For a moment, let’s forget about Lizzy Grant, the privileged girl who grew up in New York City and may or may not have had a music career handed to her. She’s probably fascinating, but she doesn’t concern us, and enough time has been wasted talking about her and all the various implications raised when she decided to dive headlong into the deep end of the pop music pool. This review is about Lana Del Rey, the singer, the product, the self-proclaimed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”; the woman who dropped one hell of an opening salvo with “Video Games” last summer, followed it up with two eminently listenable singles in “Blue Jeans” and “Born to Die”, and then suffered massive backlash after a disastrous appearance on Saturday Night Live and plenty of hand-wringing over her authenticity (or lack thereof). She’s finally released her proper debut album after six months of endless thinkpieces and debates all over the blogosphere, and now those of us who have followed her budding career have to try to listen to Born to Die with an unprejudiced ear.
Except that that’s all but impossible with Lana Del Rey, perhaps more than any other artist in recent memory—let alone one who, up until now, had only released three songs. At this point, the origin story of sorts that has Del Rey emerging from some sort of corporate transmogrifier as a fully-formed cross-demographic monster may be too firmly ingrained in the Internet community’s consciousness to be separated from anyone’s opinion of her. Detractors pointed to that origin story as a reason why she was the latest worst thing to happen to music; apologists argued that the considerable merits of her singles outweighed this brazen attempt of the music industry—that vague, shadowy, cabalistic entity—to create the very first pop megastar for the indie set.
It should come as no surprise, then, that every aspect of Born to Die feels carefully crafted. In the same way that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was intertwined inextricably with the public persona of Kanye West, Born to Die could not exist without the meta-narrative of Lana Del Rey. It’s all artifice, style without substance, offering glimmers of artistic inspiration but too often resorting to easy tricks and gimmickry. By the time Del Rey drops a line about “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on the album closer “This Is What Makes Us Girls”, she’s confirmed what you may have suspected all along: a pretty voice and some atmosphere can only go so far without a little heart.
Much of what makes “Video Games” so compelling can be found in bits and pieces all over the album, but it’s as if Del Rey and her producers fixate on the wrong elements. On her singles, Del Rey’s rich, velvety alto voice manages to sound both aloof and vulnerable, capturing the fragile beauty of the Hollywood starlets who inspired her look. Everywhere else, though, that voice gets squandered, alternating between cloying and listless. “Off to the Races” may be the worst offender: Del Rey starts the song off with a mediocre Lady Gaga impression before taking a left turn into Ke$ha territory, annoyingly chirping “I’m your little scarlet starlet / Singin’ in the garden / Kiss me on my open mouth.” There’s also the baffling “National Anthem”, a talked/purred hedonistic nightmare with aborted lines like “Money is the reason…we exist! / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact (Kiss kiss!)”
Elsewhere, Lana indulges a number of other missteps, throwing around outmoded slang like “fresh to death” and sleepwalking her way through hackneyed choruses and meaningless verses. But the worst offense she commits is to offer up the same boot-licking, subservient gender role in every relationship she describes. “Video Games” portrayed what appeared to be a brilliant commentary on the kind of woman willing to completely sacrifice her own needs and identity to please a man. But in the context of neverending (and earnest) platitudes like “Dark Paradise”‘s “No one compares to you” and “Blue Jeans”’ “I will love you till the end of time”, it could be that “Video Games” was never meant to be commentary at all. Naturally, you can choose to read “Video Games” however you want, but it says something about the bleakness of this album’s worldview when it retroactively revises “Video Games”’ entire meaning.
So are we to believe that “Video Games” was a fluke, an aberration, a jaunt into deeper territory by an artist who probably belongs in a category, for better or worse, with the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry? Or is it too early to judge a debut artist? (After all, not many people jump to dismiss Radiohead because of Pablo Honey, right?) It’s hard to say, but in the meantime, let’s take Born to Die for what it is: a deeply, deeply flawed meditation on love, image, and fame in the 21st century, and a collection of ideas thrown at the wall to see what sticks.