Born to Die: The Evolution of Lana Del Rey?

Pop singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey (or LDR, as she is often referred to online) has been slowly rising to recognition since mid-2011, generating attention on YouTube and the general blogosphere and provoking heated Internet debate. Twenty-five-year-old Del Rey (born Elizabeth Grant) released her first major label album, Born to Die, Jan. 30. Del Rey refers to her sonic style as “Hollywood sadcore.”

LDR controversies have included her overly pouty lips, drastic image change from bleach-blonde trailer park glam Lizzy Grant to coquettish self-proclaimed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” Lana Del Rey and excruciatingly underwhelming live performances (including what has been proclaimed SNL’s worst performance ever in mid-January of this year).

Del Rey first released an album, Lana Del Rey A.K.A. Lizzy Grant, which is no longer in circulation, in January of 2010. The album lacks any stand-out songs and oscillates between rather conventional tongue-in-cheek pop and slow, melodic singer/songwriter tracks. But it reveals Del Rey in a way that you can’t begin to find in Born to Die. If you locate Lizzy Grant on the Internet, I suggest “Pawn Shop Blues,” “Yayo” and “You Can Be the Boss.”

Born to Die straddles an off-putting spectrum of tracks, which I have placed into the categories of awful, definitely not awful and really fantastic. I refer to this spectrum as off-putting because it is so unclear whether or not she is a good artist and whether or not she will stay around.

Title track “Born to Die,” similar in many ways to “Video Games,” which is rereleased on the new album, is Lana at her breathy, sultry best. Del Rey sings lowest in this track, transforming a voice that can otherwise reach pop-worthy heights. But she utilizes a breathy, higher pitch in the intro to the chorus, making lyrics like “Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain / You like your girls insane,” more sensual. The track layers swelling classical instrumentals with some rather prominent beat/reverb drops.

“Born to Die” is a formula Del Rey has down: classical instruments, mechanized beats that lend an air of the “epic” to her songs and the undulating mixture of her low, sultry voice and higher-pitched breathiness. Because this formula is awesome, “Born to Die,” “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” “Summertime Sadness” and “Dark Paradise” fall into the really fantastic category. It’s songs like these that make me love LDR. It’s the way her voice dances around pitches and the way her almost deadpan tone embodies the subjects of her songs—apathetic lovers, pointless, self-indulgent longing, the idea that you can be nostalgic for something while it’s happening.

What Born to Die does well, it does strikingly well, which makes it even more disconcerting when LDR breaks form. My primary qualm with Born to Die, which I will reveal before getting to the awful tracks, is Lana’s seriously questionable lyrics. In the really fantastic tracks the lyrics are indulgent but relatable and sometimes beautiful. However, lyrics in the rest of the album are excessively indulgent, and deal much more with failed relationships, drinking, drugs, money and fame in an unflattering way. In the definitely-not-awful category  are “Diet Mountain Dew,” “Radio,” “Million Dollar Man” and “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” tracks that have great sounds that manage to divert your attention from their questionable lyrics. “This Is What Makes Us Girls” is a playful track, for example–really LDR at her indulgent best–that emphasizes slowly building beats with notable drops at the chorus and lyrics about being young and reckless. But when Del Rey whispers things like “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” and “a freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens,” it’s hard for me to take her seriously—or admit that I’m listening to and enjoying her song.   

What makes the awful tracks so miserable is that they don’t have any musical qualities to redeem their pathetic lyrics and motivate me to keep listening. Tracks in the awful category include “Off to the Races,” “Carmen” and “National Anthem.” Though LDR essentially keeps musical form, her lyrics are too empty to move the tracks along.

There’s plenty more to say about LDR: the submissiveness of the vast majority of her lyrics, the fact that she does stick to the same basic song formula throughout Born to Die and the trouble with her dismal live performances. However, Lana Del Rey as a concept raises a question that dominates much of blogosphere debate: is she real or is she fake? LDR’s evolution embodies today’s pop culture. Her image is perfectly cultivated, her music reveals little to no true character and her talent is questionable, but she managed to rise to Internet fame and subsequently fall in a six month period before releasing her first real album. No, it doesn’t sound good, but I don’t think it matters. Del Rey, like many of today’s pop culture musicians, is a guilty pleasure. 

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