Verdict: 3 / 5
The panoptic gaze of the internet has indulged our desire to be watched. The catch though, is the inherent detachment involved in submitting ourselves to being seen. After an unsuccessful album release under her own name, New Yorker Elizabeth Grant created a glamorous musical persona self-described as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”. On her debut album Born to Die, Lana Del Rey embraces that disconnection because she “found God in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras.”
Released: January 27, 2012
Genre: Indie pop
Label: Interscope, Polydor, Stranger
Producers: Patrik Berger, Jeff Bhasker, Chris Braide, Emile Haynie, Justin Parker, Rick Nowels, Robopop, Al Shux
In June of 2011, a music video for Del Rey’s first single ‘Video Games’ surfaced, sparking wide-spread intrigue. Pulling imagery from 1950’s Hollywood, she was utterly captivating pouring her syrupy, forlorn vocals over delicate harp strings. Many followed the inclination of wanting to latch onto her inevitable upward trajectory. Her two internet singles generated a vast amount of hype, but in doing so, detractors were given plenty of ammunition once Born to Die was released. The backlash was vindictive, not entirely unwarranted, but most certainly exaggerated. She proved to be polarising, a lightning rod of debate between indie and pop purists alike.
Any argument about her image being manufactured is moot so long as artists like Lady Gaga exist. It’s a role Grant has dedicated herself to; that it has turned into such a hot-button topic merely means it’s as effectively provocative as she intended. The problem is that her focus on letting these retro images and their associated meanings permeate her work results in her sincerity suffering. The collage of signifiers can be overly embellishing.
Our desire to rapidly consume pop-culture invited Interscope records to push Born to Die out of the gates in a rush. For an album that was aiming to succeed on its pristine appeal, these songs were not given enough time to gestate. After repeat listens there are clumsy lines that become increasingly difficult to overlook, and some rhymes are either forced or just plain lazy. The vapid ‘Million Dollar Man’ sounds like a James Bond theme that will never be. ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ comes off as kitsch, and should have been left on Grant’s album where it first appeared.
However straight-faced some of Born to Die may be, Lana is vocally on point, and there are moments where her cinematic pop songs really do shine. The title track is a sullen gem that plays to her strengths the same way ‘Video Games’ did. ‘Dark Paradise’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’ both work by draping her emotive cooing over slow bass beats. Another prize track is ‘Radio’ where her lamenting is quenched on what is the album’s most overt pop song. With the soaring verses and infectious chorus she is seeking affirmation, singing “baby love me cuz I’m playing on the radio.”
Elizabeth Grant seems genuinely committed to the role she’s invented as the retro vixen Lana Del Rey. What is essentially her debut album is not without its missteps, but she undoubtedly has talent, charm and promise. A lot of the hostility directed towards her seems to come from her not having wryly winked at the camera yet. Lest we forget the most admired performers are those able to stay in character.