Everyone has something to say about the year’s most divisive new artist. But separating myth from fact means untangling a knot that also happens to encapsulate the weird state of pop stardom in 2012. Plus: Read SPIN’s review of Born to Die.
I. The Origin Story:
A Star Is Born/Made
The myth, as it is presently understood: Lana Del Rey is an extended vanity project bankrolled by her dad’s money and honed, over the years, by a series of lawyers and managers who have shaped her image and plotted her career path. She is merely a canvas of a girl, and a willing one at that. Bloggers and journalists take pains to note that her real name is Lizzy Grant, that Lana Del Rey is “fake,” as are her lips. (“Lizzy Grant” sounds like a Disney tween star; it’s easy to see why she changed it. Certainly no one was this incensed to discover that “Lady Gaga” is not printed on a certain singer’s birth certificate.)
What we do know to be true: Lizzy Grant is indeed now Lana Del Rey. She is 25 and grew up in Lake Placid, in upstate New York. “I lived in a small town,” she told MTV, “and I just thought it was gonna be a long life.” She spent her time as a teen wandering in the woods and writing, feeling like a secret weirdo and having her first real connection to music through Biggie’s “Juicy.” Back then, she says she was something akin to trouble, and got shipped off to Kent, a private prep school in Connecticut. Her autobiography of that era can be heard on the track “This Is What Makes Us Girls.”
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At 18, she moved to New York to attend Fordham University, where she studied metaphysics, looking for proof of God, and began writing songs. She stopped drinking and got sober. She played shows, performing versions of songs that now make up Born to Die. Just before her senior year, she found a deal with the label 5 Points, after coming to its attention through a songwriting competition. The label gave her an advance, which she used to move into a trailer park in New Jersey shortly after graduating from Fordham. She was 20 years old.
David Nichtern, who runs 5 Points, solicited producer David Kahne (who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Sublime to Tony Bennett to Regina Spektor); he agreed to produce the Lizzy Grant record. “It was a bit of a coup because he is a big-name producer, and we are a tiny record label,” says Nichtern. In the studio, Kahne saw a singer who was motivated and self-directed, always looking for ways to move her work forward. “What she is doing goes against the grain of chart pop, which is about getting to the club on Friday night,” says Kahne. “The country is fraying at the edges; she wanted to look at that edge, at destruction and loss, and talk about it.” According to Kahne, Del Rey was “solitary” and often spent her nights riding the subway out to Coney Island, exploring.
The songs from these sessions were split into two releases, the Kill Kill EP and the debut album. According to Nichtern, after the release of the EP, the singer said she wanted to change the name she recorded under. “First it was ‘Del R-A-Y,’ and then she settled on ‘R-E-Y.’ This story that it was anyone but her making the decision is complete fiction,” says Nichtern. “If she is ‘made up’ — well, she is the one who made herself up. She has very strong ideas about what she does. The idea someone could manage her into a particular shape — it’s impossible.”
Shortly before the full-length was to be released, Nichtern says Del Rey decided she was unhappy and wanted to add tracks and make other changes. “It became difficult to go forward,” he explains. Del Rey decided to shelve the record, and 5 Points obliged, striking a deal for her to buy back her masters. Nichtern is adamant that the deal’s dissolution was all aboveboard and there were never any hard feelings. “She is a great artist,” he says, “a real artist. I have always thought so and still do.”
“It was very unusual,” says Interscope executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson of his first serious meeting with Lana Del Rey. “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, if there is someone orchestrating Lana from behind the curtain, Jackson is emphatic. “The only Svengali in this thing is Lana.”
“I’ve never understood this controversy about whether she is real or fake,” says rapper-producer Princess Superstar. “All artists have a persona.” A year prior to the Interscope deal, the two women spent a few months honing Del Rey’s songs, with the rapper serving as mentor. “She’s not put together by some company. These are her songs, her melodies, her singing — she’s always had this ’60s aesthetic. Look at Katy Perry and Beyoncé, and you see that they have a team.”
Interscope don Jimmy Iovine gave Jackson his blessing to sign Del Rey on the basis of seeing an unfinished version of “Video Games” on YouTube. Del Rey signed a worldwide joint deal with Interscope and Polydor in March 2011, making her, officially, a major-label recording artist a full six months before Pitchfork was pondering whether the former choirgirl was real or a perfectly pitched plasticine creation.
The Look: Baddest
A pretty singer with a cool coo is one thing, but Lana Del Rey fascinates because there is a tension to her persona. She’s the good girl who wants it all — the boy, his heart, and nothing short of pop stardom, even if that ambition ends up making you look pretty ugly. In short, Lana Del Rey is Amy Winehouse, with the safety on. While Winehouse was unrepentantly bad, Del Rey plays both sides — she’s a bad girl who knows better, a good girl who feels hemmed in by her role. Her anthemic ballads are about self-control (or lack of it) and being hopelessly dedicated to bird-dogging dudes (“You’re no good for me / But, baby, I want you / I want you” goes Del Rey’s “Diet Mountain Dew”). “Video Games” could be a case study from He’s Just Not That Into You. The Lana of “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” is charmed by the darkness, thrilled by the prospect of losing herself in this bad boy and his needs. The Lana of these songs is alive in that vicarious freedom — evidence that there’s still some teenage-crazy ride-or-die bitch lingering around her Chantilly edges. “I’ve had to pray a lot because I’ve been in trouble a lot,” she told GQ late last year.
“I remember that she had really specific feelings about what she wanted to portray about girls,” recalls Kahne. “We were talking about Marilyn and Natalie Wood, these iconic actresses of the ’50s, and she said, ‘They were good girls.’ She liked that image.”
“In her, I do see the struggle between the good girl and the bad girl,” says Larry Jackson. That duality was part of what made him want to sign her. After a dinner meeting in Los Angeles last spring, he saw her kick a cab that cut her off as she was walking away. “She cursed out the cab. I saw her do it, but she didn’t see me. She was very New York in her reaction. It was irreverent and funny. She epitomizes the loose-cannon star.”
In a YouTube video from 2008, back when she was still firmly in Lizzy Grant mode, Del Rey gives a writer from Index magazine a tour of her New Jersey trailer park. Gracious and proud, she smiles easily. It’s a year after Winehouse’s “Rehab” hit ubiquity, and Del Rey is done up in a Jersey approximation of the singer: She’s wearing a silk bomber, her white blonde flip teased to a bouffant puff and tied with a bandana do-rag, batting long fake lashes. She looks miscast, like a too-young housewife — a child bride trying to look grown. Her baby face and coquettish giggle give her away. The sound on the video is awful and the questions tepid, but Del Rey answers the two most important ones clearly and directly to the camera: This is where she wrote her record; and she moved to Jersey for the state’s surplus of metal boys. There is no mistaking what matters to her.
“She has many different qualities that women in our culture aren’t allowed to be, all at once, so people are trying to find the inauthentic one,” says Tavi Gevinson, the teenage style kingpin behind Rookiemag.com. “She’s girly, but not infantilizing. I relate to her aesthetic the way I think other girls relate to Taylor Swift lyrics — her femininity isn’t too sexy or too pure, and that’s something I can get behind.”
How Del Rey defines herself in the classic-pop cosmos has changed as her music and image have evolved over the past year: “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” gave way to a more petulant prospect of “Lolita lost in the hood.” More recently, she catchphrased Born to Die as “Bruce Springsteen in Miami,” perhaps transposing Darkness on the Edge of Town‘s blue-collar struggle from a Jersey grind to a kind of decrepit languor, an infinite nighttime lit by neon instead of streetlights. While Born to Die features familiar Springsteen tropes — no-future kids tangling in sin and redemption — Del Rey’s songs are more like answer-back dispatches direct from “Candy’s Room,” where the door’s slammed shut and the stereo’s up. She’s telling the missing side of the story, revealing a new, true character living behind that scrim of male desire: the good girl who wants it just as much as he does.
Backlash: It’s About the Music, LOL
The issue with Lana Del Rey is not whether she is some corporate test-tubed ingénue, but why we are unwilling to believe that she is animated by her own passion and ambition — and why that makes a hot girl so unattractive. The big question here is not: Is she real? But, rather, why it seems impossible to believe that she could be. Del Rey has started to reveal herself as a real girl, and the Internet musters only unconsidered hateration.
On the surface, the Lana Del Rey Authenticity Debate™ swings between two depressing possibilities: (1) That’s she’s all but the fourth Kardashian sister, Frankensteined together by old white guys in ties in order to exploit the now sizable “indie” market, or (2) that she is a moderately talented singer who is getting over by pushing our buttons with nostalgia and good looks. This is the distracting crux, the long shadow of a pointless debate that falls over Born to Die. For critics and anonymous commenters alike, the prospect of an attractive female artist who sings plainly about her desire because she has it, with a vision that is personal and not manufactured by others, who writes her own songs and makes her own videos, who understands what it takes to be a viable pop product and is capable of guiding herself to those perilous heights, this is an unsolvable equation. Yet, Lana Del Rey is doing it all, before our very eyes.
Being sexy and serious about your art needn’t be mutually exclusive, even when your art involves (in part) being a pop package. Defending herself to Pitchfork last fall, Del Rey said, “I’m not trying to create an image or a persona. I’m just singing because that’s what I know how to do.” Her intent is certainly more ambitious than to “just” sing — if not, she would still be making the rounds of Brooklyn open mics, not making a record on which the Philadelphia Orchestra appears — but she is making an attempt to refocus our attention on her music. Which, for a time, was why anyone really cared about her. Perhaps, if she made more of a stink and showed some enmity toward the music industry’s decaying carcass or faked us out with a record on an indie label like Merge first, her ambition would be palatable, rather than outrageous.
The mistaken assumption that’s constantly central to the argument against Lana Del Rey is that she is a valence for DIY/indie culture, which she’s never purported to be. She played daytime industry showcases at overlit venues in Midtown for years, taking meetings at majors since mid-2010. These are the steps you take when you want to get over as a pop artist, not get noticed by Matador. Blogs and tastemaking websites just assumed that they noticed her first, when, in fact, they were two years behind a pack of lawyers and A&R scouts, eager to sign an artist who was pre-formed, a total package.
While a few blogs got on the Del Rey wagon early (Arjan Writes reviewed “Diet Mountain Dew” in May 2010 and Lizzy Grant’s “Kill Kill” in October 2008) — successive waves of attention in late spring of 2011 were prompted by press releases. No one rightly discovered her, even the coolest blogs were being jumped into by publicists or grassroots marketing firms like Wiredset, and they were gladly repeating the story fed to them. Many of these same blogs are now indignant, fronting like they got duped into caring about her or lending her credibility, but they weren’t so discerning before. They were just eager to claim “first,” as is the law of the jungle.
In the weeks surrounding the release of Del Rey’s Born to Die, every interview and TV performance became a new proving ground. Video interviews showed Del Rey as both self-aware and funny, as when a VH1 interviewer condescendingly comforted her by saying “their loss,” about not being named to this year’s Coachella lineup. She deadpanned, “Aw, thanks, Grandma,” before cracking herself up. Her much-maligned Saturday Night Live performance sounded just as uneven and awkward as every other band that performs on the show. (Consider the fact that she was booked before she was ready as evidence that whatever “machine” is driving Lana, Inc. might be anxious and impulsive rather than calculated and slick. Or that traditional approaches to artist development and rollout are about as relevant as a cassingle.) Still, this was taken as resounding proof that she was Born 2 Fail by no less an authority than NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
In other interviews, Del Rey has talked about studying cosmology and a six-year stint volunteering for homeless outreach, suggesting that she’s more engaged in the real word (and its physics) than her ardent critics. Speaking to writers, she’s humble to the point of guilelessness, telling MTV, “I consider being able to pursue music a luxury, but it’s not the most important thing in my life. It’s just something that’s really nice that ended up working for me for right now.” Still, she doesn’t bother hiding her ambition — she’s cited the self-help classic Think & Grow Rich as her recommended reading.
Surprisingly, it’s still easier for people to believe the ancient model of a major-label star system — girl of moderate talent is groomed and posed to appeal — rather than accept that a young woman could plot her course by her own animus. Meanwhile, sexist critiques of Del Rey’s appearance, songs, and videos get spun as incisive discernment, offered up as knowing analysis of a deceptive product. Her songs are assailed as “trying too hard” to be sexy, as if we have Rip Van Winkled through the past 25 years of liberated pop-diva sexuality — Madonna/Janet/Britney/Rihanna — and are now shocked by Del Rey’s slight approximation. She’s a by-the-book star, and yet she’s seen as somehow breaking the rules — as if we would be anywhere close to as intrigued by a woman more subtle, refined, and modest. As an audience, we do this big kabuki about wanting the truth, but really, we’re only interested in the old myths of what a girl can do.