Let’s remember, Robert Zimmerman is not the man’s name.
This may be spoiling the review a bit, but asking questions about Lana Del Rey’s realness is wrong. None of the lead-up matters: the god-awful SNL performance, the elevator pitch as “the gangster Nancy Sinatra.” That is, unless your implicitly buying into the treatise that Born to Die clearly lays out. Our reality, the presupposed struggle for a lack of artifice in pop music, the clawing for close-knit, striking points of reference is wrong. Just as the blogosphere seems uniquely obsessed with debating Rey’s authenticity, so Born to Die fires back with a bevy of masks, as if the question was an answer in itself.
Disregarding the sad exclusion of Del Rey’s most excellent Riot Grrl-goes-to-Miami impression (“Kinda Outta Luck”), Born to Die is nevertheless as blandly pro-hedonism as anything Kanye West has produced lately. The songs don’t necessarily bang—“National Anthem” is all bland pandering to the drunk-girl sect (The crowd-sourced chorus didn’t tip you off?), wasting its redeeming moment when Rey coos, “Heaven’s in your eyes,” for that infuriating pout, “Money is the anthem.” Some successfully rip off b-side Toro Y Moi material (“Radio”), while nonsingle standout “Off to Races” at least fully embraces the notion that all Del Rey is supposed to be is a blow-up doll with a studded choker. But the majority of the melodies are base tracks for more interesting remixes.
It’s not as if Del Rey’s merely decent music is the conversation here—the real story is that Born to Die was created essentially as the Anti-Adele: saccharine, hedonistic, gleefully vapid, full of zeitgeist constructed pop-tart music. From the lyrics, which make explicit references to Del Rey being “the Queen of Coney Island,” destined for “Riker’s Island,” and a Los Angeles girl at heart, it’s clear that who Del Rey really is doesn’t matter—she’ll say whatever you want to hear. Personality disappears; Born to Die is a grand masquerade, an oasis of supposed fantasies. If Robyn represents the feminist front in pop music, Del Rey is a giant step backward: Born to Die is music for men, despite the cloying, pat finale “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” which summarily insists that women are seduced by older, powerful men and yet are still independent. Women are weak honey, you’ll know when you’re older and fall in love.
It’s worth asking whether Lizzy Grant would have been as deft at assuming such a Betty Boop-like persona, even if the question answers itself. When Del Rey tries to inhabit another character (“Carmen”), she just ends up sounding like a third person narrator in this one-act. Born to Die consciously breaks from reality: what you’re listening to isn’t real. If Rebecca Black’s “Friday” spoke to the infectious, honest stupidity of pop music, Del Rey is the opposite damning evidence: unremarkable, fully constructed on-demand sexuality.
But what of love? The second half of Born to Die obsesses itself with diamond commercial-worthy slings and arrows of affection (“Million Dollar Man” especially, but you probably guessed that). None take on the debatable high-concept quality that “Video Games” has—if anything, tracks like “Dark Paradise” confirm that the thought of “Games” commenting on and debasing sexist pig versions of love was a bit of a subtextual reach. It’s all part of Born to Die’s reality; pop should be whatever you want it to be.
That malleability renders Born to Die interesting, but shallow. Del Rey expresses little perspective that couldn’t be spun as another come-on. Her nihilism on the title track, even if she blunts it for younger ears (replacing “fuck” with “kiss”), more accurately comments on the state of pop Del Rey would leave in her wake if Born to Die were to succeed. We live in a post-Kanye world, where even bland singer-songwriters can turn into inventively named pop stars (looking at you, Gaga). But unlike West (or Gaga), Del Rey’s circle of confusion get far less interesting after the excellent first single.
Lana Del Rey – Born to Die tracklist:
- “Born to Die”
- “Off to the Races”
- “Blue Jeans”
- “Video Games”
- “Diet Mountain Dew”
- “National Anthem”
- “Dark Paradise”
- “Million Dollar Man”
- “Summertime Sadness”
- “This Is What Makes Us Girls”