Frontier Psychiatrist

Dialogue: Lana Del Rey (2)

Posted on: February 2, 2012

Lana Del Rey, Diet Mountain Dew

Who cares if Lana Del Rey’s daddy is rich or her mama’s good looking? Who cares that music tastemakers made her an Internet sensation, then tore her to shreds by the time her album Born to Die was released this week? Who cares about her fake name or fake lips? In short, who cares about the year’s worth of chatter about a 25-year-old singer? Here’s an idea: Let’s actually listen to the record. Let’s apply John Updike’s dictum to literary critics: review the album, not the reputation. By that standard, Born to Die is neither a masterpiece nor a catastrophe, but a satisfying piece of pop that sounds good as long as you don’t peer too closely under the hood.

On musical grounds, Born To Die’s harsh receptionseems unwarranted. Ten of its twelve songs are polished pop tunes, anchored by trip-hop beats, strings, and splashes of reverb soaked guitar. Although the dark bubblegum sound is mostly languid, one of the catchiest tunes is the bouncy, irreverent “Diet Mountain Dew.” Admittedly, the fusion of clumsy hip-hop verse and Lady Gaga chorus (“National Anthem”) and the teen hooker tearjerker (“Carmen”) break the spell. But two clunkers hardly wreck a record, unless you’ve been writing or reading premature predictions of perfection.

Yesterday, L.V, you argued that any of one thousand singers could replace Del Rey with little effect on the album. Such hyperbole, however, seems to short-change her vocal capability. On Born to Die, she sings, slurs, growls, chants, chirps, baby talks, and raps her way through her tales of despair, debauchery, and darkness. She experiments with a variety of styles, among songs and often within the same song. A cynic could say she hasn’t found her voice. An optimist would praise her willingness to take risks to find it.  Either way, her versatility means she’s no mere flavor enhancement, but the main dish. If anything, the music seems like a garnish. At her best, Del Rey channels Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse, and Regina Spektor. As for the weaker parts of her game, such as her rapping skills, perhaps she could take a few linguistic lessons from this woman.

But if Born to Die sounds good, the lyrics don’t stand up to scrutiny. Pop music doesn’t have to be poetry, but Del Rey drops enough clichés, well, to sink a ship.  The title track alone contains the following couplets: “Feet don’t fail me now/Take me to the finish line;” “Lost but now I am found/I can see but once I was blind” and “Take a walk on the wild side/Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain.” Elsewhere “heaven is a place on earth,” streets are “paved with gold,” and “love hurts.” Her cultural references –Chateau Marmot, The Hamptons, James Dean—are equally hackneyed, even if she intends them as satire. (Credit is due, however, for rhyming “shameless” with “Cipriani’s basement.”)  In a brief flash of high culture, Del Rey quotes the famous phrase from the first page of Lolita (“Light of my life/Fire of my loins”), then follows with a low culture rhyme: “Gimme them gold coins/Gimme them coins.”

Perhaps the most troubling part of Born to Die is Del Rey’s stance toward her gender. Her narrators act and feel like disempowered women from a bygone decade –or century. They are either victims or seducers. They crave love, but settle for sex. They fall for bad boys and losers. They get ditched and then wait for the guys to come back, sometimes “for a million years,” and sometimes for eternity, as in “Dark Paradise”, where a woman fantasizes about a reunion with her dead lover in the afterlife.  And in case you missed the point, the chorus of the last song declares: “This is what makes us girls/we don’t stick together/And we put love first.” The melody may be triumphant, but the message is tragic, not because love doesn’t matter, but because it’s matters too much to be reduced to stock situations and platitudes.

The title Born to Die now sounds like a joint birth announcement and epitaph, a meta-commentary on the vagaries of hype and backlash. Beyond any discussion of the album’s merits or flaws, the Lana Del Rey controversy raises questions about how we discover and appreciate music, or any art form. In a media world supersaturated with institutional and self-styled cultural gatekeepers, all competing to anoint America’s Next Top Whatever, can we trust any judgment beyond our own ears? And why is our culture so obsessed with extremes and contests where the winners take all and the losers go home empty handed? Is there any middle ground between the 1% and the 99%?

Back to you, L.V.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. He prefers regular grapefruit soda to Diet Mountain Dew.

 

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4 Responses to "Dialogue: Lana Del Rey (2)"

[…] Home Dialogue: Lana Del Rey (3) Dialogue: Lana Del Rey (2) […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His first impressions of Born To Die appeared on FP yesterday. He does not play video […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrst. He recently wrote about Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, part of a dialogue with L.V. Lopez. In 2011, he saw Sharon Van Etten at the Bowery […]

[…] Dialogue: Lana Del Rey (2) Queen of Fats – A Review of Tom Mueller, […]

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Sons of Dionysus


A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.