CB | To complain about Lana Del Rey being a persona of Lizzie Grant is to complain about Alison Clarkson calling herself Betty Boo, or David Bowie (itself a pseudonym) adopting his most famous persona Ziggy Stardust. In each case such personas undermine the idea of gritty realism, of rock’n’roll authenticity, and we are firmly into the realms of theatre. But what we’re dealing with in each case is pop music, which doesn’t have a history of authenticity anyway.
Opening track ‘Born To Die’ features Del Rey’s best Nancy Sinatra impression and the sombre tone of the song is enhanced by mournful cinematic strings. Those parts of the song that are sung in a slightly higher register are notable for a kind of sexual urgency that is reminiscent of early Britney Spears, but there are also aspects of ‘Terry’ and ‘Leader Of The Pack’ lacing through the song, thematically speaking, and a strong sense of nihilism that owes more to gangsta rap, punk or grunge than to pop music. It’s a deceptively complex song and, had ‘Video Games’ not been such a success, would undoubtedly be Del Rey’s signature song.
The Spears and Shangri-Las influences are important, if only because, post Spears Del Rey’s team can concoct videos the like of which Shadow Morton could only dream of. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is sadly indicative of an industry that increasingly relies on female flesh to sell its products. What is remarkable about Del Rey in this respect is that sex and sexuality are common themes of what she is doing, and that these have been integrated and expressed in a way that is strangely old fashioned, retro almost. Say what you like about gender roles in the twentieth century, but subscribing to a peculiarly giddy range of historical eras in Americana, from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, has at least enabled Del Rey to keep her clothes on, by and large, and to negotiate some of the more degrading outfits inflicted on artists by their stylists today.
‘Off to the races’ is a classic example of this giddy plundering of the past. Lyrically and thematically it is pure Raymond Chandler, with nods to Chandler’s filmic equivalent: film noir. It changes tempo and mood, switching from gritty Chandler rainy streets and grimy Brownstones to euphoric Betty Boop esque vamping (the giggle Del Rey employs when singing the words ‘harlot’ and ‘starlet’ is pure Betty Boop), and back again, that it does this to distinctly hip hop flavoured beats and has a definite ’18 With A Bullet’ attitude to it, despite its retro affectations, should be wrong but somehow comes off perfectly. This is a landscape where bad boys meets bad girls, and where they create their own existential inner world that is claustrophobic, inter dependent and fuelled by sex and drugs.
If ‘Off To The Races’ is pure Raymond Chandler then ‘Blue Jeans’ is Nick Kamon in the Levi’s ad channelled through ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ and the Baz Luhrman version of ‘Romeo + Juliet’, but for modern US teens. Musically it has the yearning of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Summer Rain’ coupled with sixties girl group songs such as the Shangri-Las ‘Remember (Walkin’ In The Sands)’, but there’s a darkness and David Lynchesque discordance here too, which the sledgehammer drums help to hammer home. Del Rey’s flirtation with violence and masochism in the re-vamped video is regrettable, especially given that this is the age of ’50 Shades of Gray’ and even people who should know better have been pondering whether women get turned on by pain. But an industry that can’t understand why it wouldn’t be a good idea to get Rihanna to perform with Chris Brown is unlikely to understand why showing women being throttled isn’t sexy.
The song ‘Video Games’ needs no introduction and, compared to most of the songs on this album, it’s actually very simple in nature, and there lies its charm. There are echoes of Paul Young’s ‘Come Back And Stay’ in the synths and the unguarded emotional quality of the song has been at the heart of the fascination, not to mention the vaguely discordant cut’n’paste DIY video. No wonder it was the song of 2011 for so many people.
Perhaps the best song on ‘Born To Die’ is ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, a charming song that marries hip hop beats to Nancy Sinatra, resulting in something both sophisticated and grown up. The inclusion of a tinkling jazz piano coupled with the hip hop beats and driving strings is brilliant, whereas the lyrics are simple but effective, detailing exploration and speculation in the early stages of a relationship, at the point when both participants wonder where it’s all going (‘Do you think we’ll be in love forever?’) while not really caring (‘Maybe I like this rollercoaster, maybe it keeps me high’).
An off-key note is struck by ‘National Anthem’ in which Del Rey brings on the bling to almost excessive degrees. This is a hip hop flavoured tale of rich kids getting off with each other, and its queasy mix of wealth, lust and chest-beating national pride could well lead to it becoming the soundtrack to innumerable frat parties at Ivy League universities. This is not a happy mental picture. ‘Dark Paradise’ on the other hand turns out to be the missing musical link between Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Runaway Horses’ and Florence + the Machine’s ‘Ceremonials’, a melding that is echoed later by ‘Summertime Sadness’ and which, in both cases, is very effective.
The deceptively radio-friendly sounding pop of ‘Radio’ belies its raison d’être. It could maybe have been a single, possibly for someone else, what with its saccharine post Timberland tune, but when contrasted with Del Rey’s faux simpering on lines like ‘Now my life is sweet like cinnamon, like a fucking dream on Ritalin’ it’s clear that something more complicated is going on. The song also features a reference to an early Del Rey song, ‘How Do You Like Me Now?’ which had as its premise ‘I slept with your boyfriend, how do you like me now?’ and was a sparse Nirvana influenced slice of self loathing. ‘Radio’ could be seen as telling the story of then to now, the story of how Lizzie Grant became Lana Del Rey, and, incidentally a two-fingered salute at the same time.
The dark film noir atmospherics of ‘Carmen’ have us right back in the ‘40s. A tale of a drink addled teenage Gilda, it’s so dark in tone that it seems to belong more to Rasputina circa ‘Thanks for the Ether’ than to Del Rey, and in this respect it’s perhaps the biggest surprise of the album. ‘Million Dollar Man’ on the other hand sounds as though she was running out of ideas, and while it isn’t bad it just isn’t quite up to standard. It sounds like she was aiming for Julie London at her least playful and most mournful, but not quite nailing it.
‘This is what makes us girls’ is an absolute gem though, and it’s something of a departure in that it tells a story in verbatim detail rather than in abstract terms, in this case, of teenage girls going off the rails. In theme it bears relation to the film ‘Thirteen’, in detail it is firmly Lana Del Rey: two parts precocious young woman, one part film noir.
In 2012 we are well into the era of pastiche, mash-ups, and derivative works. That Lana Del Rey has managed to put together such disparate influences as Nancy Sinatra, the sixties girl groups, hip hop, modern R’n’B, David Lynch, Raymond Chandler and old style Hollywood and make something that feels fresh and new is an achievement in itself. Lana Del Rey hasn’t been the first to take on Sinatra, Candie Payne, for one, has taken her as a muse, but what Lana Del Rey brings to the mix is a collage in cinemascope, a sort of vivid emotional stylised and stylish soap opera that is highly compelling.