By the time you are reading this, Lana Del Rey’s album Born To Die will have reached #2 on the Billboard charts, and #1 in a gazillion countries. In a true sign that she’s made it, she will have been mocked on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” impersonated no less by Kristen Wiig, just a week after her controversial appearance on the show. You have probably bought the album, or illegally downloaded it, or have heard every track just by skipping around the Sirius dial. You don’t need to read this review – you’ve certainly read all the other ones. In fact, certainly you’ve made up your mind as to where you stand on the Lana Del Rey phenomenon (and it is a phenomenon, as Liz Phair astutely explicated in this Wall Street Journal blog post.
If Lana Del Rey was the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, conservatives could probably breathe a little easier and assume that she would take the top spot; at the same time, she somehow inspires the same kind of revulsion and confusion the current G.O.P. hopefuls embody, too. Lana Del Rey is now, in fact, a star – an instant, overnight sensation in the classic sense, and yet a galactic media event unique to this moment as well. The last time I can recall so many formats shook like this by one artist is, in fact, when Nirvana first broke into mainstream consciousness: you heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” everywhere – I remember a friend reporting hearing it incongruously on a San Francisco roots-reggae radio show. Similarly, a cursory spin across satellite radio today finds Lana Del Rey on the college-alternative station, the “hits” station, the “chill” station, and so on. This cross-genre acceptance, and the confusion of various youth cultures trying to simultaneously embrace and disown her, is another telling sign. Lana Del Rey is a glitch in the matrix, and the algorithm, however confusing its coding, proves hard to resist.
The big conundrum surrounding Lana Del Rey concerns her supposed indie authenticity – in particular, that she once released an album under her “real name, Lizzy Grant and that she’s been manufactured by music-industry savants. In fact, Lana Del Rey did work with outside songwriters with hitmaking pedigrees, and Born To Die is in fact a release by uber-major label Interscope, home to U2, Pussycat Dolls, and naturally, Lady Gaga). We can settle this debate right now, however: Lana Del Rey is a pop artist, period, and all pop is an industrial product. Industrial products are best evaluated by how effectively they fulfill their intended purpose; in the case of a pop artist, it is how well they capture the imagination of the masses, via sales. As well, certain industrial products transcend their utility and become objects of desire and worship far more sublime than anyone had hoped; they go beyond their mandate to become something greater in our collective consciousness, the way an iPhone has transcended its status as a mere communication device to become the ultimate lifestyle signifier, or how we can’t imagine life before Google searches. Del Rey satisfies on both fronts, which is where the confusion around her stems. She’s simply not as shittily and obviously prurient as many pop artists; there’s a level of idiosyncrasy, Warholian sophistication, and knowingness that seems risky for the expense involved in getting a pop star to market these days. To the untrained eye, that reads as “indie,” when it is in fact anything but; it’s a simulacrum of indie, reflected back in a cracked funhouse mirror all the way to the bank. And it’s the simulacrum that consumers want: pop is about fantasy, and society decides what that compelling fantasy is in spite of the tastemakers and gatekeepers, and this year’s model is Lana Del Rey.
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