After the dust settled, someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Lana Del Rey’s marketing plan had been an accident—that “Video Games” had been meant to go first to Europe, then find success and be resold back home. But instead, her video crashed like Superman’s rocket into America’s blogger heartland, and its small-town inhabitants peered in as if they had found something powerful and alien.
It was marvelous, this something, but it had to be fake. So the Internet went to work debunking Lana Del Rey, and the story of Lizzy Grant, sometime pop star wannabe and the secret identity behind this strange visitor’s studied glamour, emerged. Along the way, her saga picked at some old, barely grown scabs, unraveling fans’ and blogs’ neuroses regarding cosmetic surgery, label duplicity, theatricality, the presentation of female pop singers, and the glib misogyny of online “bros.”
“Video Games” was the perfect lightning rod, its air of mystery and game-playing aloofness of a piece with its singer’s well-constructed identity. It’s partly about being what someone else wants you to be, and a good chunk of the people blogging and commenting on it seemingly wanted to be—like so many others on the Internet—the least fooled, the people who see though hype and backlash alike and find the truth. The record gave them the opportunity, whatever their opinion. Lana Del Rey was a memetic bubble like Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? Very well, then. “Video Games” was anti-feminist? If you say so. The singer is unhappy? Of course. A beautiful love song? It might as well be.
This fear of being fooled is hardly a new phenomenon, but it’s one of many things that Web discourse amplifies and accelerates. The same networks that let crowds celebrate and create around what they love also empower them to strip new culture down, probe it for weaknesses, and demand to know everything about it. People like me, who grew up in a culture of more limited information, are prone to see this as the passing of pop’s “mystique,” but stars with style and charisma will always find ways to perform it, and the mess and bombast of Twitter now helps define—not demolish—pop cool. No, the Lana Del Rey imbroglio points at something potentially worse: an impatience with performance and a lack of trust in self-reinvention.
Del Rey, after all, isn’t the first to take more than one shot at finding a pop persona that worked. Imagine a 1969 Internet reacting to David Bowie’s breakthrough with “Space Oddity”—a single as mannered, languid, and beguiling as “Video Games,” and a performer as in love with artifice and with plenty of past to dig up. Would his career have benefited from blogs tearing apart his inconsistency and torrents bundling his hit with “The Laughing Gnome”?
Self-reinvention and persona play are the glue of pop and the ghosts that haunt and anger social media. And those concepts are also what Del Rey’s single is all about. For me—and there are kinder, just as convincing interpretations—the singer in “Video Games” is a solipsist, casting herself as a master manipulator and her lazy, drifty relationship as a great love. So I hear a record about fakery and self-projection, which is more timely than how “authentic” the woman who made it is.
The song’s passivity and pretense come through in the music, too. Listened to once, “Video Games” is a catchy lullaby, but the production and performance is built around a host of small artifices, all backing up the big one. The backing swells when it’s called onto but mostly rests on woozy splices and cuts, synth washes, and chintzy plucking. Del Rey hits us with a studied, torchy voice that’s dropped for the record’s best, creepiest hook, slipping into faux-naïf Marilyn style when asking, “Is that true?” In other words, “Video Games” sounds classicist at first, “retro” in a vague way. But the closer it gets, the more obvious its theatrics become, even before you take Del Rey’s image-building into account. It’s uncanny valley pop about an uncanny valley love affair—almost convincing, but just wrong enough to chill and fascinate.