The Real Reason Why You Can’t Stop Talking About Lana Del Rey

Feb. 1, 2012
Leigh Alexander is news director of industry trade site Gamasutra, and author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog. Her ...

If you spend any time following music, or internet culture, or better yet the significant zone of overlap between the concentric universes of internet and music, you have probably had someone ask you “have you heard of Lana Del Rey,” “do you like Lana Del Rey” or, in particular, “why is everyone always talking about Lana Del Rey.”

You might even have had someone ask you “who is Lana del Rey,” in which case you most likely paused, searching for words, until you became overwhelmed by a sort of topical fatigue, electric visual impulses of Twitter feeds or high-contrast blogs flickering briefly in your head before you gave up. This article is intended as an explicatory primer on/ analysis of the Lana Del Rey phenomenon that you can send to your Facebook friends, your mother, your coworker who has just heard of her yesterday, or to someone who says to you next year, “oh yeah, what was the deal with that one singer last year again?”

First of all, the part that nearly everyone knows by now: Lana Del Rey is an attractive, pillow-lipped singer who released a single called “Video Games,” accompanied by a video comprised primarily of aesthetic but vague lo-fi video clips and paparazzi recordings of actress Paz de la Huerta tottering drunk, as if to make some kind of ‘statement’ re Hollywood, potentially ‘old Hollywood.’

The sun-faded, melancholy Polaroid aesthetic would have been familiar to the point of fatigue to those who consider it important to keep well abreast of independent music; said aesthetic has been widely employed on the ‘indie scene’ in general over the past two years or so, a product of the tendency for each generation’s hip 20-somethings to express nostalgia for a time they themselves didn’t quite experience.

In that regard it’s unsurprising that Del Rey’s video received an initial wave of curiosity/ attention; many musical bands/ acts that employ the artificially-nostalgic look/ sound receive some derision from traditional music critics, and even singles-driven music blogs that value and promote that aesthetic don’t tend to represent it as innovative, instead tolerating it with an understanding that this is the present ‘language’ that is currently in fashion.

But the first wave of backlash against Lana Del Rey began to emerge when it was ‘discovered’ she was, by all standards of perception, no bootstrapping blogosphere chanteuse, no lucky YouTube phenomenon, but an “outsider,” the daughter of a millionaire who had funded her multiple calculated attempts at ‘breaking in’ to the music industry through professionally-produced recordings. In a prior incarnation, the 25 year-old Lana Del Rey went simply by her birth name, the much less-gauzy Lizzy Grant — and early photographs show that the mesmeric pout that had so captivated viewers in her video for “Video Games” was itself engineered, the product of a collagen injection.

The passionate music world has never been forgiving of what it sees to be crimes against authenticity, but the perception of Del Ray as a creature doggedly masquerading as an “indie sensation” without having been thus crowned through the appropriate channels is particularly damning to her in the current climate. The internet has democratized fame, making it something theoretically achievable by anyone — and desirable by everyone. We often hear about how today’s teens and 20-somethings are being raised believing they are all uniquely talented, capable and impervious to criticism, but the situation is actually slightly worse.

Thanks to social media, talent whether real or imaginary actually matters much less than ‘personal branding’ (note that Lana, or someone acting on her behalf, has secured Twitter accounts for her name both as ‘Del Rey’ and the common misspelling ‘Del Ray,’ just in case), and the condition of being the one who is able to garner the most attention. The atmosphere is so crowded, so noisy, in fact, that it even favors those who eschew conventional ideas about quality; just speaking of the music world, lo-fi and minimal production are in fashion. Popular rappers release singles for free via Twitter, containing drowsy, cottonmouthed pop culture references and provocative buzzwords far more than elegant rhymes or compelling beats.

Lana Del Rey had the gall to cheat social media, to be a manufactured, plastic-surgeried rich girl parading ruthlessly through a climate that ‘rightly’ belongs to scrappy, memetic internet hipsters. Unfortunately for her, they’re the ones who decide what’s cool. The anti-LDR movement gained a little blog buzz, spearheaded by the always brilliantly self-aware Hipster Runoff; when the site turned the lion’s share of its attention on satirizing Lana (as of writing the site is dominated by a ‘All Lana All The Time 24/7 #LDR Coverage’) banner, it was also satirizing the exaggeratedly-incensed ‘cool kids’ who suddenly seemed so devoted to expressing their offense at her existence.

It was partially schadenfreude that made Lana Del Rey such a popular topic on trendsetting music and culture websites, and it was partially the fact that questions about authenticity and the meaning of success are quite understandably some of the most compelling to the demographic that drives social media behavior. In an interesting twist, Lana became such a hot topic that articles or blog posts about her were an easy traffic get for the precise sort of young writer grinding thanklessly in the hope of becoming recognized as a writer — by getting a lot of attention and by being abreast of current trends.

In other words, the very people in a position to resent her most became the ones that kept her at the forefront of popular topics. That could at least partially explain why most of the buzz about Lana was unforgiving, vicious, resentful.

That, and the fact that any argument about Lana’s authenticity would have become not irrelevant but at least impotent if it could be proven that she was actually good, a question that few seemed able to definitively answer. Any definitive review from a major music site, whether positive or negative, would be posted to Twitter with a statement to the effect of, “okay, NOW can we stop talking about her?” Yet no one stopped. Critical opinion was split, and all of it was so muddled in the Lana Del Rey ‘zeitgeist’ that talk about the music was always obfuscated anyway.

That was, until Lana Del Rey’s widely-panned Saturday Night Live performance. The inarguably beautiful, statuesque singer may have referred to herself as a “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” who reportedly feels she’s on par with Elvis, but she looked like a doll in dress-up, moving stiffly, her expression rueful, preoccupied as she failed to hit her own notes. Her inability to perform, the utter absence of anything promising about her as a singer, stood out starkly in contrast with the luminous production value of her band, of that soft-lit, iconic stage.

It cannot be debated that that performance was awful. Following the release of her record, nor can it be debated that Lana Del Rey is an average musician at best, her Daddy-bought production values gilding the fissures in her ability. That she made anyone’s top lists speaks strongly to the ways audiences value music as a reflection of the culture in which they live just as much as they do for its objective quality. Lana Del Rey is the sound of her time, is the sign of her time, nothing more and nothing less.

But following the disastrous SNL performance, the blogosphere descended on this definitive proof that Lana Del Rey, to whom they had devoted so many words, so much attention, was unworthy of such attention. She was an unforgivable transgressor, according to a tidal wave of young people who write for free or for close to it, who want more Twitter followers, who are taking advantage of her for traffic, who just might deeply resent her because she has money and they don’t, or more likely, because she has cut in line.

It’s somewhat ironic that the same episode of SNL that featured Del Rey’s infamous appearance also featured a sketch called “You Can Do Anything,” satirizing millennials who lack the ability to gauge their own skill level or the extent to which they deserve opportunities for praise. In Del Rey’s mannequin lips, her strangely-empty eyes, her singleminded pursuit of her musical dream whether or not she “deserves” it, in her cold dismissals of all of her critics, those who drive the tide of sentiment see their own faces reflected, I fear.

And they’re obsessed with it, either horrified fascination or the fixation of a child discovering his own face in a mirror for the first time. That’s why no one is “over it.” This is some scary sh-t. Can we please stop talking about her now? Only when we can stop talking about ourselves. TC mark

Leigh Alexander

Leigh Alexander

Leigh Alexander is news director of industry trade site Gamasutra, and author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog. Her …

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