If you haven’t heard anything about Lana Del Rey by now, chances are you probably live under a rock (or other places without an Internet connection or, you know, people). Her comfort in front of a camera lens has made her image almost as popular, if perhaps not more so, than her music, which raged onto the scene in the form of a pair of popular singles in 2011 after years of lurking beneath the surface.
“Video Games” and “Born to Die” gained both popular and critical acclaim for their distinctive sound, a kind of sultry sadness from the mouth of a woman who views herself as a kind of “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” It’s a fair comparison to make, with her faux black lashes, bee-stung lips, and sixties waves. Her outfits extend that sense of the vintage American bad girl. Lana wears jean cut-offs and jersey tees complemented by heart-shaped sunglasses and flashy chain jewelry. Sometimes flirty, sometimes sporty, she is essentially the girl we’d expect to see next door at a summer barbecue out on Long Island.
But for all her swagger, there’s something strangely empty about Lana Del Rey – or at least the image of Lana Del Rey that we’ve been given. Here she is, simultaneously fulfilling the roles of a supposedly long-lost American Pie type of femininity and sultry songstress, and yet so much of the time she looks miserable doing so. Whether that’s a result of her putting herself under pressure to conform to industry standards of success or a reflection of societal ideals for women, I’m not entirely sure. Do we enjoy building up women to a certain standard and then systematically destroying them?
Amy Klein, a New York-based writer and musician associated with acts such as Titus Andronicus and hilly eye, wrote an incredibly engaging pieceon her blog about the way in which we define femininity and as a result, our female performers. Her central theory is that Lana Del Rey – as a character, not an individual – exists solely through her relationship with her audience, her constant seeking of its approval and her reliance on being seen in order to be something.
It’s a theory that is reflected in the cinematic appeal of Del Rey’s full-length Born to Die, which presents a series of lyrical and musical images that translate easily to music videos. The whole experience places the listener in the position of a voyeur, dropping in to watch her life and relationships as they play out but unable to truly reach out and connect with the image presented.
That doesn’t mean that Del Rey’s audience, essentially her creators, aren’t out to destroy her as well. Her January performance on Saturday Night Live brought about almost universal backlash from fans and critics alike, with many people wondering aloud why on earth Del Rey had gotten so popular if she couldn’t even sing well in public? The response, though harsh, is well worth taking a look at in order to determine what really went on.
Del Rey – who, all things considered, is really a relatively new performer – was booked for one of the nation’s biggest audiences on the basis of three successful singles and the promise of a full-length album to follow. Her hype was a result of clever label advertisement and the luck of entering the scene at the exact right moment, during a period of time where her image would be embraced and exalted. And though she briefly toured Europe and played a couple of shows in New York and California beforehand, she walked onto the stage at SNL with hundreds of performances less experience than most of the artists booked by the show. Is it really fair to crucify her for a bit of stage fright?
Even the folks over at SNL themselves didn’t want to do that in a recent Del Rey parody by Kristen Wiig on the “Weekend Update” segment of the show. The bit raises some of the main complaints fielded against Del Rey and challenges their actual validity. Did Del Rey change her name as a marketing gimmick? Of course she did, and so have countless other artists. Did she come across as distant and kind of weird onstage? Sure. The question we should really be asking is why we feel that we have the responsibility to go out of our way to criticize her as a result. Lana Del Rey is a product, but she is also a human being. Why is it that we can’t seem to stomach that?
My answer to that question returns to the interwoven ideas of femininity and being looked at. Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the “male gaze” as a demonstration of power asymmetry – basically, the audience (in this case, consumer society) is placed into the perspective of a heterosexual male. This gaze invites women to conform to hegemonic norms established for the overwhelming benefit of straight men. In the case of Lana Del Rey, we see a woman fighting to establish herself as a performer but being forced to do so in a particular manner – a manner that is appealing at this moment in time to societal norms in music and fashion. For now, she is a blank slate with wide eyes and a pretty voice, waiting for us to write her future so she may live it.Born to Die, Lana Del Rey, SNL