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.”
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.