Two equally significant ingredients in Lana Del Rey's rise to fame were the shockwaves her early crossover singles/videos ("Video Games," "Born to Die") sent across the blogosphere and the critical backlash that spewed from critics' keyboards when her resulting full-length, Born to Die, and subsequent live performances didn't meet their expectations. Even considering how enjoyable it was for many of us to witness the massive backtrack of musical taste-testers, it was hard to escape the fact that the album did indeed wear thin by its end. But looking back at the genesis of LDR, it's hard not to be impressed by her vision.
In a 2006 video interview, a bubbly blond Del Rey, who then performed under her birth name, Lizzy Grant, told Jezebel Music that she'd "met people who know that music is the only thing that they want to do with their lives, and that's always reassuring, 'cause I don't have a backup plan." Looking back, it's plain to see that that abandon — that so many disregarded as a midcareer invention — has framed the presentation of her entire career, creeping into her lyrics and dripping from her music videos. A year later, she signed a multi-album deal with New York indie label 5 Points but pulled out of the contract, changed her nom de plume (twice: first Ray, then Rey), and went to work on her new image: a character who "believe[s] in the country America used to be" (as quoted in the persona-defining "Ride" video), who comes off as something between reluctant small-town beauty queen and motorcycle gang runaway.
LDR has proven proficient in theatrical performance, both while on record and while strutting around festival stages in elegant white dresses so far this summer. Some of her shtick is undoubtedly satirical, the kind that allows her to play both sides of American female stereotypes to her advantage — and, hey, more power to her. But the blandness of many of her lyrics make her death-of-the-American-Dream act sound like the musical equivalent of well-painted still life rather than cultural criticism. Her chosen production and vocal textures may sound occasionally great, but it's hard to take an overly simple song like "Summertime Sadness" at anything but face value.
More recently, she's teamed up with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who helped produced much of last year's Ultraviolence, and the two have been able to find a few new rooms in her house of style ("West Coast," "Florida Kilos" [shoutout alert!]). She's still harping on the same old topics (love, sadness, coolness), which is getting old, but her other stylistic trademark, not being afraid to shock the squares ("F*cked My Way Up to the Top"), is actually refreshing.
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