Lana Del Rey: The Self-Made Pop Star As Target

Feb 2, 2012
Originally published on February 2, 2012 10:30 am

Lana Del Rey appeared on Saturday Night Live recently, giving two rather tentative performances that, depending on your point of view, were awkward and amateurish or shrewdly restrained and vulnerable. Del Rey, in her mid-20s, attracts polarizing opinions.

Her appearance on SNL was only the most high-profile example of the extreme reaction Del Rey provokes. She's been labeled a phony for — what? Changing her name? Tell it to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. For perhaps surgically enhancing her lips? Yes, this really comes up on music blogs and in profiles of her. I think an awful lot of Hollywood wouldn't withstand that, if that qualifies as condemnation. There's something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before Born To Die was even released. It's like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It's like being punished for ambition.

Of course, ambition is helpful primarily when you've got the talent to make it pay off. In this, I'd say the jury is still out when it comes to the material on Born To Die. Del Rey has a voice and a way of phrasing that I find fascinating. Most of the time, she pitches her voice into a low register and pushes her words out as though she's moaning her blues.

The tune, "Born to Die," is the album's title song for a reason — it features Del Rey's most typical vocal, a sort of moody croon that increases to a supplicating intensity. The lyric actually contradicts the eye-grabbing title: The phrase "born to die" may imply pessimism or moroseness, but Del Rey is actually pitching a message that's something more like "live life to the fullest." Del Rey does make a few false steps on this album, most notably the bad rapping — stilted and affected — that she does on "National Anthem."

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that for all the charges that Lana Del Rey is a manufactured pop star, she's actually squarely in the tradition of young performers with an assertive naivete about how much of a rebel she wants to be. She's referred to her music as "Hollywood sadcore" and herself as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra." Oh dear: Wasn't Nancy Sinatra, with her flat affect and boots made for walkin' pretty "gangsta" herself? Del Rey sings about her quote-unquote "tar-black soul" but I think at her best, she's got a good, red-romantic heart.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO DIE")

GROSS: Lana Del Rey has just released a new album titled "Born to Die." It's not her first. In 2010 and she put out a collection of songs issued as Lana Del Rey a.k.a., Lizzy Grant, the latter is her real name.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says that questions of identity and authenticity have come to dominate discussions of the singer-songwriter's music. Here's his review of "Born to Die."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIDEO GAMES")

KEN TUCKER: Lana Del Rey appeared on "Saturday Night Live" recently, giving two rather tentative performances that, depending on your point of view, were awkward and amateurish or shrewdly restrained and vulnerable. Del Rey, in her mid-20s, attracts polarizing opinions.

Her appearance on "SNL" was only the most high-profile example of the extreme reaction Del Rey provokes. She's been labeled a phony for - what? Changing her name? Tell it to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. For perhaps, surgically enhancing her lips? Yes, this actually comes up on music blogs and in profiles of her. I think an awful lot of Hollywood wouldn't withstand that, if that qualifies as condemnation. There's something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before this album was even released. It's like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It's like being punished for ambition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE JEANS")

TUCKER: Of course, ambition is helpful, primarily when you've got the talent to make it pay off. In this, I'd say the jury is still out when it comes to the material on "Born To Die." Del Rey has a voice and a way of phrasing that I find intriguing. Most of the time, she pitches her voice into a low register and pushes her words out as though she's moaning her blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO DIE")

TUCKER: That tune, "Born to Die," is the album's title song for a reason - it features Del Rey's most typical vocal, a sort of moody croon that increases to a supplicating intensity. The lyric actually contradicts the eye-grabbing title: The phrase born to die may imply pessimism or moroseness, but Del Rey is actually pitching a message that's something more like live life to the fullest. Del Rey does make a few false steps on this album, most notably the bad rapping - stilted and affected - that she does on "National Anthem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATIONAL ANTHEM")

TUCKER: What it comes down to, ultimately, is that for all the charges that Lana Del Rey is a manufactured pop star, she's actually squarely in the tradition of young performers with an assertive naiveté about how much of a rebel she wants to be. She's referred to her music as Hollywood sadcore and herself as a gangsta Nancy Sinatra. Oh dear: wasn't Nancy Sinatra, with her flat affect and boots made for walkin' pretty gangsta herself? Lana Del Rey sings about her quote-unquote "tar-black soul" but I think that at her best, she's got a red, romantic heart.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Lana Del Rey's new album "Born to Die."

Coming up, we hear from the producers of the new NBC series "Smash," a drama about the making of a Broadway musical. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.