Lana Del Rey Hides in Plain Sight

This is my confession

In James Wolcott's rip-roaring 1970s memoir Lucking Out (Doubleday), the Vanity Fair columnist and former Voice music writer notes, a bit acidly, how "the horniness of men [drove] news acreage" 30 years back. (He was referring specifically to the high percentage of eager male rock critics at CBGB for a show by the Runaways, the Kim Fowley–spawned jail-bait act that launched the careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford.) He appended "at least then" to his observation, although the present day surely has the same affliction—and this time it's led as much by the people doing the reading as well as the writing.

Witness the furor inspired by any mention of the self-proclaimed "gangster Nancy Sinatra" Lana Del Rey, who has lit up comment sections since her first single, "Video Games," debuted online. "Video Games" is a somber, furtively overproduced lament directed toward a lover who seems just interested enough to keep the narrator's infatuation levels high; her voice for most of the song is low, though when she curls her notes upward while inquiring "I heard that you like the bad girls/ Honey, is that true?" she reveals a raspy higher register, one that sounds like an already-scratched slab of vinyl.

Depending on the tastes and relative attention spans of the listener, "Video Games" was either the single of the year or a bit long and soporific (and in need of a bridge; why are so many of this year's buzz bands averse to spicing up their songs with bridges?). What was curious was that so little of the arguments seemed to be about the quality of her music, and instead focused on Del Rey's melted-cover-girl looks (false eyelashes, extremely pouty lips, a sartorial aesthetic that brings to mind both Twin Peaks and breathless trend pieces on the miniskirt) or her "authenticity." (The rumors that she was signed to the Universal Music Group subsidiary Interscope Records swirled from day one and turned out to be true.) The blog Hipster Runoff, a scare-quote-filled satirical look at "indie" culture that often mirrors anarchic anonymous comment sections a bit too eerily, perhaps sums up the conflicts surrounding her in its Del Rey biography, which reads in its entirety: "Lana Del Rey is a hot female indie singer."

Here, kitty: Lana Del Rey
Nicole Nodland
Here, kitty: Lana Del Rey

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Last week, Del Rey released a new single, the title track from her forthcoming album Born To Die (Interscope). It, too, is lengthy and loping, with lyrics that straddle the line between love songs and wanting-to-be-loved songs. (This time out, she tells the man the song is directed at, "You like your girls insane.") It was also accompanied by a video in which Del Rey, seemingly topless and staring into the camera, embraces a tattooed man. The clip was actually constructed from a 10-second loop of footage repeated and rewound; the overall effect resembled that of an endlessly looping animated gif. Not a lot, to be sure, but it was, of course, more than enough to get the comment sections a-rolling ("She's like the Avril Lavigne of indie, so phony. Why are people making her relevant?" asked one commenter on the indie-leaning blog Stereogum) and the ire toward her flaring up just in time for a show at the Bowery Ballroom on Monday night. (The show took place after this issue of the Voice went to press.)

Farther uptown on Friday night, Tori Amos, the flame-haired singer who burst into the Buzz Bin 19 years ago with the piano-heavy album of confessionals Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), performed a string-quartet-aided show at the Beacon Theatre. Draped in seafoam green and straddling a bench so she could do double duty on a grand piano and a synthesizer, she cut quite the profile, tearing through her back catalog as the audience beamed adulation toward the stage.

Amos's show was pretty spellbinding, and the strings backing her—the Apollon Musagète Quartet, from Poland—added snap and verve to her music in a way that only intensified the atmosphere. The stunning "Cruel" was accompanied by the quartet attacking their instruments in breathtakingly dissonant fashion, with Amos singing "Celebrate your top 10 in the charts of pain" while her legs were splayed and her arms raised.

After the banter-light, ovation-heavy show ended, I wondered where Lana Del Rey might be in 19 years, or even 19 months. Like Del Rey, Amos's debut-album persona was overlaid onto the popular perception of her personality, with people analyzing lyrics like they were tea leaves. Blame the fact that both artists can be reduced to the term "singer-songwriter"—that close link between the production and performance of a song implies confession, whether the artist at work is bent over a piano or a MacBook.

And like Amos, Del Rey also had an abortive stint under a different pop persona before becoming a priority artist for her big-time record label. Amos fronted the synth-metal act Y Kant Tori Read during the '80s, while Del Rey gigged around New York (and put out a couple of recordings) under her given name, Lizzy Grant, before her makeover. During Del Rey's earliest days under the blogosphere's microscope, her past was scrutinized, with new details emerging daily.

But where Earthquakes, with its simple lead single "Silent All These Years" and cover image of the overall-clad Amos attempting to bust out of a box, was about reclaiming an image in favor of "reality," Del Rey's output seems to be sublimating any and all aspects of her self that might be seen as confessional, in favor of putting forth even more artifice. Dig deeper, and it's hard not to wonder if both directions are similar reactions against both the singers' earliest days and the dominant trends of culture. What makes Del Rey's evolution a bit trickier is the increasing encroachment of the always-on online world, which requires at least some level of candor if only because artifice can be an exhausting prospect when always present. What would the blogosphere have made of Tori Amos if the Y Kant-to-Little Earthquakes trajectory had happened now? Perhaps the reaction to Del Rey is a hint, and it's enough to make one wonder if any artist wishing to shed their past can actually do so.

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For you, for you, it's all for youYou really don't like her / Is that True?Maybe just jealous / I don't get it....

KC Johnstone
KC Johnstone

By "makeover" you mean nose job and lip injections, right? Come on, let's get explicit!


For me the issue with her is that she fits the barbie doll/submissive girl bill so perfectly, that she is in many ways a setback for female musicians. She fits mainstream values like a glove, yet from day 1 she has been embraced by the so-called "indie" world as a paradigm of indie-ness...(hello Pitchfork)

I like her song a lot, video games that is, but I find it off-putting how her image is sold. This reminds me of something Richard Russell of XL said of Adele (of all people), that it was a moment where women could be mainstream but didn't have to be so sexualized. Well, let's reverse that then. The message behind her product for me is, well "if it doesn't work at first, get a nose job, lip fillers and pout. People will like you."

Beauty and sexiness hits hard. It's hard to look away. She reminds me of a grown-up version of Jean Benet (if that was her name), the little girl who was the beauty pageant queen before she died and looked like she'd learned to pout for the camera perfectly. She pleased people.

That makes me sad.

It makes me sad to realize that St Vincent, or Cat Power, or Julianna Barwick, will never, never get this much attention because they haven't been focusing on where the camera is located to frame their sexuality as product.


I like her and that's all that matters isn't it? If you like a certain singer or actor that's all that matters really. I happen to like Lana Del Rey's music and her lyrics so I will listen and support her career. I don't get this hate or dislike because she changed from Lizzie Grant to Lana. If something doesn't work for you, you change or you just end up beating a dead horse. Look at Madonna or Lady GaGa, even Aerosmith. They all changed their style so not to be stagnant.

Music like art is subjective. If you like something support it. If not, ignore it. Just like I ignore BonJovi.


I like the three Lana Del Rey songs I've heard. I also like that over the past two days I've watched both The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the first time ever and got really happy when I discovered that Del Rey and a young Katharine Moss resemble eachother and that I loved them both.

Shaun McK
Shaun McK

I see the similarities between Tori Amos and Lana Del Rey's careers. However, Amos was openly candid with the press and her fans about how her first incarnation didn't work. Del Rey, to my knowledge, tried to hide hers. Maybe the question should be whether or not the blogosphere would have been less hard on her had she just come clean? Then she could have made it less about identity and more about her music... which is what Amos did.


That's what I'm pointing out, though. Transparency was sort of forced on Del Rey because of the "nothing ever goes away" nature of the Internet, whereas with Amos, it was a different time, and digging up the Y Kant Tori Read era would have taken a lot more work.

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