I was initially puzzled by the accusations of inauthenticity that were hurled with such vehemence and frequency at Lana Del Rey (née Elizabeth Grant) in the wake of her meteoric rise to It Girl status last year. Yes, her self-styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” persona doesn’t exactly jibe with reports that her career was bankrolled by Daddy Del Rey. And I guess we’re supposed to lament the fact that, unlike Amy Winehouse, she doesn’t appear to have a predilection for dope or booze to back up her supposed bad-girl bona fides. But since when exactly has “authenticity” ever been a criterion in pop music?
More legitimately damning were the interviews and live performances that began to emerge in the weeks and months following the singer’s inevitable courtship with the majors. Del Rey isn’t completely ineloquent, but she displays a lack of understanding of her source material, functioning almost entirely on the surface of a persona that could have been concocted in one of David Lynch’s wet dreams. The generous interpretation is that her creative choices are instinctual; the more popular, cynical point of view is that her aesthetics are purely superficial. Her speaking voice is high-pitched and girly, making her vie to be taken seriously by singing in a lower, sultrier range feel all the more contrived when she struggles to hit those notes in a live setting, as she infamously did on Saturday Night Live earlier this month, her enunciation twisted into an unintentional parody of Marlene Dietrich.
The enormous hype, to which Slant has unapologetically contributed, was bound to unfairly result in a backlash. To wit, her much-buzzed-about but abruptly postponed showcase in New York last fall pointed to a studio creation who might not be ready for primetime. But it seems unjust to hold an artist like Del Rey to a higher standard than, say, Britney Spears, who outsources everything including her own dancing, or Katy Perry, who even mimes her flute diddling, by sheer virtue of the fact that she makes pop music that’s “serious”—or at least greater than that of the lowest common denominator.
Stacked with the singles “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” and the title track, the first half of Del Rey’s Born to Die alone practically guarantees it a spot among the year’s best, and it’s only January. Del Rey’s vocal performances are at turns haunting and vampy: She uses her impressive range to dazzling effect on “Blue Jeans,” comparing her delinquent lover to both cancer and her favorite sweater in what seems like one swooning breath, and the album’s tour de force, “Off to the Races,” a theme song for the gold-digging coquette of some imaginary hip-hop film noir that juxtaposes a full orchestra and machine-gun barks straight out of the Portishead songbook.
It’s easy to hear why Del Rey started singing in a lower register. Early, radio-friendly versions of songs like “National Anthem” and the unexpectedly insightful and poignant “This Is What Makes Us Girls” were so lightweight that Del Rey’s Kewpie-doll performances barely kept them from floating away. The new versions, including a punched-up rendition of the formerly more chill “Diet Mtn Dew,” are given the same lush-strings-meet-hard-beats treatment. Ironically, the album’s sole weakness is the strength of its immaculate production, which can be a bit overwhelming over the course of 12 tracks (15 on the deluxe edition). The little flourishes that made “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” feel so special are diluted by sheer repetition. A distorted, ghostly whine reprised from previous tracks distracts from “Million Dollar Man,” an otherwise solid, bluesy ballad reminiscent of Fiona Apple, but most of the songs are strong enough to withstand such excess, and in many cases are accentuated by it.
The repetition of those elements in marriage with recurring themes of chasing paper (“Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it/It’s a fact,” Del Rey cheekily declares on “National Anthem”) and escaping the fuzz is what makes Born to Die one of the more cohesive pop albums in recent memory. “Radio” is the kind of self-referential, hard-knocks track that will only further bait Del Rey’s critics, and she fares much better when she sings in (or about) characters, as she does on “Carmen.” A “Coney Island Queen” with a fondness for slipping in and out of red dresses is referenced on both that track and the first-person “Off to the Races,” suggesting Del Rey isn’t trying to pass herself off as something she’s not, but rather, doing what the finest singer-songwriters have always done: “blurring the lines between real and the fake,” as she says on “National Anthem.” Pop music is all about artifice and escape, and “Lana Del Rey” is indeed an act.
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, an insufferably pedantic academic played by Michael Sheen diagnoses Allen proxy Owen Wilson with nostalgia syndrome, a common neurosis that condemns the afflicted to a lifetime of pining for a rose-tinted version of the past that probably never existed. Del Rey may be the pop-star equivalent of a teenage girl naïvely playing dress up in her grandmother’s vintage clothing and singing into a hairbrush that conveniently looks like an old-fashioned microphone, but that doesn’t make Born to Die any less close to pop perfection.