Music

Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ rises above media madness

By Julian De Ocampo ’13
THE BRONCO BEAT

Lana Del Rey – “Born to Die”
9.0 out of 10

Photo by Jérôme Coppée via Flickr - Lana Del Rey croons to a packed crowd in Cologne, Germany’s Gebäude 9.
Photo by Jérôme Coppée via Flickr - Lana Del Rey croons to a packed crowd in Cologne, Germany’s Gebäude 9.

If you haven’t yet been initiated into the madness of the Lana Del Rey saga, do yourself a favor and refrain from searching her name on Google News.

The top of the page bears a quote from Del Rey: “I’m not naturally controversial.”

Then why all the fuss about Lana? The same page bears headlines like “Del Rey cancels tour after SNL performance,” “Lana Del Rey tired of Lana Del Rey” and – my favorite –“Del Rey admits her lips were digitally enhanced in ‘Video Games’ video.”

The New York City native has been dogged by controversy from the start – her breakout single “Video Games” topped many publications’ year-end lists in the midst of hundreds of blog posts doubting her authenticity as a musician.

Del Rey, seemingly perpetually aloof to the ramifications of the interviews she generously doles out to the press, continued to startle music journalists by comparing herself to Kurt Cobain, Britney Spears and – perhaps the most widely quoted label – a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.”

And when she flubbed her way through a Saturday Night Live performance before the release of her album, she just became too big of a problem to keep on the Internet.

Del Rey suddenly became a household name and gripped the music world by becoming an international tabloid staple (the latest headlines reveal rumors of a secret British boyfriend).

And, in the eye of the storm, the polarizing songstress dropped her debut album, “Born to Die” to the tune of 800,000 copies sold worldwide.

Not bad for someone accused by publications such as The A.V. Club and Tiny Mix Tapes of blatantly pandering to a niche indie audience, right?

These publications have misinterpreted Del Rey’s music as a 21st century assault on gender equality, a caricature of outdated gender norms, pandering to twenty-something college guys who Liz Phair exposed in “Exile in Guyville” almost 20 years ago.

But in reality, Del Rey – hip-hop percussion and glistening strings in tow – pulls one of the greatest spectacles in modern music: a 50 minute manifesto of role-playing.

Del Rey deftly jumps into her role as a gooey-eyed coquette, rarely breaking character save for a sly wink here and there.

Whether or not “Born to Die” will command your attention depends on the level of cynicism with which you approach the album.

Del Rey’s detractors accuse her, who had formerly released music under her given name Lizzy Grant, of being spurious; this is a lady singing about money and fame, they claim, sometimes even spinning wild yarns out of thin air.

But she embraces the critique as she does the falseness: it builds onto her persona. Del Rey understands music as a medium; she understands that the best music is often overblown and grandiose, viewing the world through a romantic lens.

And so Del Rey uses this exaggerated compositional style to her own benefit.

The song craft beneath the flashy lyrics is consistently strong, an eclectic melding of hip-hop rhythm sections, swirling strings and vintage vocals.

“Radio” free-falls with a dreamy quality before being ripped in half by contemporary rhythms that seem to exist simply to complement the gorgeously constructed hook.

On “Born to Die,” Del Rey is coy and smug, cooing about love and devotion in a relationship that is just so wrong the listener can’t help but wince, a reaction often construed in a negative light by listeners unwilling to accept the character study that Del Rey constructs.

Del Rey plays every naïve little girl who’s ever fallen in love with the bad boy, helplessly singing “Do you think we’ll be in love forever?” on “Diet Mountain Dew.”

And in that sense, it’s thought-provoking. Del Rey dons her damsel-in-distress shtick in such a convincing way that the listener is lured in by the makeup and high heels she sings about, but keeps listening for the rich insight her persona helps the listener attain.

And when she gives a wink and smile on “Video Games,” she comes close to hinting at the true viciousness and malice beneath the ultra-feminine posturing.

On “Off to the Races,” she quotes Vladimir Nabakov’s seminal novel “Lolita,” reminding the readers that beneath the innocent demeanor, she’s elusive and unknowable.

She is our Lolita, and we’re just playing the fool while missing the point, infatuated and often infuriated by her hollow charms.