Song after song takes language more commonly used by men to describe their girlfriends and applies it to herself in the first person, establishing herself as both victim and agent in an ironic love-hate relationship with objectification. What’s more, her detailed imagery this time around explicitly presents Lana Del Rey as the lower-middle class figure she always was, no stranger to the beat-up Chevy or the trailer park, intimately familiar with men who carry around Bibles and guns and who hit her when she misbehaves. The tunes are sharper, and the lyrics occupy a sweltering fictional world situated, with the exception of “Brooklyn Baby,” in the deep pockets of southern California, though occasionally she tries to hitch a ride back to her beloved New York City. Throughout the album, she positions herself as the heir to yet another venerable tradition, that of the beautiful loser — not the angel whore of aforementioned male fantasy, just a romantic heroine intensely conscious of her own tragic sense of life, which she melds with panache into her previous self-conception as femme fatale and/or Lolita figure. This is a tired trope in our culture, especially in popular music. But in context it adds to the richness of the Lana Del Rey persona: it sure beats the wannabe winner who continually bemoaned the dark side of material success on Born to Die, and as character acting goes, this is unprecedented. Not even Tom Waits ever pulled off an album where he maintained the trope the whole way through.

All this meant that critics were finally free to enjoy the seductive, luxurious musical signature that Lana Del Rey owned ever since “Video Games” came out, and since the music was backed up by the concept, Ultraviolence converted even her harshest skeptics into fans despite themselves and got rave reviews across the board. It turned a formerly one-dimensional fragment of Lizzie Grant’s imagination into a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood celebrity singer. It deserves its critical acclaim.

4. 

Lizzie Grant’s preoccupation with acting and presentation places her in an honorable line of pop divas that also includes David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, those great masters of manipulating their own celebrity, although neither of them pursued a single persona so consistently. Lana Del Rey herself, however, belongs in another tradition entirely. Between her melodramatic self-obsession, her slow, string-heavy music, and her trashy American attempts at recreating European melancholy, she’s the closest thing modern pop has to an idealized cabaret singer: roaming the streets of Hollywood, she appears at a different venue every evening, gliding leisurely onstage in a gossamer shawl with her back exposed and too much eye shadow on, whispering “This song belongs to Isabella Rossellini — my bestest friend” before launching into her signature cover of “Blue Velvet”.

When the Lana Del Rey character finds any sort of employment at all, which she doesn’t often, it comes in the form of a gig at a ritzy but also seedy nightclub, possibly to pay off debts to some gangster she unwittingly got involved with, possibly afterwards to meet people backstage enamored of her performance, possibly because she just loves standing up there, swaying to the music, knowing all eyes are on her. She doesn’t perform for very long, just four or five songs, as, in their effortless glamour, simple authority, and troubled intimations that she knows more about love and loss than anyone in the room, anyone in the city of Los Angeles, anyone who has ever traversed the West Coast, these songs are enough to completely transfix the audience. Her musical backup is sumptuous and plush, but she knows every note counts and how economical she must be, so she caresses her phrases with nearly maternal care, making sure to draw out all the vowel sounds she possibly can and swoop through the melody like a bird. Yet underneath her prolonged, mannered caution nothing but the wildest, fieriest energy and most desolate, heartbroken desperation shines through, in both her voice and her eyes. During the same evening, jazz ensembles and stand-up comedians and dance troupes perform on the same stage, warmly lit to create a sense of intimacy; she always steals the show.

Musically, the largely electronic backing on Ultraviolence feels considerably sparer and more stylized than the bands that would historically have played behind her, and she moans too much for an audience interested in verbal content and enunciation. But compare anything on Ultraviolence to, say, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and you’ll hear the resemblance instantly. There’s a lowness there, a buzziness, a pinched nasality, a heated energy too large for the human throat, winnowed down to a size that could fit the vocal cavity, and hence carrying with it a shuddering intensity that vibrates through the singer’s delivery, abrasive even in its prettiness. The French singer is a little tougher and the American a little gentler, but they both whisper tenderness and display helpless, passive passion for all to hear. Despite many critics still claiming that she can’t sing, Lana Del Rey toys with the vocal convention epitomized by Piaf and adopted by all sorts of refined modern Euroballadeers as if it were its own compelling rock & roll style.

She doesn’t copy the convention, exactly — she’s too self-conscious, for one, not straightforward enough. Nor does she attempt to replicate its winsome nostalgia, always the dividing factor that either turns admiration into adoration or suspicion into loathing. Rather, she draws it out, rips it apart, pulls it past the borders of naturalistic speech, and swathes it in a girly rapture that’s all her own, cutting her delivery with interjections from her own breath and giggling through, around, and under the notes she sings. How exactly she manipulates her mouth to produce these thick velvety textures I have no idea. Whether or not she filters her singing electronically, which given the echo levels on Ultraviolence I suspect she does, the resulting vocal performance soars into a magnificent stylization of erotic vulnerability; whether she’s squealing in her high register or purring in her lower contralto, and usually she twirls so smoothly between the two that it’s hard to keep track, her singing always coheres into a single nuanced, wordless, infinitely extended sigh.

Carefully placed in the foreground, her voice provides Ultraviolence with its sonic signature, but that’s not to say the music lacks spark. It’s subtle, exquisite, and expertly crafted, devoid of the theatrical contrivance most cabaret ensembles produce and the sparkly Hollywood schlock Born to Die flirted with, and although for newcomers its casual languor might take some getting used to, after a few plays these extremely slow songs become extremely sublime. Usually centered around a tight guitar progression or simple set of keyboard chords, they bury the drums deep in the mix and contain only a few more elements, maybe even breathier background vocals or a quiet bassline, all blurred and hazy so that the musical synthesis takes on richer dimensions and feels larger than it would otherwise. The occasional guitar solos in “Shades of Cool” and “Pretty When You Cry” fit right into a mix that effectively abandons glossy surface for a simultaneously lush and simple stripped-down/clouded-over classic rock palette. The string coloring on “Old Money” and “Ultraviolence” sounds right at home in a musical environment where the keyboards usually function as ostinato strings anyway. Evoking a hot California night with the sea breeze blowing through palm trees and your hair, the sun setting on the West Coast and falling off the edge of the world, the lightness in her chosen style only enhances its stark power.

And because the spareness of the music is intentionally designed around the silhouette of her singing, rising where she rises and falling where she falls, she puts her vocal performance and everything it signifies front and center. Her moaning and sighing and wailing completely unify each one of these pop gems, binding everything into a celebration of her voice, her personality, her eroticism. Regardless of how shrewd each individual song is, they blend together beautifully, and when the album reaches its closing three-song denouement, her sexual contradictions and conceptual insight reach new blazing heights of meaning. “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” achieves brilliant pop glory on its title phrase alone, not to mention its calm drumming and dizzy, swirling keyboards. “Old Money” longs for a lover and material success in terms that imply both imagination and deprivation, steadily drifting along before erupting with a storm of violins that unexpectedly tugs on your heartstrings and sends chills down your spine. Then her Nina Simone cover, “The Other Woman,” provides a climax so breathtakingly delicate it may very well slip you right by.

Since Ultraviolence includes plenty of other songs about being the mistress in an affair, like “Shades of Cool” and “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry,” she must have been excited to discover how exactly “The Other Woman” fit the theme. The entire song is in the third person, describing a mistress whom the man doesn’t love; when Simone sings it the woman is a distant object of contemplation, but here it’s clear that the other woman is Lana Del Rey, doomed to spend her life alone. Lana Del Rey’s cover floats over a graceful blend of low strings and high, plucked guitar as she sings in her contralto, intensifying suddenly after the bridge when she stops the music and lets loose a wobbly rising cadence, upon which subtle shades of horn sneak into the mix, making it tangier for a short verse, and then she stops the music again and croons the same rising sequence of notes. When the music starts up again something inside her breaks and she jumps up an octave, howling “alooooooone,” and then “aloooooone ooohhh ooohhh ahhh ahhh,” the whole thing devolving into a series of anguished, inarticulate cries that she holds for a few measures. You can hear her shudder, pull herself together, and shakily trill the final note on an album-length radical affirmation/critique of female sexuality and objectification whose ironic ambiguity widens its scope, whose setting in the shadowy world of American myth lends it social relevance, and, finally, whose smoky, luscious pop sound makes for a thrillingly hedonistic listening experience.

Ultraviolence, Paradise, and Born to Die are available from Amazon and other retailers.

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