Lana Del Rey: A beguiling beauty who's more than a one-hit wonder
Since the singer's Video Games became a YouTube hit, her backstory has been the target of endless sniping. Just enjoy the mesmerising music, says Fiona Sturges
You have to feel for Lana Del Rey. With her debut album poised for release at the end of the month and with a Q Award and a Brit nomination in the bag, the 25-year-old New Yorker should be basking in her final weeks of anonymity. In the natural order of things, she would have her whole career ahead of her. Instead, after six months of ceaseless scrutiny and buzz, Del Rey already feels like the finished article and as such, in the increasingly accelerated world of pop, finds herself in danger of burning out before she's even begun.
Since her beguiling breakout single, "Video Games", swept across the internet late last summer, followed more recently by the almost but not quite as mesmerising "Born to Die", Del Rey has endured levels of discussion and dissection that any other artist might expect after shifting several million albums, unmasking themselves as a Nazi fetishist and being found to have a ton of cocaine in their garage.
Of course, Del Rey – whose real name is Elizabeth Grant – has done none of these things. But despite this, she has seen her stock surge, then crash, then surge again as internet battles have raged over everything from her musical prowess and physical attributes to her education and parents' bank balance. You would hope, for the sake of her sanity, that Del Rey would have taken a hammer to her laptop rather than wade through all the online carping. But should she have followed the never-ending debate regarding her artistic worth, she might have felt more like a presidential candidate eyeing the popularity ratings than a young woman starting out in her musical career. All this on the strength of one very popular YouTube video.
So what of the songs? Happily, so far they have been magnificent. First, there was "Video Games", which, with its funereal melody and sadly passive lyrics, captured countless imaginations across social-networking sites and led to an alleged nine million hits on YouTube. The accompanying video, comprising home movie clips, Sixties paparazzi footage and grainy excerpts of old skateboarding flicks, had Del Rey looking like a modern-day Nico, fascinating but unknowable in her glassy-eyed allure. Since its release, "Video Games" has birthed endless covers and remixes by the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club and Kasabian, and doesn't seem to have lost its potency despite becoming the wall-to-wall soundtrack of every club, coffee house and clothes shop in the land. Even Del Rey claims to remain under its spell. "I get very sad when I play that song," she told one interviewer. "I still cry sometimes when I sing it."
Then last month came "Born to Die", the title track of her forthcoming album and another smoke-filled epic about doomed love that, while inevitably lacking the wow factor of its predecessor, had a strange beauty that put it a pretty close second. Del Rey herself has described what she does as "Hollywood sadcore", which is as apt a description as any, though less convincing is her claim to be "the gangster Nancy Sinatra", a record company sound bite if ever you heard one. In normal terms, such an early display of talent would make Del Rey seem merely a promising artist. But, clearly, there is nothing normal about her rise to fame.
Of course, Del Rey's allure is about considerably more than her songs. She is a woman and a very beautiful one at that. This sadly leaves her more open to jibes and speculation as to her level of talent than her male counterparts. As well as suffering a very public mauling at the hands of curmudgeonly commentators and internet trolls, Del Rey had become a study not in musical prowess but in exactly how our pop stars are packaged and propagated by their record industry paymasters.
Which brings us to the question of her authenticity. One of the principal accusations levelled at Del Rey is that, far from being the mysterious and preternaturally talented DIY songwriter who seems to have come out of nowhere, as early reports suggested, she was in fact plucked from obscurity by Interscope Records and is the product of a high-level pow-wow between stylists, songwriters and producers.
The real story seems to be that, like Adele, Florence and Duffy before her, Del Rey has hired the services of songwriters Eg White and Guy Chambers to help craft the near-perfect example of dislocated pop that is "Video Games". It has also transpired that the poverty-stricken trailer-park childhood alluded to in an early press biography bears no relation to her seemingly comfortable private-school educated upbringing as the daughter of an estate agent and an internet mogul in the well-to-do town of Lake Placid. And, far from coming from nowhere, over the past four years Del Rey has actually been touting her musical wares as plain old Lizzie Grant. Two years ago she made an album with the mega-producer David Kahne, which for reasons undisclosed was later shelved.
While it appears that, in her new guise, there have been some ill-advised embellishments to Del Rey's back story, you have to ask yourself: does any of this really matter? Artifice is at the heart of pop music and a person's origins, whether they are a salt-of-the-earth banjo-strumming hobo or a pneumatic, fame-hungry, auto-tuned harpy, should matter not a jot if the music is up to snuff. Few people would accuse Kylie Minogue of being an accomplished musician or songwriter and yet her single "Can't Get You Out of My Head" remains one of the greatest pop songs of recent times. So what if Del Rey doesn't write her own songs? Neither did Elvis.
So far, Del Rey's gigs have been few and far between, which is certainly one way of maintaining the mystique. A live show in London last November was received warmly, if not ecstatically, by reviewers, while a sensual performance of "Video Games" on Later with... Jools Holland nearly caused Twitter to burst into flames. Just last week, Del Rey made her US television debut on Saturday Night Live, which even she remarked was an odd choice given the mournful nature of her music. Her performance was rushed and uneven and was subsequently panned by the likes of Juliette Lewis and Perez Hilton via Twitter in startling display of mean-spiritedness.
Del Rey's future is currently uncertain and only her album will reveal what she is truly capable of. But that, for the time being, is being kept under lock and key. In this instance, one can understand her record company's reluctance to distribute it too soon. Premature leaks would send bloggers into overdrive.
Last week, in an excruciating attempt to appear hip, David Cameron declared a fondness for Del Rey, which is enough to kill any career stone dead. Born to Die is going to have to be a masterpiece to overcome all the obstacles thrown in its path in recent months. But on the strength of Del Rey's output so far, I'm willing to bet she's up to the job.
'Born to Die' is released on 30 January
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