Somewhere between Madonna and Britney and Lady Gaga, female musicians became “personas”. No longer content to simply make real, relatable music, they had to be an image. Something beyond a star. A package deal.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The aforementioned pop stars and their ilk became icons during their heydays (Gaga is arguably still having hers, but that’s besides the point) whom many, for better or worse, looked up to and imitated. Blondie and Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj; all constructed alternate personalities that were unapologetically above themselves. They weren’t exactly “real”, but they never pretended to be.
Enter Lana Del Rey, formerly Lizzie Grant, a roller-curled redhead with collagen lips and a wannabe “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” voice (her words) that is taking the Urban Outfitters shopping, Tumblr-using, mainstream side of indie by storm. Her talent is debatable—she can sing, yes, but she’s no Sinatra. Or Winehouse. Hell, she barely touches Katy Perry’s over-produced vocals. Yet she has millions of YouTube views and managed to score several magazine spreads and covers, including Interview, Complex, and Billboard, and a much-criticized SNL performance.
How? It’s simple: Lana is a product, precisely manufactured by her own ambition and wiles and a knowledge of what a certain hipster demographic will eat up like candy. And she sells that product very, very well.
To backtrack, the former Lizzie Grant of Lake Placid, New York, was once a musically inclined student at Fordham University, where in her senior year she managed to land a record deal with 5 Points label, ambitiously produced by David Kahne (former clients include everyone from Tony Bennett to Sublime to Regina Spektor). He seemed to like her—in a Spin magazine article he said then-Grant was “motivated and self-directed” and “went against the grain of chart pop, which is about getting to the club on Friday night”—and together they released her Kill Kill EP. It got tepid reviews, her full album was shelved, and Del Rey fell off the radar. She continued to write music and build her “persona”, a vaguely sixties aesthetic married with a subtle sexuality, partial sex kitten, partial (unconvincing) girlish coyness. This eventually scored her a meeting with Interscope, where she impressed the executives enough to sign a worldwide deal. Executive Larry Jackson was emphatically impressed with her ambition, and asserts her crafted image—the lips, the hair, the “oh, poor beguiling me” lyrics—has nothing to do with the record label. “The only Svengali in this thing is Lana,” he told Spin.
Now, her first single, “Video Games”, is one of the most downloaded tracks on the Web, and Del Rey one of the most polarizing people in the blogosphere. Many don’t know what to make of her; while her singing itself lacks maturity, she’s become radio-friendly and popular among the mainstream indie set (think fans of Garden State). She’s pretty and just hipster enough to draw the Zooey Deschanel-fan crowd but not alienate people, yet once her background was revealed many began deriding her for being “fake” and a product of manipulative record execs. They either love her or hate her. There’s no middle ground.
The problem is not that Lizzie became Lana, or that Lana gives off a plastic sheen. The problem is she refuses to acknowledge that this persona is just that: crafted. A result of studying pop idols and honing mannerisms to become artificially appealing. An uncovered video interview with Index magazine in 2008, when she was still trailer park Lizzie, shows the beginnings of the Lana image: an Amy Winehouse bouffant and headband, false eyelashes, Marylin Monroe bottle-blonde hair and affected lilt to her voice. Her youth betrays her; she’s an actress, one playing an elaborately constructed and never-ending role.
That is why she’s unrelatable and easily demonized. Other artists like Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga have over-the-top projected images, but they acknowledge them as such. Though Gaga is never without her bizarre costumes and nor Minaj her candy-colored wigs, they are willing to talk about those artifices in interviews, recognizing how their alternate personalities developed and how they augment their music. It’s a form of escapism that many can relate to. Yet Lana constantly publicly denies that she’s crafted anything, which is tiresome and invites derision.
So why do we care about this silly girl playing perpetual dress up? Mostly, she’s gossip. But beyond that, Lana sends a message that bodily manipulation in necessary in order to be successful as a female artist. Her image is as important as her music because without it, she’d still be a struggling artist in a New Jersey trailer. And while some may applaud her ability to morph into a success story, it ultimately sends the wrong message to girls: that success can be bought for the small price of one’s personality and a willingness to appeal to the opposite sex. She also sends out a confusing double standard—though soft-spoken and seemingly a “good girl”, magazines sexualize her. Not that there’s anything wrong with a provocative magazine spread, but when Del Rey’s package cries, “Be someone you’re not and you’ll make it big”, those images send the same message as a struggling actress posing for Playboy to further her career.
Not to mention what this means for music. Image aside, Lana Del Rey is not particularly talented. If she was, she’d still be Lizzie Grant. Her voice is decent but it lacks control and has a touch too much artifice (see a pattern here?); she’d be better off working her own vocals than trying to channel someone she’s not. What made her Internet famous (and thus, eventually, real life famous) was her video for “Video Games”. Had the music remained faceless, she might not have had such success. The Internet is a tremendous platform for bringing notoriety to new talent, but only if it’s deserved. Would a quartet of average girls from Brooklyn with one Facebook photo and Del Rey’s vocals have had the same success? Probably not.
Lana Del Rey is a product, of herself, of the music industry, and of the Internet age. Whether this becomes the new norm we can only suppose (though one hopes not), but one thing is certain: product placement has never been quite so tangible.
Bonus: Here is Lana as a Fordham student, performing at an open mic. Tell me she didn’t get plastic surgery. Please.