Earlier in the year, I assigned my classes to listen to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 record Born to Die. This was one of the first records we discussed in our class, and if I’m being totally honest, I assigned the album deliberately to wind them up a bit. This is a record that I like quite a bit, but I also (correctly) anticipated that my students would be quite resistant to my perspective.
Pedagogically, one might question this tactic. Making my classes listen carefully and repeatedly to a record that I thought they would hate? Well, yes. The reason being, I hoped to demonstrate early in this class that it was perfectly okay for my students to disagree with my opinions and interpretations—as long as they were willing to put together an argument based on real evidence.
As expected, the near- universal reaction of my students was initially: “WTF?” Or, more articulately, “Why are we wasting our time talking about this crap?” And, of course, it’s fine with me if they think the record is crap, as long as they have a reason why. And once we started digging into their reactions, things got interesting. A student raised his hand and explained that the songs are just so boring, and they make him really angry. Another contributed that they were so highly produced and polished, that it was hard to take them seriously. And anyway, asked a third, who is this “Lana Del Rey” anyway? Isn’t she just Lizzie Grant, remade with her daddy’s money into some superficial pop princess? What has she done to earn our respect?
Interesting reactions all. How, I mused, can you simultaneously be totally bored and very angry with a record? Why does it matter who Lana Del Rey “really” is? And what does it mean to “really” be someone, anyway?
In their gut reaction hatred of Born to Die, my students had cut to the core of the album far quicker than I had expected. (Even if their dislike of the album was precisely what I anticipated.) For me, this is precisely what makes Born to Die a fascinating album, and Lana Del Rey a fascinating singer. This is a record that is aware of its constructedness, and that uses that apparent superficiality as part of a grander commentary. In its lush arrangements, it is reminiscent of a great deal of 1960s torch songs, pop music, and so on. It’s not for nothing that Del Rey has been referred to as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.”
But the real key to the album is Lana’s voice. A slightly breathy contralto, Del Rey sings in a way that is simultaneously alluring and repellant, sultry and disinterested. She never taxes her voice, never sings in a way that conveys any sort of strain or effort. She manages, remarkably, to communicate absolute ennui with the subjects of her songs—troubled relationships, the fast-paced modern life, celebrity itself. She plays with her listeners, flirting with them in “Off to the Races,” pleading with them in “Video Games.” But can we really take her seriously when she intones, on “National Anthem,” “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it, it’s a fact/Kiss, kiss?” The line is such kitsch as to be brilliant satire, at once highlighting the assumed raison d’être of the pop singer while revealing that grounding to be fraudulent.
Del Rey pokes at the glamorousness of celebrity in other ways, too. In her much-maligned appearance on Saturday Night Live, Del Rey appears thoroughly bored with her surroundings, avoiding engagement with the audience and her backing musicians, never smiling. She is put together in great detail—60s style bouffant, slinky dress—but none of this pleases her. She is not capable of being pleased; the achievements of money and celebrity are hollow.
What Del Rey achieves in the SNL performance is remarkable and unique for a pop musician. Pop music is about many things–sex, love, drugs, money, fame—but it is never about boredom. Del Rey conveys absolute boredom with all of the usual pop song subjects, and she suggests in a very real and performative way that the trappings of fame do not produce happiness or contentment. And moreover, happiness and contentment may not be possible in a society where people constantly chase the specter of celebrity, experiencing their lives in increasingly mediated ways, losing touch with “reality.”
I’m no luddite with regards to our modern media and technologies. But I do think Lana Del Rey does something incredible by not just stating her skepticism of fame, but actually performing it—making us feel simultaneously bored and deeply annoyed. How interesting.by