-By William Mullally-
Do yourself a favor when you have a few minutes: go to YouTube. Find Lana Del Rey’s video for Video Games. By the time you get there, it should have around 24 million views. Once you press play, you’ll spend the next five minutes or so hypnotized. The song might leave your head after that, but the images won’t, especially the images of the young woman herself.
The Hair. The lips. The coy, distracted glances at the camera. The meticulous effortlessness. She’s an enigma transported in time. She makes you feel like the starlets must have made your grandfather feel years ago.
But here’s the thing: Lana Del Rey is a fraud. Though, of course we already knew that.
Ok, don’t want that to come off like I’m trolling. To put it in a less incendiary way, she’s fantasy; she’s something dreamed up and fleshed out. Lana Del Rey is just as much a product of statistical analysis and shrewd scheming in a record company boardroom as is Justin Bieber. She was named by the label too—Interscope records decided that “Lana Del Rey” could evoke wistful, nostalgic feelings that “Lizzy Grant” (her birth name) never could. Her sound goes right along with that conceit, joined by a vintage-store glamorous image, which a press release of hers called “gangster Nancy Sinatra.”
Side note, if you haven’t found the video yet, here is the video:
Even her behavior has changed. If you go back and search for videos of her performing under the name Lizzy Grant you see an nervously excited girl who smiles intermittently, wears baggy old t-shirts and doesn’t quite know what to do with her hands while she’s singing. Watch any recent performance of “Lana”, and you see a girl who seems to have taken a few classes at the Jessica Rabbit school of provocative, detached submissiveness.
Some have declared her brilliant, but even as she’s gained a lot of positive press since Video Games first hit the web, she’s also been struck with a fair amount of backlash.
And it’s ultimately very much akin to the charges we level at the Biebz. Here’s what’s easy to throw at him: You aren’t a gangsta, dude. What do you think you’re doing wearing bling, bro. You’re basically 11 years old and singing about your “conquests,” holmes. Stop with this bullshit.
And what we throw at Lana is basically the same thing: You aren’t Marilyn. You aren’t Nancy. Those lips weren’t there a year ago. This isn’t who you really are. You aren’t authentic.
The easiest way to help pull Lana up from this hole she’s dug for herself is with two main arguments. One was made by pop culture philoso-blogger Nitsuh Abebe and one made by everyone else:
1) It’s theater. How can theater be inauthentic?
2) The songs are good. Who cares?
Let’s discuss the first argument, because it’s the most relevant, and it’s a great point, albeit a confusing one. It’s perplexing because although it is fair to say that people shouldn’t judge her under the same laws as an artist performing as his/herself, and so we shouldn’t get angry at her for being inauthentic because she was never attempting to be that in the first place, I can’t completely buy into that. That argument isn’t wholly satisfying. Because we do understand what theater is, and how it works, we just don’t seem to want to view every artist performing under the guise of “theater” or “fantasy” in the same light. Sometimes it’s okay, but sometimes we get frustrated. We’ve created a double standard. But that doesn’t mean it’s not something we can accept– It’s something we’ve accepted of pop stars for years. For one example, let’s look at Lady Gaga.
Ignoring the fact that Gaga’s music has gone from enjoyable and uninteresting to simply bad, there aren’t many out there that don’t respect what she does with her image. She’s astoundingly theatrical. We expect her to shock and surprise us. Gaga is a creation, a very well executed art-pop idea. Often times, Gaga is what we need, and we’ll forgive the fact that the next single will be bland and forgettable as long as its brought to us as the soundtrack to a gloriously over-the-top video in the style of Sergio Leone meets Korean Pop. (If anyone has Gaga’s email, please email her this idea ASAP.)
If I wrote an article about how GAGA is inauthentic, it would be a lot like writing about how shocked I was when I found out Transformers wasn’t based on a true story.
So let’s talk about why we’re mad at Lana Del Rey for doing essentially the same thing. But first, let’s talk about Midnight In Paris.
Midnight in Paris, the newest film by Woody Allen, is hands-down the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen this year. It’s also the only movie in recent memory recommended to me by both my 20 year old brother and my 84-year-old grandmother. That alone should tell you something.
In the film, (and spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it) a successful screenwriter turned struggling novelist is touring around Paris with his fiancé, yearning for the Paris of days past, the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris of Hemingway and Picasso. And one night, wandering the streets drunkenly, he actually finds himself there. He’s wandered back in time, and he revels in it. He gives his novel to Gertrude Stein. He falls for Picasso’s mistress. He dances with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He has coffee with Salvador Dali.
The film is pure, ridiculous, fantasy. But in the confines of the movie, we are completely allowed to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride. The reason this all works so well is that the film allows us to feel his pleasure. It feeds the audience every delicious cameo without any stupid self-aware jokes to sour it—no ironic commentary on how different these historical figures are from our perceptions of them. The film lets Hemingway be the Hemingway of our imagination. It lets ‘the Paris of the 20s’ be everything we imagine it to have been. And best of all, it doesn’t take it away from us in the end. It wasn’t a dream. It all really happened.
In contrast, the least enjoyable film I’ve seen in the past few years was Hot Tub Time Machine, primarily because it squanders every opportunity it gets. It takes 4 middle-aged best friends from the depressing present back to their heyday in the 1980s, but once we are there, never are we the audience allowed to vicariously enjoy this fantasy. At every turn, it refuses to let us believe in the story or the setting, and forces us to sit through one painful experience after the next. Lana, too, is a fantasy we just can’t seem to believe.
Let’s go back to Gaga for a second. Gaga is selling us theater. But it is a theater of meat dresses and sexual ambiguity. It isn’t a theater we would ever want to believe is anything but theater. It is most enjoyable, in fact, when we are very conscious of the fact that it is all pretend, all a show, all grand, absurd stuntwork that comments on everything and nothing.
With Lana Del Rey, there are no fake births on stage. There is no Poker Face. There is no alter-ego-of-her-alter-ego Yuyi the Mermaid. There is a beautiful girl, with lips too big to believe, who seems to have stumbled out of her own hot tub time machine after the clock struck midnight from New York’s 1960. The flowing hair, the retro clothes, the sultry voice and velvety melodies—the lyrics that are familiar the second you hear them—all of it, we know as we watch it, is too good to be true.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to believe. God, do we want to believe in you, Lana. We want you to be real. That’s why we’re all so mad at you. That’s why we cry out, why we refuse to judge you under the same standards as other performance artists. This is why every time you give a too-perfect answer in an interview (“I know a lot of things but I don’t know that” “Fantasy is my reality” “I just hope I can create the sonic world that I have in my mind”) we scrutinize you. This is why we find the videos of you back when you were plain ol’ Lizzy Grant and study your every mannerism only to say “Aha! She’s changed! It’s all a ruse!” because as much as we want to believe you, we know we can’t. We know you aren’t real, just like we know Gaga isn’t real. But we really, really wish you were. That’s the difference.