Most people — let’s call them The Lucky Ones — live in blissful ignorance of Lana Del Rey and the insufferable debate she has ignited. If you know her name, you’ve already entered the fray, however unwittingly. As is the case with too many music blog hullabaloos, the Del Rey controversy has nothing to do with music. How could it? When her most frothing detractors pummeled to judgment earlier last year, only a couple of her songs were even public. The blogosphere instead roiled over the notion of her status as an indie artist (pop singer?) as such. “Authenticity,” that tired shibboleth of rock criticism, whizzed about as if Del Rey already warranted her own NYU American Studies seminar. Lines were drawn. Tempers blazed. Fingers wagged. We will not stand for this, shrieked the internet. Oh lord, here come the vapors!
The issue at (fiercely wrung) hand is trivial and, sadly, perennial. It’s the nerve struck whenever “coolness” and “calculation” collide. You see, Lana Del Rey was born Elizabeth Grant. Her father, an active participant in her rise to notoriety, is a wealthy investor. She went to boarding school. Her stage name was seemingly chosen by committee. A recent SNL appearance was her version of a cotillion. Del Rey’s self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” persona, which is characterized by gauzy press photographs, aloof interviews, and winking hipness, only fuels the rage. (To be fair, the ridiculous term “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” is redundant, if not utterly unintelligible.) To her haters, Lana Del Rey is the construct of dirty cash, the product of unscrupulous corporate marketing, a rich brat swathed in Anthropologie, a gilded Rebecca Black, a phony-hipster Wicked Witch to be doused with bucketfuls of righteous indignation.
Talking about Lana Del Rey requires you wander into an infinite regress. It’s uncertain if the controversy is the result of tastemaker cynicism or the cunning of Del Rey’s people, a ploy to get us to ponder a nobody. If so, this review is a sign that it worked royally. Figuring out who is the chicken and what is the egg in this scenario is mind-numbing and fruitless. After all, we now have a hotly anticipated album to evaluate.
Born to Die is neither a fiasco nor a triumph, but a sometimes competent, mostly mediocre album, unworthy of the tidal wave of infernal nattering it rides in on. In other words, it is a goosed-up disappointment. The mea culpa doesn’t belong to Del Ray and her people, but to those who worked themselves into such a lather over this. Apart from containing the genuinely terrific “Video Games,” Born to Die should have come and gone with the fanfare of a shrug. The collective and unbridled hate of Del Rey’s antagonists had the opposite effect: it didn’t bury Born to Die; it only imparted more and more importance on an unexceptional work.
If you’ve heard the Lana Del Rey EP, you already heard the best Born to Die has to offer. The four-track EP opens the album, a move that, it turns out, guarantees the rest of Born to Die will be a slog. The stifling melodrama, swelling strings, and cooing Del Rey vocals found throughout are only tolerable when the material can muster their burden and transform them into engaging songs. "Video Games," a standout among slouches, establishes Del Rey as the bored chanteuse. All doubts of Del Rey’s talent momentarily evaporate when she’s carried into the chorus on a crescendo and delivers the phrase "Honey is that true?" with fragile falsetto. It's a miraculous touch. Savor it. She never gives us better.
If the rest of Born to Die matched the skill of the remaining EP tracks, Dey Rey’s talent wouldn’t appear so tenuous. The title track is silly; Del Rey’s invocations of mortality are superficially applied like mascara to the lashes, but there is a palpable sexuality in her brooding. Same goes for “Blue Jeans,” where the sartorial is made sensual. It’s a tired trope, but the song’s fractured sonics and sprightly refrain work to temper Del Rey’s dourness. “Off to the Races” sounds like Del Rey’s pop take on PJ Harvey’s vamping, especially when she squeaks about her lover, calling him the “fire of [her] loins.”
After “Video Games” ends, Born to Die settles into a funereal march of overwrought dirges that make four minutes feel like twenty. Even when Del Rey takes loopy detours (“Diet Mountain Dew”, “National Anthem”), Born to Die sinks fast, a calcified hunk of lugubrious atmospherics, glottal vocal performances, boilerplate pop melodies, and games of naughty girl dress-up. As I listened to Born to Die, I realized the shouts that gave birth to Del Rey will eventually undo her. It puts her wooden SNL performance into context. Lana Del Rey wasn’t prepared for fame.
One sound overcomes the cacophony of argument and analysis that surrounds Lana Del Rey, and encapsulates my opinion of Born to Die: the noise of my hand, scraping the top of my head.