Lana Del Rey Is Being Punished Because She’s Ambitious

Confession time: I actually kind of like Born to Die, the new Lana Del Rey album. Is this a safe space where I can admit that? Del Rey, as you surely know by now, is the pop flavor of the week that everyone loves to hate. She appeared on Saturday Night Live before her album was released, her supposedly homemade first video went viral last year, and bloggers are obsessed with her. The responses to her SNL appearance were vicious (even nice guy Brian Williams slammed her!), and she has been deluged with critical derision because … well, it’s not entirely clear. One depressing possibility is that she has been too open about her ambitions.

Del Rey is gorgeous and slim, and she appears to have artificially plumped up her lips. She bats her eyelashes and sings in a low, affected moan, taking on a sultry persona she has described as “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” She changed her name from the plebeian Lizzy Grant to the more glamorous moniker she uses now. Professional songwriters and managers helped shape her album. She sought out agents and played showcases.

In other words, Lana Del Rey set out to become a successful pop star, which she is well on the way to becoming. So why are so many critics disdainful of her because of a supposed lack of authenticity?
Here’s how New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones put it this week:

Why is pop music the only art form that still inspires such arrantly stupid discussion? The debates that surround authenticity have no relationship to popular music as it’s been practiced for more than a century. Artists write material, alone or with assistance, revise it, and then present a final work created with the help of professionals who are trained for specific and relevant production tasks. This makes popular music similar to film, television, visual art, books, dance, and related areas like food and fashion. And yet no movie review begins, “Meryl Streep, despite not being a Prime Minister, is reasonably convincing in ‘The Iron Lady.’ ”

Critic Ken Tucker said on NPR’s Fresh Air:

There’s something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before Born To Die was even released. It’s like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It’s like being punished for ambition.

It’s one thing for someone like Lady Gaga to be nakedly ambitious: The character she invented is brash and loud. But Del Rey’s schtick is girlish and demure, which doesn’t jibe with the kind of career-minded determination we can spot in press accounts of her ascent. It turns out she actually sought after fame, rather than just daintily happening across it like Zooey Deschanel stumbling over a bunny rabbit into a bed of daisies and cotton candy. And for some reason that’s just not ok.

Somehow I suspect Del Rey will survive all this. She performed well for David Letterman last night, and seemed to thoroughly charm him. Her album may not be a masterpiece, but it’s enjoyable, and it debuted as #1 on iTunes. Anyway, all press is good press, right? That’s really only true if you’ve got a thick skin, of course. Del Rey’s looks creamy and delicate, but if she’s truly ambitious she’ll have to make sure there’s some steel underneath.

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    • Jamie

      I think this “authenticity” business is a huge red herring. A lot of people just find her music mediocre and her message problematic (at best). I thought Pitchfork, the Times, and the Village Voice explained the problems with her album in a particularly fair and well argued way, and without being mean about it. But I will admit some less respectable folks have been guilty of attacking her in a less high minded way.

    • Stephanie Kornblum

      I think she is being “punished” because she can’t sing…

    • Kacie

      I like “Born to Die”, but that’s it really.

    • Nancy

      I think it’s because of her target audience. Listeners seem more accepting of singers who can’t sing or who recreate their images in the pop world. Lana tried to appeal to a more ‘indie’ audience, who I don’t think are as accepting of a fake girly-indie image; I think they resent her because they feel lied to.