The latest online iteration of Lana Del Rey is photos of her fall campaign for H&M, where the singer will make her splashiest appearance as a model (she signed to the agency NEXT earlier this year). Seeing news of this, I immediately clicked on a link to the photos on WWD, because I am always happy to see more of Lana Del Rey. My favorite celebrity blogger, Jared Eng, added Lana Del Rey to his stable of girl crushes last year, and his pleasant reports of her whereabouts have, since then, helped endear her to me. The effect of seeing photos of this young, permanently but subtly smiling woman walking down a street or through an airport several times a week feels similar to running into a nice colleague from a distant department of one’s company at the coffee machine. The encounters are always cheery; you wish you saw more of this person, but you know you never will. There is no doubt in your mind that this person is kind, through and through. Her hair is so shiny and she always paints her nails the coolest colors. Why can’t you be friends?
But I don’t have that much interest in what my sweet co-worker Lana Del Rey does for a living. That is to say, I don’t care for her music (so far), beyond a couple of tracks. When Del Rey described her debut album, January’s Born to Die, as “Bruce Springsteen in Miami,” I wanted to die, because as an art director’s cue to a fashion photographer that description makes perfect sense, but as the concept of one’s album, it sounds as studied as a music blogger’s harried description of an intriguing new track they first heard this morning. It makes me cringe (I love Bruce Springsteen immeasurably), and yet it does not make me dislike Lana Del Rey at all, not even roll my eyes, and not even begin to understand why Hipster Runoff sunk its teeth into the singer so deeply and unrelentingly last summer (but it was probably because summer on the internet is very boring).
Del Rey’s everyday persona — the one I know so little about but love so much — is not so different from her stage persona, though the latter is gingerly trying to take flight of late. Her handlers come to her defense swiftly, such as when they explained, after rumors earlier this year that she had cancelled a spring tour, that there was never a tour to be cancelled and that she would be going on tour later in 2012. This kind of publicity gives a certain impression: the shy singer who used to quietly accompany herself on guitar at New York City open mics is now managed by around the same number and caliber of professionals that manage Lady Gaga (they share the same label, Interscope), and it makes Del Rey seem even more delicate than she appears in paparazzi snaps and televised appearances like her SNL performance.
In the many boring moments that paparazzi capture Lana Del Rey doing something — having lunch with Harvey Weinstein in Paris the week of the couture shows; walking back to her car with the actress Jamie King after a concert in LA; walking through LAX with her younger sister; walking, kind of thrillingly, with Axl Rose outside the Chateau Marmont one night in April — Lana Del Rey appears so demure, so quietly happily, so innocent, so worthy of being protected. It seems only a matter of time before she steps out with a high-profile older man (for longer than a night or two): the Oleg Cassini to her Grace Kelly, the Joe DiMaggio to her Marilyn Monroe. The microphones and camera flashes will be positioned squarely between the couple, but Del Rey will remain silent, smiling, burrowing in the crook of the arm of her man. She will look as if she knows she is living the dream, the dream that includes both fame and love. She will also look as if she really thinks her man can protect her from the frightening parts of the dream (the scrutiny, the punishing schedules, the journalistic fabrications). But I think Lana Del Rey will be her own best protector.
Del Rey conveys a kind of intimacy and warmth every time she steps outside. She does not feel as far away from us as someone like Monroe or Angelina Jolie, and it’s partly because she is a singer, not an actress. We get to hear about all the bad decisions she wants to make, not just read cursory descriptions of them in Vanity Fair profiles. Though I couldn’t latch on to Born to Die, the lyrical ideas on that album still strongly inform my impression of its singer, and if not improve it, at least hold it steady.
Meanwhile I am still trying to understand why people dislike Lana Del Rey so much, despite openly admitting that I don’t like the very thing that she is currently in the spotlight for. If we don’t like the Internet Age major-label pop star, perhaps it’s simply because we aren’t given enough time to soak her in, to establish for ourselves how good she is and how big she should be (see, particularly: Jessie J). Interscope showed it was clued in to this phenomenon when it (allegedly) leaked videos of Del Rey’s first two singles, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” onto YouTube and (allegedly) sent them around to major indie music blogs last summer. In a January profile of Del Rey in SPIN, Jessica Hopper wrote that Del Rey was signed to Interscope in March of 2011, a few months before those videos showed up online and many months before Del Rey showed up on Interscope’s online roster. In the SPIN profile, Interscope executive Larry Jackson denies that the videos were strategically leaked.
But because of those videos, we had a few key weeks in which we could say to our friends and Twitter followers, “Hey, check out this cool song and singer.” In other words, we had a few weeks in which to own Lana Del Rey, in which she was ours. But then she was off and away. Some of us went with her. Some of us stayed behind.
I went with her, and, much to my disappointment, Interscope benefited from it. I stared at the cover of Born to Die on my computer screen, the image of Del Rey in a buttoned-up translucent white blouse in front of a perfect blue sky glowing as if on a lightbox, the singer’s eyes so glassy and round that they seemed like they could only belong to an expensive doll. I bought the album, then wondered if I had really gotten a 320 kbps version, because it sounded so cacophonous, so insistent, so crowded and messy, that I thought I must have accidentally replaced it with the incomplete and lower-quality rip I’d gotten from a music critic friend a few weeks before. This was it? The weird bird caws and deafening strings and weathervane vocals? I returned again and again to “Video Games” because it felt the most her to me, the least produced. I cursed the puppet masters in L.A. for successfully controlling someone that I thought was so focused and strong-willed. But nothing else changed. I read the reviews of the album, watched jerky smartphone videos of her live shows, searched YouTube for unreleased tracks, and watched her awkward video interviews with northern European media outlets.
I was sold, but I was sold on Lizzy Grant, the young Lake Placid native and Fordham graduate who had such a knack for branding. After years of practicing, performing and recording music, Lizzy Grant eventually arrived at a specific and thorough concept of who she wanted to be as a musician, and I simply admired her for it (I also liked what she arrived at). Here’s what Larry Jackson, the VP of A&R at Interscope, told SPIN’s Hopper of his first meeting with the singer:
It was very unusual. We sat for an hour and talked, without her playing any of her music. Just conversation, honing in on the philosophy of what she was doing, what she saw for herself — I was captured. It was a totally unorthodox meeting, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this.’
“When asked if anyone else was involved,” Hopper adds, “if there is someone orchestrating Lana from behind the curtain, Jackson is emphatic. ‘The only Svengali in this thing is Lana.’”
“Svengali” is an interesting choice of word to describe Lana Del Rey, but it’s a description that the singer herself might agree with. After all, “Music is secondary to me,” she told Complex in an interview in October of 2011, echoing what Lady Gaga has said about her own work. “I wish I could go back to normal,” she went on. “I’m a really quiet person. I always have been. It’s hard when you see a lot of things written about you. It’s not what I had in mind.”
To that last sentence, my reaction was initially a baffled and annoyed one. She suggests that she thought everybody would love her, a delusional and naïve idea. But then I paused, giving her words a chance to say more than they appeared to say during a brief glance of a browser page, to take away my envy and judgment and see what, if anything, was left: maybe she really didn’t know what she was getting into. Still, would she really take it all away if she could? Not a chance. Neither would I. As uncomfortable as fame can be, Lana Del Rey should be comforted by the fact that it’s surely better to know exactly who you want to be, stage fright and plastic surgery accusations and changeable voice and all, than to be a young woman with a great voice who has no idea.