I’d like to start yet another discussion of Lana Del Rey’s debut, Born To Die, with a quotation from model Bradley Soileau, who plays her lover in the video for the title track. When asked if Del Rey’s lips were real, Soileau responded: “People obsess about the wrong things. They should be obsessed with her voice and her music because it’s fucking amazing. But everyone is gonna wanna hate and say whatever it is they wanna say.” Her music is definitely not “fucking amazing,” but he has a point. Everyone and Brian Williams feels compelled to tweet a dead horse to the point where the conversation isn’t even about Del Rey or her music anymore. It’s about who can come up with the most clever teardown of her SNL performance or pithy summation of her “authenticity.”
Born To Die is where the conversation surrounding the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant should have begun, and, hopefully, where it will end. Del Rey has an impressive range, Kid Cudi’s producer, and bee-stung lips, but her debut is mediocre at best. At worst, it’s as uninspired and repetitive as her internet commentators. Listening to Born To Die is like watching a movie billed as a comedy and discovering that the only funny scenes are in the previews; in this case, the high-definition videos of Del Rey performing a pretty good song. “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” inextricably link Del Rey’s flaxen locks with starry-eyed classical instruments, providing the aural and visual irresistibility of a good montage.
But if montages are used more than once, they become tedious, and Born To Die is all montage. There’s always a string intro (“Dark Paradise”, which breaks down with the same backbeat as Kanye West’s “Who Will Survive in America?”), trip-hop samples (“Diet Mountain Dew”), and Del Rey’s voice surging like lava from the depths (“Million Dollar Man”). Ironically, this totalitarian formula can be inconsistent. On “National Anthem”, for example, an orchestra sounds out of place alongside a mechanized beat, which in turn never quite syncs up with Del Rey’s mussed enunciation (“Will you buy me lots of di-ah-monds?”).
This lyrical precision, which made “Video Games” tangible, aims to uphold Del Rey’s image; instead, it emphasizes the lack of substance behind her taglines. There’s only so many times that Del Rey can call herself—or “Carmen”’s thinly veiled alter ego—“Queen of Coney Island,” and “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” doesn’t sound any better whispered on “This Is What Makes Us Girls” than yelled at a Williamsburg party. Besides using alcohol as a cultural marker, Del Rey toes whatever kind of line exists between Ke$ha and Biggie with choruses like “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon, like a fuckin’ dream I’m livin’ in” on “Radio”, the expletive putting a fine, awkward point on her idea of a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.”
The upshot of being a one-trick pony—or maybe I’m an eternal optimist—is that Del Rey’s shtick does work sometimes. “Summertime Sadness” evokes slower jams on Good Girl Gone Bad, and anyone with a sense of rhythm should bob their heads to the chorus on “Off to the Races” (then again, that might be ‘Ye’s influence). If it counts for anything, indie micro-genre idol Patrick Stickles thinks that “Video Games” is a “GOOD ASS DEPICTION OF A REAL SOCIETAL PROBLEM.” His attempts to hit Del Rey’s high notes on his cover of the song are almost comically strained, but when he screams, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” he sounds more honest than Del Rey ever does.
In a few months, none of this will matter. Lizzy Grant will re-release her album Kill Kill, which was supposedly shelved so Grant could reinvent herself as Lana Del Rey. Now that she’s going down in flames, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity, what better opportunity to resuscitate a “lost album?” Until then, judgment is postponed on whether the real live musician behind both personas actually has talent, or if she’s actually just as disappointing as Born To Die.
Essential Tracks: “Video Games”, “Blue Jeans”, “Off To The Races”, and “Summertime Sadness”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.