So Lana Del Rey is a name being tossed around a lot lately—and not in the best way. Like many modern performers, Lana Del Rey (the stage name/femme fatale alter ego of singer Lizzie Grant) has been building a major fan base the past few years via the Internet. But the January 2012 release of her record Born to Die has received tepid reviews so far from the critics, who seem to downplay it as sort of “okay, but not groundbreaking.” (Or, as Randy Jackson might put it, “It’s just aight.”) Add to that Del Rey’s, shall we say, not-so-stellar performance on Saturday Night Live, and it could easily be a recipe for disaster.
Some might even quip that with Born to Die, Lana Del Rey’s career is “D.O.A.”
But I’ve listened to the record, and I’m not ready to write this girl off—not yet, anyway.
In the first place—the sales numbers speak for themselves. Born to Die is one of the fastest selling records in 2012 so far, hitting sales of over 110,000 in the first week worldwide. In the eyes of the industry, that trumps the opinion of the critics. Del Rey is obviously connecting with an audience.
Secondly, while the “sultry seductress” thing has been done (and overdone) many times, there is something remarkably endearing and truth-telling about Del Rey’s approach to it on Born to Die. While the album smolders with overt sexuality, it isn’t your typical, cheap, make-the-guys-sweat kind of thing. It’s a seduction tinged with sorrow, regret, and a surprising self-awareness. The chorus of the track “This Is What Makes Us Girls” is a poignant expression of this regret: “This is what makes us girls / We all look for heaven and we put our love first / Something that we’d die for, it’s our curse / Don’t cry about it.” Perhaps unintentionally, the lyrics of Born to Die echo the age-old plight of women feeling the need to flaunt their sexuality to make it in a “man’s world.” In Del Rey’s case, behind the sultry smoke screen, you can see glimpses of this lost little girl, and you just wish you could buy her an ice cream cone or something.
Thirdly—there’s that voice of hers. Dangit, when she hits those low notes, it makes me come unglued. Del Rey’s vocals are probably the most underrated thing about her; she’s no Christina Aguilera as far as showy vocal runs, but there’s never a point on the record where Del Rey is not in complete command of her voice. It’s a pure vocal quality that comes across as effortless—even if it didn’t come across so well on her performance on SNL.
One of the criticisms of Lana Del Rey seems to be that for those who know her bio, in real life she is not like the person she portrays on the record—suggesting that she is fake, and therefore not very convincing. But I’d suggest that Lana Del Rey is a character created by Lizzie Grant (not unlike Bono created the character “The Fly”) to express something specific. Whether she will remain in this character remains to be seen, but for now, again, sales numbers would suggest that this character is striking a nerve with people.
Bottom line—admittedly, a bad live performance can certainly damage or kill a career, and Del Rey’s flop on SNL certainly did her no favors. And I have to admit that the critics might be right about her—that her career might go nowhere but down after this. But I also think it’s highly possible for Del Rey to go the other direction. Yeah, she needs to work on her live performance, and yeah, maybe she needs to connect more, to be more authentic—whatever that looks like. But the fact is, despite what the critics say, Del Rey has a sound and vibe that is distinctive and memorable, and behind the veneer is a healthy dose of actual talent. Say what you will, Lana Del Rey has the potential, at least, for superstardom. Whether she does so or not depends largely on where she goes from here.
At any rate—Lana Del Rey is an artist I am still willing to watch.