Revisiting Lana Del Rey's Born To Die — without the Internet snark
Unless you spend a lot of time trolling international gossip and fashion websites, you probably haven’t seen Lana Del Rey’s name much in the past few months. If you ever want to see an example of how long a few months are in Internet-time, consider this: Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, was released on Jan. 27. It all feels like a much more innocent time, now. Girls hadn’t even debuted on HBO then.
The build-up to Born To Die was a weird, Internet-wide discussion of concepts like authenticity and integrity, with most critics — many of whom were initially attracted to the lo-fi, found-footage-style video for Del Rey’s debut single, “Video Games” — deciding that she possessed neither.
It’s worth taking the time to listen to Born To Die with the memory of how much everyone had decided to hate it distant
If you follow the discussions of pop culture and popular music that occur online and in magazines, then it was impossible to escape the Lana Del Rey think-pieces that circulated seemingly everywhere. They wrote about her in usual suspects like Spin and Pitchfork, yeah, but it was more inescapable than that. ESPN’s Grantland weighed in, asking “Is there any way to separate the Internet hatred of Lana Del Rey from her […] album?”
In January, when Grantland asked that question, the answer, ultimately, was no. (The article’s author says so himself; “I can't formulate an aesthetic judgment of these songs that isn't really a moral/ideological judgment.”) Three months later, though, after Lana Del Rey wisely managed to get out of the spotlight, leaving us to focus on other utterly meaningless conversations about other inconsequential topics (Lena Dunham’s Girls, Ron Paul, etc), that’s not the case so much. Her career will inevitably reboot in a few months, like casting Andew Garfield to play Spider-Man just five years after Tobey Maguire donned his red-and-blue tights, and our increasingly short attention spans will help us frame the fact that she disappeared (canceling her SXSW appearance and postponing her US tour) as a triumphant comeback.
Before it does, it’s worth taking the time to listen to Born To Die with the memory of how much everyone had decided to hate it distant, and the awareness that we will all be outraged by several other things before she gets another marketing blitz.
Anyway — the short answer is that Born To Die, removed from all the cultural context of those dark days from early 2012, is a pretty great record. It’s obviously coming from a persona, but it’s a knowing one.
The opening title track is a fluffy piece of whatever, but by the second song, “Off to the Races,” is immediately compelling, blending a minimalist hip hop beat with Del Rey’s purring, over-sexed teenager vocals, playing up a showgirl-on-the-run aesthetic as she narrates a tale that sounds like an updated take on a Raymond Chandler story. It’s a self-assured performance from a singer in control of her voice, a mix of acting and singing that delivers on the persona that Del Rey affects throughout the album. Early singles “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” follow, and by the time Del Rey chants “you’re no good for me” to open “Diet Mountain Dew,” the 808-and-piano-plunk jam that ensures the tone of the album maintains an over-caffeinated take on bleak 60’s gender roles, it’s clear: Born To Die is easy to listen to.
It stays that way, too. In the album’s second half, there are standouts like “Dark Paradise” and “Summertime Sadness,” that eschew the minimalist production on “Video Games” and assert Del Rey as a fine singer of sad pop songs. Even the weird, Britney-style pop of the final song, “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” is an interesting coda, a creepy teenaged anthem that throws some perspective on the sex-drenched album it closes.
“Born To Die” is immediately compelling, blending a minimalist hip hop beat with Del Rey’s purring, over-sexed teenager vocals, playing up a showgirl-on-the-run aesthetic as she narrates a tale that sounds like an updated take on a Raymond Chandler story.
Every listener’s opinion will vary, but it’s obviously simplistic to dismiss Born To Die as a shitty album by an overhyped phenomenon, now that the hype is gone. If it had fallen from the sky without any context, as the Internet seemed to hope it would have back when “Video Games” was the blog-buzz champion, it’s awfully likely that it would have been a lot more popular among listeners who weren’t predisposed to hating it.
Which is interesting, too, because with some distance, it’s just become abundantly clear how absurd the anti-Lana Del Rey sentiment really was. Were music fans who devour records by Drake, and Skrillex, and Jack White, and dudes who’ve come by their success either by inventing a persona, using the advantages of fame and money, or both, really going to argue that authenticity was the most important thing in music?
Ultimately, the lesson that we can learn from the Lana Del Rey debacle of early 2012 — and that we should bear in mind when we consider the Lena Dunham kerfuffle of early/mid-2012, and the [insert the name of some other young woman that we’re not sure should be famous yet here] debate that’s yet to come — is that we — as a hive-minded Internet culture — really like to make immediate stars. We’re thrilled at the power of taking someone we’d never previously heard of and turning her into a sensation, someone who dominates the conversation on sites like Culturemap and Gawker and Grantland and everywhere else. And then we like to tear them down.
Maybe we make Lena Dunham the embodiment of everything that’s wrong about the way that Hollywood portrays (and often ignores) people of color. Or maybe we demand sexiness from every woman who wants us to hear her sing, and then dismiss them for being sexy in the wrong ways, for being inauthentic in their sexiness, for looking like they’re struggling to embody all of our expectations when they get their national TV debut on Saturday Night Live; maybe we demand authenticity from Lana Del Rey that we’d never expect from A$AP Rocky, because we want to prove that we’re not so easily pandered to; and maybe that’s a deeply unfair thing to do to people who are trying to make art that says something, in the way that we’ve told them we want to hear it.
All of that is silly, though. The fact is, Born To Die is a great-sounding record, and all of the ink and pixels spilled debating whether or not Lana Del Rey was the product of some machine that churned out pop stars, and whether that was suddenly deep offensive to us, doesn’t change that.
With some distance, “Off To The Races” is just a compelling story-song about a Vegas girl with a dirty secret on the run, “Dark Paradise” is just an uptempo take on a Portishead-style breakup song; and “Video Games” is a lovely, sad piece of pop music. If getting away from the controversy gives us a chance to hear the album through fresh ears, then let’s keep that in the past.