Often, when we criticize artists we don’t care for, it isn’t the music we are commenting on. Instead, we are frustrated by the amount of attention and acceptance the artist is receiving — it seems out of synch with our failure to appreciate the artist’s vibes, and as such we label the artist overrated. Had it not been for the fact that we feel overexposed to the artist, we might have been completely neutral to their music, neither interested nor disgusted. Ever since Lizzy Grant ditched her given name and reinvented herself as Lana Del Rey, she’s no doubt courted her share of admiration and disgust from an increasingly mainstream audience that finds her simultaneously provocative, overexposed, frustrating and seductive. And she has left little doubt that she strives to be all those things, and more.
Her striking 2011 debut single, “Video Games,” arrived amidst a flurry of conflicting backstories and hipster gossip as to where she had come from and what she had done to get here. People couldn’t stop talking about her, especially when they didn’t have anything nice to say. A truly uncomfortable and premature Saturday Night Live performance seemed to confirm the skepticism of righteous naysayers eager to write her off as the product of her record label — as if any A&R rep would have the imagination, let alone balls, to dream up an artist so strange and go through with it. But ever since the public’s initial fascination regarding the perceived authenticity of Lana Del Rey — as if that’s a quantifiable value we all should be able to agree on — wore off, it’s become abundantly clear that Lana Del Rey has masterfully been setting the stage for a very specific context in which to appreciate her music and experience her performance.
With her third album, the sluggish, exquisite Honeymoon, Lana Del Rey abundantly confirms that some of us were fools to write her off as hype or a new-media phenomenon. The moment I finally realized Lana Del Rey was something more than a peculiar pop novelty arrived when I heard her second album, the juicy and robust Ultraviolence. It’s a great record that managed to appear both drenched in self-mythologizing and desperate vulnerability. Despite her humble pre-Lana Del Rey beginnings as a seemingly starry- and blue-eyed singer-songwriter named Lizzy Grant, Honeymoon reveals a pop auteur in full command of her narrative. Here she makes the transition from object to subject, making a departure from the often uncomfortable hopelessness and fatigue she romanticized to a fault on her first two albums. She’s still spoiled, tired beyond her years and bored in the same hazy Californian fantasy-wilderness as before, but in the undercurrent we now detect a more ambitious and commanding force, fully aware of her strengths and worth. In her new songs she’s in control, observing the dumb, beautiful men she parades through her life — not the other way around. She still finds perverse pleasure in occasionally underestimating herself, but also tries out her newfound power as the narrator of her songs, the queen of her universe and as an unusual pop artist with a huge following on both sides of the mainstream.
Backstories have always been important in popular music. We love to pass on idiotic little tidbits of catchy information we hear on TV or from a friend, as if it somehow elevates our experience of the artist’s work. If nothing else it gives us something to say. Eleven years ago, when I had just moved to New York, I attended a party thrown by Rolling Stone. There, my friends and I invented a drinking game where you had to take a shot every time someone you were small-talking with mentioned a particular story that was circulating regarding who cut the hair of the night’s guests of honor, a pre-Sex on Fire Kings of Leon. That night’s social safe words were, “Did you know their mother cuts their hair?” It was all anybody could talk about. I was stunned. Welcome to the music industry! We got so drunk that night.
I don’t get the impression that Lana Del Rey’s mother cuts her hair. But Del Rey is a master of telling stories about herself, revealing just enough to get us hooked on trying to connect the dots. Not unlike Stephen Colbert — this decade’s greatest performer in American entertainment — Lana Del Rey is a performer who constantly contradicts and confuses, seduces and amuses. Recently, Colbert announced he’d abandon the character of “Stephen Colbert,” opting instead to host his new Late Show gig as “himself,” Stephen Colbert, later saying, “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit. Now I’m just playing a narcissist.” Stephen Colbert still entertains and amuses us with most of the same qualities “Stephen Colbert” had. All we have is his word that he is no longer that character when he’s up there before us.
In Lana Del Rey’s case, all we have is her general lack of words, beyond her lyrics. After speaking more candidly in interviews and getting into trouble for it while promoting Ultraviolence, she has returned to not elaborating much about anything. Like Joni Mitchell, Del Rey has expressed no interest in assuming the role of a feminist — even refusing to identify as one in interviews. One could argue that this is at once both incredibly ignorant and incredibly brave, insofar as not subscribing unequivocally to feminism would seem like one of the final taboos in today’s relatively progressive cultural and political climate. In our predictable outrage we may be forgetting that Lana Del Rey, the invention, whether similar to or disparate from Lizzy Grant, whoever that may be, exists within a context: the excessive dream-like reality of her invention. Whether or not Lana Del Rey is sacrificing Lizzy Grant at the bonfire of their shared vanities we may never truly know.
“We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me.” This one line — probably the best opening line of any record I’ll hear this year — contains the core of Lana Del Rey’s great, tragic paradox. World-weary beyond her years, overly dramatic and yet weirdly constructive, she’s addressing the elephant in the room before making any further contact. Haters gonna hate, performers gonna perform. The song ends, “Dreaming away your life.” She’s already revealed too much.
Her world is both dystopian and trivial. Her fatigued gaze both romanticizes and exposes her numb condition. She’s fully aware of the considerable limits to her surface universe, the lack of empathy and concern for the world outside her little bubble. It is difficult to imagine Lana Del Rey being booked for big charity concerts or answering the phone among celebrity do-gooders at a telethon, in much the same way it’d be difficult to imagine the same of the cynical, enigmatic Steely Dan in the ’70s. Empathy is not her thing. And yet, for all the navel-gazing and posturing, Del Rey refuses to let herself off the hook and often manages to construct vulnerability within the confines of privilege and boredom. Ignorance is part of the act. Whether or not it’s part of her private personality, we have no way of knowing. It would surprise me a great deal if I found out that Stephen Colbert privately is an immoral, cold-hearted person, because so much of his performance exudes warmth, empathy and humanity. But I have no way of truly knowing this — I don’t know him. I don’t know her either. I only know what they want me to know. This is the essence of performance.
A great performer always plays with the audience’s idea of who the human being behind the character is, and with the degree to which the performer diverges from that actual person. I’d argue that this is especially true for artists such as Dave Grohl or Bruce Springsteen, who wish to appear, and likely are, somewhat down to earth and likable. We all do this to varying degrees as we present ourselves to the world — performers just do it for a living and take more liberties. Where there’s an audience, there’s always a performance, and a smart performer knows what to do with both the proverbial and the actual stage, regardless of how different from or similar to their stage-selves they may actually be. As such, I’d say Lana Del Rey may be a modern master of the form. I tend to get suspicious if I get the sense that an artist really needs me to believe that he or she is sincere. This also works the other way around; when the artist isn’t hitting me over the head with sincerity, I often start believing. As such, I’d argue that Lana Del Rey is the most sincere singer-songwriter operating in the mainstream today. The anti-Ed Sheeran. She really doesn’t care if you believe her.
“On Monday they destroyed me, but by Friday I’m revived,” goes one of Lana Del Rey’s tunes on Honeymoon, both sounding like the theatrical caricature we’ve come to expect and baring her soul, writing what she knows. Her dark, defeated wit against her dark, nasal tone sometimes reminds me of an enervated modern-day Peggy Lee, if not necessarily when it comes to precision and range. It’s seldom that you hear a major mainstream album that moves at such a delicate, slow pace, the way Honeymoon does. There’s little concern for singles, variation or special guests, and no grand bids for anything that doesn’t serve the main attraction, the main character. It can sometimes feel limiting, almost claustrophobic, but Del Rey’s character is more beguiling and weirdly engaging than most of today’s indistinguishable mainstream pop personas. Honeymoon is a strange, exotic and confident bird, both uniquely contemporary and out of its time. Make no mistake, despite its lush orchestral arrangements that echo bygone eras of popular music as well as a certain kind of decadence and vastness that makes the singer seem even more isolated and alone at the heart of these songs, this is no cute throwback effort. The distinctly pre-rock string arrangements complement Del Rey’s hazy, regal delivery and often bring echoes of John Barry’s many classic James Bond themes and the many great female singers who would sing them. The fact that Lana Del Rey doesn’t have the new James Bond theme feels like a grand pop-cultural missed opportunity.
Every track on Honeymoon is written in collaboration with the mature songwriter Rick Nowels (who also collaborated with Del Rey on many of Ultraviolence’s most inspired numbers), except for a gorgeous T.S. Eliot poem reading (“Burnt Norton”) and an unnecessary version of the oft-covered “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” that nevertheless serves as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on her entire operation: in order to keep the story going, she relies on the listener to both understand and misunderstand her. That she was easily underestimated at first set the stage perfectly for her future spectacles. Pretentious music snob that I am, I remember being shocked when I discovered how good Ultraviolence actually was.
For someone who’s so good at conveying emotional and cultural context using few words, Del Rey’s end-rhymes sometimes feel so convenient that they threaten to shake you out of the trance and into a sense of conventional realism that her music does not benefit from. In order to maintain the beautiful, empty illusion, a certain brilliant sleight of hand is needed. Occasionally she slips into convenience and laziness in her melodies also. Some compositions can feel a little thin: big on arrangements, ambiance and Lana, less so on harmonic substance and the kind of tight pre-rock-era song structures she clearly adores. When she sings, “We can slow-dance to rock music” I’m not sure whether she’s being coy, archaic or just eager to finish off her song. In fact, the many nostalgic musical references sometimes feel a bit hokey, especially when they don’t sing quite as smoothly as the reference promises. When she sings, “All I hear is music, like ‘Lay Lady Lay’” in the otherwise compelling “Religion,” she comes off unbecomingly clumsy. Lyrical references and parallels to Billie Holiday are also among the indulgences that Del Rey probably would do best not to invite quite yet.
Many have disqualified, and will continue to disqualify, Lana Del Rey’s world and ethics for being too privileged, too white, too narcissistic. Certainly, it is all these things to extremes, but so are all of Woody Allen’s films, and he’s 79. Not unlike Allen, Lana Del Rey fetishizes her own bubble, her own petty failures, and wallows in her first-world misadventures, compromises and desires, with one eye staring into her own iPhone camera lens, the other fixed on her own reflection in the mirror. And we can’t stop staring at her.