It’s All For You: A Few Thoughts On The Lana Del Rey Saturday Night Live Debacle


You might have heard that the much-discussed singer Lana Del Rey had her U.S. television debut this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, and that the hive mind of public opinion declared that her performances, of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” did not go well. The satirical indie-chronicle Hipster Runoff’s declaration that she “effing TANK[ED]” was echoed by even the most opinion-averse media outlets, with even the publicist-friendly Us wondering if she “bomb[ed].”

While the two performances were low-energy and marked by Del Rey attempting to rein in her voice and seeming not entirely sure of what to do with her corporeal self more than anything else, they didn’t seem that much different than her first TV appearance when she performed “Games” on the UK television show Later With Jools Holland back in October. Still, even some who were on the Lana Del Train in the autumn seemed to be taken aback by Saturday’s display, resulting in a Great Big Pile On Lana that seemed more intense and widespread than the ones that have occurred any other time her name was mentioned since “Video Games”‘s YouTube debut. What happened?

The narrative of “deservedness” and “paying dues” still persists in corners outside the music blogosphere, even (especially?) when it comes to bookings on shows like Saturday Night Live. Look no further than the missive sent by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams to Gawker Media overlord (and former boss of mine) Nick Denton, which blasted Lana’s road to Studio 8H thusly: “Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night—booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters.”

Never mind that this rant ignores her lengthy history in the music-industry salt mines (operating under her given name), or that it uses the word “hipster” in the worst catch-all way (i.e. “Brooklyn-dwelling person who makes me so mad, ooh”). Williams, despite being known for being the only network-news anchor with a music blog, was legitimately annoyed about Del Rey’s Interscope-assisted shortcut to stardom. (To be honest, on first read I actually thought Williams’s note was some weird sort of viral promotion for the clips’ Hulu presence (trollgaze!); it apparently wasn’t.) And he wasn’t the only one; many of the online reactions I saw were similarly indignant, even though she’s clearly being marketed as a pop singer, and not someone with many rock pretensions at all. Why didn’t they get this irritated about Jessie J, who had a similar pre-stardom SNL appearance last year? Well…

Low-energy songs like “Video Games” need a super-compelling performer in order for them to translate into a live-on-TV setting, and Lana Del Rey’s “is it live or is she just really nervous?” presence is more off-putting than anything else. While not personally a fan of “Video Games,” I understand its appeal somewhat; it has enough “meaning” in some peoples’ minds to inspire tattoos and spark debates about feminism and whether or not its lyrics are in fact a canny self-critique of how much women are willing to debase themselves in order to unlock the achievement of finding love, or at least the illusion of it. (It’s also very annoyingly catchy, thanks to its vocal line’s neverending sing-songiness; you would not believe how many times I tried getting it out of my head this weekend after a Twitter-feed scan.) But to a cold audience, its over-the-top vague “retro” schtick and lack of progression might come off as alienating or at the very least weird, and having the charisma void that is Del Rey at the center only highlights the song’s lack of momentum.

Sadly, this probably means that the wretched hip-pop novelty act Karmin, playing the February 11 show, will get less flak from those viewers who don’t know them yet. Although I’m very curious to see how Bon Iver, whose recent songs are similarly furtive but whose frontman has more of an air of “rock realness” as well as a lengthier track record in the public eye, goes over with the LDR detractors when SNL returns on February 4, because…

Sexism. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. A few questions for the room: When was the last time you heard an upstart male star denigrated as “manufactured”? Or had people rag on one’s performance then explain away said complaints by saying “at least I’d fuck him” or some variation thereof? And so on. Again, having to even bring this up annoys the crap out of me, because arguing about these particular extramusical ideas surrounding a particular artist’s persona means that the music’s very real shortcomings get ignored, or at least danced around in the interest of fairness to greater societal conditions.

Saturday Night Live‘s sound setup does nobody any favors. Please see Chris Weingarten in 2009, when the Internet was similarly bitching about a TV On The Radio performance, for more on that. Or, you know, watch a clip of any other performer who’s tried to sound decent outside of the Digital Shorts’ more-controlled environment.

The ultimate trollgaze experiment? Last week, before the SNL performance, a few interviews with Del Rey popped up and they seemed to be heralding a backlash to the backlash (feel free to square that equation as many times as you see fit); she was smiling, sardonic, charming. The SNL appearance, which she declared herself more than deserving of in one of those chats, wiped away much of that goodwill among the general populace. It almost seemed like Saturday’s skit “You Can Do Anything,” in which Internet-famous types revealed themselves to be utterly inept at their declared specialties and subsequently got patted on the back for that fact, was meant to be a preface to what would transpire later on that evening.

Given that there are two weeks before Born To Die comes out officially and the album has yet to leak in full, I fully expect the love-hate-love cycle to repeat itself at least twice between now and January 31. I just hope she gets some time off between now and then to recuperate from being the pop-music equivalent of an unlucky character in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”