Lana del Rey seemingly came out of nowhere, emerging from the depths of YouTube and surfacing in Facebook statuses across the web. For a period of about two weeks in the doldrums of January, the rogue wave that was (and maybe still is) Lana del Rey received an unexpected amount of attention. Marked by several unusual music videos and a disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live, Lana del Rey, also known as Lizzy Grant, raced to the forefront of new musical artists of 2012. My question is why her? And my answer has nothing to do with her songwriting, which is slightly above mediocre. More than anything, Lana del Rey’s success is due to the way she emerged as an artist—with a mix of the original and the typical.
The first of her music videos that I saw was the professionally made video for her song “Born to Die.” When I first saw it, I was intrigued by the music but subsequently disappointed by the lack of an imaginative spark in her lyrics. Ultimately, despite the high production value of the video (Tigers? Two of them? In a chapel?), the song proves somewhat lackluster, though del Rey’s old fashioned Nancy Sinatra-esque voice remains intriguing. After watching “Born to Die,” I was curious as to what other music videos she had. I came across the videos for “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” both seemingly homemade, moving collages of vintage home movies intercut with del Rey singing into a webcam—Urban Outfitters catalogues come to life. These videos make up the original aspect of her rise to fame—a famous musical artist getting her start from gritty homemade YouTube videos is uncommon, to say the least, but an interesting marketing tool. The fact that these videos weren’t taken down when del Rey ascended from obscurity indicates to me that they were meticulously put there by the people managing her career, the people who knew and had planned that she was going to be big. The self-made nature of these videos presents a human, touchable quality to a famous artist, and listeners appreciate that and find it refreshing.
On the other hand, the typical aspect of del Rey’s rise to fame is the fact that she leads with her sexuality, much like many other popular female singers. Her music, her voice itself, her appearance, just her presence is dripping with innocent-but-not innuendo. Del Rey’s sultry appearance is reminiscent of the coy young starlets of the 1940s, and yet she exudes a more aggressive modern sexuality all her own. All of her songs are love songs, which is a separate issue that I find limiting and unoriginal, but more than that, the scenarios she sets up with her lyrics put her in a subservient role to a man that she almost always indicates is bad for her in some way. For instance, in her song “You Can Be the Boss,” she sings, “I love you but I don’t know why / you can be the boss daddy / you can be the boss.” In “Diet Mtn Dew,” she spouts the refrain “You’re no good for me / baby you’re no good for me / you’re no good for me / but baby I want you, I want you.” Lana del Rey is just the most recent in a long line of female celebrities who use sex appeal as their headlining characteristic. Del Rey’s overt sexuality serves to overshadow, perhaps even compensate for the mediocrity of her songwriting. To this end, her singer and her songwriter are two separate entities, and her songwriter is subservient to her singer, much in the way that her lyrics reveal her own subservience to her detrimental male companions. Lana del Rey has established herself (or more likely, been established by her marketing team) as a conventional sex bomb. In the battle of singer and songwriter, I’ll be interested to see if her songwriter ever prevails.