Lana Del Rey, Born to Die
By luke larsen
January 31, 2012
Is our culture's obsession with Mad Men more about vicarious indulgence or more about fascination with the past? Do we watch the mistakes of a previous generation in horror or in gluttonous entertainment? ... For some reason, these were the questions that kept coming up in my mind as I listened to Born To Die, Lana Del Rey's long-awaited debut album.
The album pulls from a lot of the same themes, attitudes and styles as the show: a nostalgic dream of earlier times laced with the retracing of complex modern issues like gender roles, sexuality, consumerism and drug use. But if Mad Men takes on the masculine issues of these themes, Born To Die delves deep into the female psyche—or at least the psyche of one young girl from New York.
I still remember when I first heard her single, "Video Games"—long before I read or knew anything about the "controversy" surrounding Lana Del Rey, aka Elizabeth Grant. At that time, she was just YouTube's next rising star—an aspiring young singer-songwriter from Brooklyn with a killer deep voice and some songwriting/producing skills to boot. The song had a quiet desperation sitting beneath the surface of the big instrumentation and hooks—an emotion that was emphasized by Del Rey's sappy looks into the camera. Truthfully, the story of a young girl who was desperate for love and attention from a man has never been told in such an epic, end-of-the-world fashion. Even after hundreds of listens, there's something about that song that still gets me and still makes it the best song on the album by far.
Born to Die is the kind of indie-mainstream crossover that MTV will eat up—after all, who else can not only claim to be influenced by but actually sound like a mash-up of Antony and the Johnsons, Kurt Cobain and Britney Spears?
There's no question that the team of producers on Born to Die really have crafted a sound that feels fresh and authentic. Old film score strings are backed by Kanye-esque beats on songs like "National Anthem" and "Carmen," while they even somehow make the spoken-word/rap/singing on "Off to the Races" work (and to think that I thought Lana Del Rey calling herself a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra" was just ad-libbing).
Unfortunately, the album puts its best foot first as the final quarter of the album features a few duds like "Dark Paradise" and "Summertime Sadness" that sound like formulaic “filler.” Even worse is “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” which is all kinds of self-aware (yes, she really did just say “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice”).
The main problem, though, is that I think we all liked Lana Del Rey a little more before we got to know her—back when she only had two songs and the only time we actually heard her sing live were in these muffled YouTube clips—and most importantly, back before she did interviews. Because here's my big secret: I don't have much of a problem with the Lana Del Rey persona being a facade. I heard someone once say the most related kind of artist to a musician isn't a painter, but an actor.
Yet when the world met this girl for the first time last year, she turned out to be much more Elizabeth Grant than Lana Del Rey. She was camera-shy, nervous and even a bit inexperienced. It was then that I had the scary thought that the “Donald Draper’s ex-lover” character she plays in Born to Die might not be a character at all. Maybe Elizabeth Grant is just a young girl on her search for love and attention in the world.
Born to Die rides the line between relishing in its own sin and finding redemption—and when we quit talking about Lana Del Rey's sultry expressions and horrible Saturday Night Live debut, perhaps that’s what fascinates us most about it. After all, in one way or another, it’s that same struggle that’s always going on around and within ourselves.
Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, worship leader and musician from Portland, OR. He commonly writes on music, video games and pop culture and writes for publications like Paste, Prefix, RELEVANT and Christ and Pop Culture. He also tweets at @lalarsen11 and writes in his blog at http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com.