Let’s table opinions for a few paragraphs and talk about facts.
It’s a fact that I’ve played Lana Del Rey’s songs 58 times this week and 76 times this month. It’s a fact that I’ve caught myself singing or humming several tunes off Born to Die during this period. In the shower: “Light of your life/ Fire of your loins/ Tell me you want me/ Give me them coins.” Making toast: “Diet Mountain Dew/ Baby New York City/ Never was there ever a girl so pretty/ Do you think we’ll be in love forever? Do you think we’ll be in love?” At the laptop, writing a Paste review: “Red, white, blue in the skies/ Summer’s in the air baby/ Heaven’s in your eyes.” Sometimes these weren’t me singing, but rather my girlfriend, who’s normally shy about singing but quite public about her love of Lana Del Rey. It’s a fact that her ringtone is “Lolyta,” the original version of the Born to Die bonus track “Lolita.” We both prefer the one with the “y” spelling and the Peter Gunn-style bassline. She disagrees with me that it sounds like Britney Spears. She hates Britney Spears. I don’t. You should Google it if you’re a Britney fan.
I first encountered “Lolyta” when “Video Games” first surfaced and I wasn’t entirely sold on the Artist Formerly Known as Lizzy Grant. I found her imagery pandering and her phrasing slipshod. I didn’t think she played the role she’d carved out for herself as well as Nina Persson in the Cardigans, or Sarah Nixey in Black Box Recorder, or Holly Golightly. She sounded much sadder and less convinced of the words coming out of her mouth—and later it turned out people didn’t just believe they weren’t her words but that it wasn’t even her mouth.
Why am I telling you this, right? Ms. Del Rey has been compared to everything from a “faked orgasm” to an “android built by a grieving scientist to remember his hot dead wife.” I’ll throw my own into the hat: Lana’s like the robot girlfriend Warren Mears built for himself on Buffy who he eventually grows bored with and leaves for another woman. I’m kidding though. Lana reminds me of whomever the last artist was that that I felt compelled to play 76 times in a month and sing all the time because their melodies were in my head all the time. How alone I am in that will be proven this week when Born to Die guns for the #1 spot on the Billboard 200.
Thing is, wouldn’t you be interested in a heartsick robot’s record? Why bother wasting such pithy comparisons on an artist who’s not compelling enough to absorb and question over and over? Which is not to say that the quoted above are making up their critical exegesis, or that I’m unhappy such vigorous back-and-forth is taking place, but rather that it comes across like nobody wanted to give this record a chance. How else am I to reconcile the 20-odd negative reviews I’ve read that all make allowances for “Video Games” and not another one in the bunch with the fact that I’ve been chewing up these songs with my ears and singing them back to her for weeks now?
I felt the need to preface this review with those facts because the way this artist—who has now been compared by more than one of my colleagues to the Most Photographed Barn in America—is talked about, people are jumping through hoops of qualifiers. My qualifier is that I’ve been listening to her a lot.
Now that I’ve heard “Off to the Races,” I know she’s far more confounding than Golightly or Persson. Take Gwen Stefani at her “little ol’ me” squeakiest and give her a blasé Lily Allen skip-rope rap, put it onstage in a low-budget play and you’re still not close to her tongue-twisting enjambment, the way she squeezes “Riker’s Island” and “Cipriani’s basement” in between the oft-cited banalities of big-bad-boyfriend and magic-mister-money while rapping like the three-headed woman.
Let’s talk about sexism. Obviously the most troubling aspect of Lana for so many is that she’s—heavens—not a role model. She references Lolita and “bad girls” frequently and ambitiously, considers money the root of all life rather than evil, and dares to call a song “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” The problem is, she is a girl, which validates her right to label whatever fantasy she wants as surely as Dr. Dre is allowed to make a career of what makes him a man (which on The Chronic was usually getting inferior rappers to suck his dizzick). Is it a limited, inadvisable, old-fashioned purview, perhaps bad for women’s lib? Yes. But rock ‘n’ roll forcing its male domination fantasies on manipulated groupies, starry-eyed prefab groups and sad cases like Tina Turner or Ronnie Spector is one (awful) thing, not to mention the rape culture that’s been propagated by rap and metal.
How one’s alarm can go off when a submissive woman voices (carnally unspecific) fantasies she is in control of, and not blink at the treatment of female inhabitants of Rick Ross and Drake’s joyless gravitational pull is cognitive dissonance. Being uncomfortable with fantasies you don’t personally understand is one thing; a mass consensus’ discomfort is a double standard that hasn’t been thought through. Del Rey’s self-objectifying peer Liz Phair is also scrutinized so seriously that when she names an album Funstyle, people trash it as if a lot was riding on it, while Ke$ha (“I just can’t date a dude with a vag”) and Katy Perry (“Let me see that peacock!”) try to even the playing field by objectifying men back. What do they have in common? Not much critical respect—this is what makes them girls.
While you can scour the myriad thinkpieces (including this one) for meaning and chant “I’ve got that summertime/ Summertime sadness” at the same time, it’s perfectly possible not to, and that needs to be underlined. Unplug your modem and these expert pop songs still exist in a world they won’t change. But shutting them out for the sake of it is to deny highly listenable pop songs that defy easy answers. The persona has its moments too.