She’s Not What She Seems

Pop stars reinvent themselves all the time. Why has Lana Del Rey’s reinvention caused such a stir?

US Singer Lana del Rey.
Lana Del Rey, formerly Lizzy Grant

Photograph by Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty Images.

A few years ago, the singer and songwriter Lizzy Grant reinvented herself online. This seems overwhelmingly unremarkable behavior in the 21st century, particularly for a would-be pop musician, but it proved scandalous. Grant, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from upstate New York, recorded an EP and an album in the late 2000s. Some time before the summer of 2011, according to a recent Billboard story, she deleted her social-networking profiles and a site bearing her name, and withdrew her album, Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Rey, from iTunes. Last August, she uploaded a music video to YouTube under the stage name Lana Del Rey—goodbye Grant. The clip was for “Video Games,” a beguilingly morose love song. Helped along by music blogs and BBC Radio 1, which supported the track early, the video became a hit: Today, it’s been viewed more than 22 million times.

There seems to have been nothing more duplicitous in Del Rey’s jettisoning of Grant than there was in Dylan’s jettisoning of Zimmerman, but when the fact of her previous incarnation came to light, the response from online detractors was irate and impassioned: This was no diamond in the digital rough, pure and uncompromised. Grant’s debut album had, it emerged, been produced by David Kahne, an industry big with Paul McCartney and Sugar Ray on his résumé. She had, in fact, signed with the powerhouse major label Interscope a month before she’d uploaded the “Video Games” clip. A particular point of scrutiny were her lips, which appear significantly plumper today than they do in photographs from the Grant days, suggesting a surgical procedure—further fakery. In posts and comment sections on many of the same blogs that had helped Del Rey take off in the first place, listeners lashed out as though they’d been betrayed, expunging the abject corporate product they’d accepted so trustingly into their hearts. In this blood sport, the blog Hipster Runoff played the (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) head cheerleader: “She was basically a failed mainstream artist who is being ‘rebranded’ behind major label dollars,” one post sniped.

On the one hand, the controversy was good for Del Rey because it meant that far more people would listen to her music than might have done so otherwise. On the other hand, listeners drawn in by bad publicity tend to come to the table with their knives out, or at least with their guards up—not ideal attitudes for open-minded listening. In January, Del Rey sang two songs on Saturday Night Live, swaying awkwardly, brushing at her hair self-consciously, her voice bottoming out into leaden notes. The booking itself was surprisingly controversial: had she truly “earned it,” or somehow cut to the front of the line? Brian Williams, an avowed indie-music fan, groused that Del Rey was “the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history.” Stilted, underwhelming SNL musical performances are commonplace. Del Rey’s appearance didn’t buck the trend. But it did give detractors fresh ammunition: We were fooled by a charlatan, and an inept charlatan at that!

Last week, Del Rey’s proper debut album, Born to Die, leaked online; it arrives in stores this week. I like the album better with each listen—the more time I spend in its company, the more I feel as though I’m approaching it on something like its own terms. The mood on “Video Games” is one of elegant confusion. On paper, the song resembles an over-the moon love letter, with lines like “Heaven is a place on earth with you,” and “It’s all for you, everything I do” —but that’s not the way it sounds. Strings, central to the album’s arrangements, swell sweetly, but the song’s dominant motif is a muted, desultory piano figure that suggests Cat Power at her broodiest. Del Rey’s delivery is somber and vaguely recriminatory, as though her boundless affections aren’t being sufficiently reciprocated by their object. The video is a mélange of tones, too, alternating found footage of couples cavorting carefree with paparazzi video of Paz de la Huerta stumbling drunkenly. Del Rey herself appears in shots that seem both intimate (they’re naturally lit and haphazardly framed) and distant (her posture is stiff, her affect dead-eyed, her retro-Hollywood make-up laid on thick).

Del Rey spends most of that song singing in a languorous, husky tone that can slip into the soporific; her voice is more limber than this performance lets on. On the chorus to “Off to the Races” she adopts a naughty-baby voice and a rapperly cadence, both reminiscent of Gwen Stefani. Del Rey dips into this same style on “Lolita” and “National Anthem”; the latter song also features a lovely little slaloming vocal on the hook that wouldn’t be out of place on a ballad by gentler, airier singers like Ben Gibbard or Ingrid Michaelson. Del Rey sprinkles her songs with hip-hop catchphrases (“ride or die,” “fresh to death,” “chasing paper”) and brief spoken interludes that nod back to the ’60s girl-groups. The tempos are laidback, but the drums are hard-hitting. The result is vibrant, frequently goofy, and, at times, unpleasantly schizophrenic: a let’s-see-what-sticks barrage of voices that Del Rey hasn’t fully refined into “her voice.”

This speaks to a larger sense that Del Rey’s true crime isn’t against laws of authenticity (whatever those are) but, to the contrary, against laws of show-business: She has yet to master the theatrical-alchemical transformation that we expect from successful pop stars. It’s strange, really, that much of the blog-borne backlash against Del Rey slammed her as yet another automaton gliding squeaky-clean and jumbo-lipped down the assembly line. It would be more precise to say that she’s unconvincingly fake: She botches the disappearance of the fumbling aspirant into the grand, naturalized pantomime of the pro.

One take on Lana Del Rey, along these lines, is that the Internet hype machine thrust her into the spotlight before she’d had a chance to work out kinks in her live performance, sharpen the fuzzy contours of her persona—in short, put her face on. She’d been caught, embarrassingly, mid-transformation: Not quite Lizzy Grant, not quite Lana Del Rey, hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of that “a.k.a.” from her first album title.

But this is exactly what makes Del Rey worth mulling, no matter what you think about the music. She strikes me as something like an anti-Nicki Minaj. Both artists have patently plastic personas that, advertising their own contingency, expose the mechanisms of pop identity-craft. But whereas Minaj has a galvanizing agency about her—she is the savvy, sexy chameleon, in control of her scattershot subjectivity, wielding her desirability as a weapon—Del Rey plays the victim and emotional punching bag, constructed (and poorly, at that) entirely in the service of male desire. Her favorite image is the female corpse, pliant and posable; the words dead, dying, and death recur over and again. In Del Rey’s lyrics, love is an obliterating, self-abnegating force, and women are its victims: “I can be your china doll if you’d like to see me fall”; “Take me like a vitamin”; “I wish I was dead.” Del Rey has called herself the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” but she spends Born to Die walking all over herself.

Before passion snuffs out Del Rey’s heroines (as in the “Born to Die” video, in which she dies in a fiery car crash, her bloody body held aloft by her impassive beau), it pushes them to acts of derangement and disreputability designed to appeal to lovers. This motif appears in “Video Games” (“I heard that you like bad girls, honey, is that true?”), “Off to the Races” (“I’m crazy, baby, I need you to come here and save me”), and the title song (“You like your girls insane.”) Back in November, Del Rey asked an interviewer, “Have you ever seen Fire Walk With Me and the scenes where Laura Palmer is in the bar with the lumberjacks, sort of dancing and getting crazy? Well, it’s that frightening sensation of being out of control that really sticks in my mind.” Guitars that suggest ’50s rock via Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score shimmer across the album, and Del Rey’s Palmer anecdote is a telling detail, reverberating both in the “Video Games” footage of tottering de la Huerta and across the album.

The theme of Del Rey’s unhinged subjugation to her lovers is so unrelenting that, as the album goes on, it begins to resemble an outright critique of female passivity, rather than an extreme case of it. The last song on the album, “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” confronts these issues most poignantly. The song tells a story, seemingly autobiographical, about the turbulent sexual awakening of a group of “small-town” girls who fall in with, and act crazy in attempts to impress, the “senior guys.” The song concerns youth, but death is mentioned several times. At one point, Del Rey summons a haunting image of “my new best friend, high heels in her hand, swayin’ in the wind”—a girl who, having suffered some humiliation we can readily guess at, “starts to cry, mascara running down her little Bambi eyes: ‘Lana, how I hate those guys.’ ” On the chorus, Del Rey laments, of her cohort, “We don’t stick together and we put love first.”

In this context, Del Rey’s failure to assume the perfectly unified bombshell persona she’s ostensibly striving toward registers as almost subversive. Symbolically killing off Lizzy Grant and re-emerging, corpselike and puffy-lipped, as Lana Del Rey, she calls to mind the necrophiliac transformation in Vertigo of the prosaic Judy, a plaything of destructive men, into the glamorous Madeleine. The fact that you can see Del Rey’s seams is, whether or not she intends it, fascinating, and may account in part for the discomfiting effect she has on listeners: She presents as a Frankenstein monster, a prototype sexbot on the fritz, a glitch in the pop matrix.