Amplified: Lana Del Rey - By Volume

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Amplified: Lana Del Rey

Channing Freeman explores the internet sensation's new record in all of its... depth? Author: on May 11, 2012
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As an idea, Lana Del Rey is perfect. She hits all the right notes to appeal to a rather large demographic – there is the classical appeal of her look (the bright red lipstick, the massive curls, the pout), the modern appeal of her sound that filters Americana through hip-hop and modern pop, and the appeal to carefree youth in her lyrics that can be appreciated by both young and old. Unfortunately, the execution has been less than stellar, and one has to wonder if perhaps she was not the proper vessel for this particular potential pop revolution. Or else, she was simply not given enough time to become the proper vessel. Because of all the controversy she has garnered lately with a few lackluster performances on high-profile television shows – before Born To Die had even been released – a lot of people have rightly been wondering whether Del Rey is even worth caring about.

All I can offer in her defense is the feeling I got when I heard “Video Games” for the first time last summer, before I knew anything about her – her real name or the existence of her first album or even what she looked like. It was before she exploded in popularity, and because of that, “Video Games” was not a song by Lana Del Rey, the construct of recent trends. It was just a song – one of the genuine best I had heard in a long time. Understated when others would go for bombast, it made me nostalgic, a feeling that admittedly is a dime a dozen in music these days, but this was different. It was a song that looked to both the future and the past with equal delicacy, not of the zeitgeist at all but completely separate from it, taking it and morphing it into something so much better, so much more welcome. It also made me curious – who was Lana Del Rey? A singer-songwriter? Just a singer? Was she even American? I regret the curiosity now and I miss that mystery. I wish she had released “Video Games” and then disappeared, leaving us to forever wonder what could have been.


Illustration by Chris Harrop.

Because in the context of Born To Die, “Video Games” is woefully out of place. There is nothing else like it on the album, and it is sandwiched in between the overly earnest “Blue Jeans” and the now-terrible “Diet Mtn. Dew.” It is the shy kid at the talent show, outperforming its peers but overshadowed by their volume and audacity. It is just the first in a number of missteps made by Del Rey and her handlers. Most tellingly, there is the short amount of time between the release of “Video Games” – then not a part of any album – and the release of Born To Die. The album feels rushed – full of good ideas that were not given enough time to blossom into great ones, much like Del Rey herself. Lyrics feel like working drafts, beats are recycled and arguably shouldn’t have been used in the first place (“Video Games,” for example, lacks the overbearing hip-hop style drums of the other songs), and every song deals with the same concepts in mostly the same ways.

But fortunately, the genius thinking behind Lana’s image shines through enough to give the album some merit. In spite of its aforementioned shunting, “Video Games” still stands as a shining example of just what they wanted to accomplish with this album, and those finding it hard to care about her should at least give that song a chance. Opener “Off To The Races” at first confounds with its almost toneless first verse but soon redeems itself with the album’s best chorus as well as the double-tracked vocals in the second prechorus, a flair of songwriting ingenuity that everyone thought would be commonplace on this album. Lana’s line delivery is also inspired, with her squeaky little-girl voice while delivering the decidedly mature line, “I’m your little harlot.” The song also benefits from being the first track on the album; it gets to make its good impression before the listener realizes they will be hearing beats comprised of the same elements for the whole album – processed strings, hip-hop drums, and weirdly recurring distorted samples.

The worst thing about Born To Die is that even its great songs contain problems. Yes, “Off To The Races” is a highlight, but it also serves as an introduction to the prevailing image of Lana Del Rey on the album – an innocent playing the part of an experienced, worldly woman to appeal to bad boys in the best of cases and all-out scumbags in the worst. As pleasantly catchy as it is, the movie playing in my head during its run-time isn’t a pleasant one: I can see Lana in the garden, singing this song at a party hosted by her “cocaine-hearted” boyfriend – a song she spent a lot of time writing just for him – in which she depicts him as just as needy as she is, something someone of his character would surely balk at. I can see him grow surlier and surlier as she proceeds all the way to, “You are my one true love,” after which he loses his temper and plans a particularly rough, humiliating sexual encounter followed by an unceremonious dumping. And I get the feeling that it wouldn’t be the first time for poor, doe-eyed Lana.

It’s not that such a story can’t be compelling. It’s that I can’t be led to believe that it’s what was intended. Where I’m supposed to hear charm, I hear pandering. “National Anthem,” although it’s so catchy that I enjoy it, is particularly guilty of this, and also of the rushed feel of the album in general. Lyrically, it’s a mess, a collection of phrases that mean nothing. When Lana sings – very seriously – “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it/it’s a fact,” (and then adds a “kiss kiss” onto it, Gaga-style, just because there is a brief space that needs filling), is she saying it wryly, as a negative? If so, her materialistic image makes no sense. And if not, isn’t there some better way to express that, if only her and the cadre of songwriters had given it a little more thought?

Much of this boils down to the fact that Lana Del Rey needs to be left alone to her own devices for a little while. Some handling isn’t necessarily a bad thing – what pop star hasn’t been prodded to make changes in sound, image, or both? – but she should hopefully now be able to take what she’s learned and make an album free from the tinkering that so obviously took place on Born To Die, in some cases ruining songs, and in others diluting them. “Diet Mtn. Dew” is the former; in its initial, perfectly fine form, it was a song that rivaled “Video Games” by striking the same general notes while sounding completely distinct. There was even a little bit of Lana the Stockholm Syndrome victim in the prechoruses (“Hit me and tell me you’re mine/I don’t know why but I like it”), and they were the best parts of the song. But the Born To Die version inexplicably absolves the song of these parts while quickening the tempo and adding an intrusive drumbeat reminiscent of some of Girl Talk’s more grating splices. And “Blue Jeans” is the latter, diluted, mostly untouched except for the omission of the sound byte that used to open the song – “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven, hollow be thy name.” It’s a shame, because that could have been one of the album’s major themes – that as vapid as money and love and attraction can be, they are seemingly the things that matter most in our world because they are real and immediate, and heavy pondering about other things is just a waste of time. It’s not something I would particularly agree with, but at least it’s some form of mission statement, which Born To Die desperately needs.

It will take some work for Lana Del Rey to overcome some of the stigma she has accrued, to be sure, but it won’t be impossible. Born To Die will mostly likely be popular with the masses despite what critics may say, and the money she brings in will give her some padding against any jeers. The great moments on this album – the gorgeous, interwoven vocal harmonies at the end of the otherwise directionless “Summertime Sadness,” the dreamy chorus of “Radio,” and the relative lyrical brilliance of “Million Dollar Man” (“You look like a million dollar man, so why is my heart broke?”) – show that her career is by no means hopeless. Additionally, other young artists will hopefully learn something from Lana’s very public case of the bends, mainly that if you’ve struck gold with a sound that people seem to like, give your audience a little fucking credit. Don’t show your hand before you’ve figured out how to play it. Modern audiences are fickle, but not heartless. Born To Die will allow Lana Del Rey to buy some diamonds for herself for once. And if we’re lucky, it will also help her realize the merit of some old phrase about glitter, gold, and the nature of worth.

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