A couple of days ago the Judge Dredd of pop music Sasha Frere-Jones fielded reader questions as part of a live chat about the authenticity of Lana Del Rey, the ostensible trailer park chanteuse who’s actually (gasp!) a vague composite of aggressive marketing and outsourced songwriting. I was impressed with the intelligence Frere-Jones brought to bear on the subject (probably more intelligence than it deserves), and I enjoy reading his column in every New Yorker I can steal, but I took issue with a particular strain of bewilderment that kept popping up in the Q&A:
“Artists promise us nothing specific. Songs can be terrible or badly conceived or embarrassing but I am still not sure what ‘inauthentic’ ever means. It feels like a Sasquatch nobody ever finds. It’s also possibly euphemistic and fancy way of saying ‘I don’t like this,’ which is always a valid response.”
Frere-Jones seems willfully puzzled for the sake of aesthetic principle. It’s common among critics to forget how people without graduate degrees (a condition for which I’m bitterly nostalgic) approach media. Now that everyone loves Rick Ross and couldn’t possibly care whether anyone’s art is grounded in first hand experience the furor over LDR’s image might seem regressive. But Americans are good at this. Our one inarguable talent is consuming media. I don’t find it unsophisticated for listeners to grasp at the intent and worldview of artists who, at least formally, are communicating with them.
Frere-Jones draws an analogy to acting, noting that no one gives Meryl Streep a hard time for not actually being a prime minister, but this strikes me as a distortion. It might depend on whether you view pop musicians as essentially interpreters (or actors) or as generative, creative artists. Very few critics will agonize over what Rostropovich (genius that he was) thought or intended in recording a symphony but they will sure as hell want to know what was in Shostakovich’s dome when he wrote it. You might think of Lana, perfectly coiffed with a suite of on-call producers and songwriters, as just the interpreter of eminently available song structures and melodies but then you’d have to concede the same of Bob Dylan, to a lesser extent.
I don’t miss the indie pissing contests of the 90s or hip hop message board flamewars, but the author function doesn’t mean forgetting about the author and cavorting in a clear stream of pure sound. It means acknowledging the tendency to cobble together biographical detritus, images, and postures into a putative author who looms over the work and acknowledging that that tendency is at work when we talk about art. If we could fold LDR’s “inauthenticity” into an authorial figure that actually enriches our feeling for the music, then we would have something and could get off the internet for a while. But that would require an art equal to our patchwork mythos.
The reason we’re having this conversation at all is a) LDR is a attractive woman whose attractiveness is somehow a feature or theme in her music, with all the attendant gender complexities I have no authority to write about, and b) she fucked up. Here’s how:
1. Born to Die is a shit album guys. The fact that “Video Games” exists shines a harsh light on the other songs here, because the persona LDR cultivates in its ebb and flow of irony and sincerity somehow becomes gaudy and embarrassing on the rest of the album. When she sings “Heaven is a place on earth where you/ tell me all the things you want to do” I get that it’s withering sarcasm but can’t help but take pleasure in how beautiful it would be for someone to actually mean this. Born to Die is presented as more than a big, dumb, overwrought pop album, but the stabs at lyrical weight are weak everywhere but on “Video Games.” If you’re making an Important Statement with your music, your lyrics have to be either really good or just artless enough to be perfectly ignorable. But aggressively dumb and totally humorless is not a winning combo. Bottom line, what Born to Die is missing is pleasure, “the liquid tool” in the words of Brigit Kelly, which animates everything else. If we enjoyed this album, we wouldn’t have to entertain ourselves with this endless game of Guess Who?
2. The marketeers got overzealous and showed their hands (not necessarily her fault). If you’re trying to engineer a pop phenomenon you either hide that artifice in plain sight or play it straight. No one thinks Lady Gaga is actually whatever the hell she plays on TV, but there are pictures of her in pre-breakthrough years being Lady Gaga. With LDR we’re talking about three people: the theoretical “real” Lizzy Grant, Lizzy Grant A.K.A. Lana Del Rey, and Lana Del Rey. The sleight is anything but seamless. Riding the hype lightning, LDR’s ad copy pushed too hard, protested too much. You’re not supposed to say you’re a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” The critics will say that about you for free! Elvis never called himself a sex bomb he just exploded in a horrifyingly sexy shower of sweat and pomade. By the time we saw the timid girl on SNL, the ad men had expertly taught us how to disassemble their product.