January 27th, 2012 8:57am
Tell Me, Am I Glamourous?
The funny thing about Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die is that after a while, it begins to sound like 15 rough drafts for a statement song in which she lays out all of her themes and tells you who she is. It’s rare to come across an artist so eager to explain herself, but given the way the world has responded to her thus far, there probably isn’t an artist alive who actually requires this much self-defense. But it gets very boring, and there are diminishing returns: I think that she is successful in setting up ideas and themes with genuine emotional resonance in “Born to Die,” “Video Games” and “Without You,” but for the most part, it’s a plodding, overlong and repetitive record that, on a lyrical level, tells rather than shows.
“Without You” sketches out the Lana Del Rey persona as well as the public’s reaction to it. The lyrics sound like a parody of sad glamour: “Everything I want I have / Money, notoriety, rivieras / I even think I found God In the flash bulbs of your pretty camera / Pretty cameras, pretty cameras / Am I glamourous? / Tell me, am I glamourous?” She complicates this by bringing a messy love affair into the equation, which is sort of conflated with the public’s desire to destroy its pretty celebrities. This is well-mined lyrical territory – Lady Gaga’s first two albums were mostly about this, but were way more fun and humorous – but beyond Del Rey’s own designs on attaining fame, there’s something to this fantasy that resonates with normal folks. “Lana Del Rey” is a familiar archetype, but this tension of striving to please others and construct a pleasing identity for others – to “have it all” – is familiar to many people, most especially women. And our culture loves to tear down women, whether they are famous or not.
Part of what makes Born to Die interesting – or problematic – is that the singer so fully inhabits the vapidity and passivity of the character that it’s hard to tell if the artist is also vapid and passive. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is indeed a character, and that she is attempting to write a critique of a certain lifestyle and point of view. It seems obvious to me that this is the case, even if there is quite a lot that Lizzie Grant and “Lana Del Rey” have in common, especially as she grows more famous and spends all her time living out that role. I do think a lot of the intensely negative response to LDR is the result of her often simplistic and sloppy way of creating this character – it’s so easy to pick apart, so easy to assume the worst of it. As campy as this music can be, she doesn’t give the listeners many “yes, I am definitely being ironic” cues, so it’s easy to take it at face value and hear it as a deeply un-feminist record.
More than that, I think the thing that really rubs people the wrong way is in how the songs, the videos, the project overall, convey a terrible desperation. This is where it is most difficult to tell the difference between Lizzie Grant and Lana Del Rey: Just as much as these songs are about people who are truly desperate for affection, attention and validation, the singer herself comes across as someone very awkwardly attempting to ingratiate herself with her audience. The best moments on Born to Die are squirm-inducing because of this – her faux-naif inflection on “I heard you like the bad girls / honey, is that true?” is the record’s clear high water mark – but not everyone wants to squirm to their pop music. This is an uncomfortable record, but also one that is not entirely successful. It’s hard to know exactly how to judge it, but I think I’m more favorable toward its best songs because I’m willing to feel a bit of empathy for both the singer and the character. I don’t think this was an easy record to make, and I’m glad to see someone go this far out on a limb, even if it’s sorta cravenly commercial in some ways. There are just far too many records that get applauded for taking zero risks, you know?
Buy it from Amazon.