It’s probably just a coincidence that Lana Del Rey’s album Born to Die, which comes out today (January 27), shares its title with a Grand Funk Railroad LP from 1976. If Del Rey intended to name her major-label debut after a Me Decade rock record, a more apt choice would have been the New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Usually an artist has to achieve some degree of popular success before the backlash begins. For Del Rey, the backlash started months before Born to Die's release, when all she had to her name was a first album no one actually heard (it was withdrawn shortly after its release but is reportedly due for a reissue), a haunting little single called “Video Games”, and a bit of blog buzz.
It wasn’t long before Del Rey started polarizing music fans, or at least the type of heard-it-all doucheballs who post anonymous comments on BrooklynVegan and Hipster Runoff. The main charge levelled against the 25-year-old singer is that she’s about as real as Hannah Montana. For starters, her actual name is the less glamorous-sounding Lizzy Grant, and her back story sounds too good to be true. The official version is that Grant was a badass kid who got shipped off to a boarding school at 15 after she started messing around with booze and drugs. Later on, she dropped out of college to pursue a career in music in New York City—which, of course, she now has, but only after spending a few years living in a New Jersey trailer park.
That’s all bullshit, according to the haters, who paint Del Rey as her rich daddy’s pet project. Even her famously full lips, they say, aren’t so much bee-stung as they are surgically shaped. These are supposedly valid talking points because, as we all know, pop singers never, ever do things like adopting stage names or enhancing their looks with the help of a well-trained scalpel.
She might be perceived as such, but Del Rey is no singing puppet, and she isn’t immune to the slings and arrows of popular opinion. Last October, she admitted to Complex that she finds it impossible to just shrug off the haters. “I don’t feel that way,” she said. “I’m not that cool. I feel like I want to fucking kill myself. It’s miserable.”
This was the already tumultuous backdrop against which Del Rey made her U.S. network television premiere on January 14, performing “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” on Saturday Night Live. That she was one of the least experienced artists to ever play on the venerable program gave her critics more fuel, and they piled on early. One of the first out of the gate was Juliette Lewis, who took to her Twitter account to opine that seeing Del Rey was “like watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they’re pretending to sing and perform”. One of the singer’s most high-profile, and most vehement, detractors was NBC Nightly News talking head Brian Williams, who, in a private email that the bitchy, celebrity-obsessed blog Gawker made public, declared Del Rey’s appearance to be “one of the worst outings in SNL history”.
While that hardly seems fair—especially when you consider the precedents set by a tone-deaf Ke$ha and a jigging Ashlee Simpson—it’s true that Del Rey didn’t exactly set 30 Rockefeller Plaza on fire with her charisma. If her stage presence was awkward and stiff and her pitch less than perfect, however, chalk it up to nerves. It doesn’t take much hunting to find YouTube clips of her singing much more convincing and confident versions of both songs.
It didn’t quite make her a star, but all the chatter about her SNL appearance, both the good and the bad, certainly marked Lana Del Rey as someone to watch—just in case she crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. Now, with Born to Die finally out, she can be judged on the basis of more than a great single and a shaky TV debut.
The album isn’t an artistic triumph that’s going to put the doubters in their place, nor is it a total failure. Instead, it sounds like the work of someone who (to borrow an SNL-ism) isn’t quite ready for prime time. Born to Die is a big, glossy production with a signature sound—melodramatic strings paired with epic programmed beats—that sometimes obscures weak songwriting. Del Rey’s lyrics often seem like lists of strategically chosen cultural signifiers—Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lolita, James Dean, punk rock—that add up to exactly. And her liberal borrowing of rap slang feels disingenuous, even if, as she claims in “Blue Jeans”, she “grew up on hip-hop”. It’s even worse when she actually adopts a rap-inflected vocal style, as she does on the frankly embarrassing “Off to the Races”.
Still, there’s something fascinating about the character she creates, this “Lana Del Rey”; equal parts trailer-trash princess, self-conscious hipster, and superannuated teenage temptress with unfortunate taste in boyfriends. Whoever she is, her bold-faced declarations of love and despair seem as guileless as the rest of her is calculated.
And she can sing, too, despite what Brian Williams probably thinks. Again, though, her voice sounds underdeveloped, and she often seems like she’s trying too hard to prove something. She’s better off keeping things simple, as she does on “Million Dollar Man”, a straightforward torch song that comes closest to Del Rey’s own description of herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”.
Where Born to Die succeeds is in its abundant evidence that Del Rey is ambitious enough to create a persona and develop a sound, even if the end result doesn’t quite hit the mark. Will this album make my year-end Top 10 list? Probably not. But do I want to hear how Del Rey follows it up? Yes, and you should, too. Maybe then the former Lizzy Grant will realize her potential and get her due—and hopefully it won't be too little, too late.