Was the Internet snark wrong? Revisiting Lana Del Rey's Born To Die
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.
How long are a few months are in Internet-time? Consider this: Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, was released on Jan. 27. A more innocent time, it seems. Girls hadn’t even debuted on HBO yet.
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 a faded memory of how much everyone had decided to hate it.
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, that’s not the case.
Her career will inevitably reboot, like casting Andrew Garfield to play Spider-Man just five years after Tobey Maguire donned the red-and-blue tights, and our increasingly short attention spans will help us frame the fact that she disappeared (cancelling 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 a faded memory of how much everyone had decided to hate it and the awareness that we will all be outraged by several other things before she gets another marketing blitz.
Stripped of all the pretense, Born To Die is a pretty great record.
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 that 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.
It’s simplistic to dismiss Born To Die as a shitty album by an overhyped internet phenomenon, especially now that the hype is gone. If it had fallen from the sky without any context, as the Internet seemed to hope it had back when “Video Games” was the blog-buzz champion, it’s 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. Are music fans who devour records by Drake, Skrillex, Jack White and other 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 is 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 name of young woman that we’re not sure should be famous here; Kitty Pryde, perhaps?] 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. And then we like to tear them down.
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 up-tempo 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.