Lana Del Rey appeared on Saturday Night Live recently, giving two rather tentative performances that, depending on your point of view, were awkward and amateurish or shrewdly restrained and vulnerable. Del Rey, in her mid-20s, attracts polarizing opinions.
Her appearance on SNL was only the most high-profile example of the extreme reaction Del Rey provokes. She's been labeled a phony for — what? Changing her name? Tell it to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. For perhaps surgically enhancing her lips? Yes, this really comes up on music blogs and in profiles of her. I think an awful lot of Hollywood wouldn't withstand that, if that qualifies as condemnation. There's something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before Born To Die was even released. It's like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It's like being punished for ambition.
Of course, ambition is helpful primarily when you've got the talent to make it pay off. In this, I'd say the jury is still out when it comes to the material on Born To Die. Del Rey has a voice and a way of phrasing that I find fascinating. Most of the time, she pitches her voice into a low register and pushes her words out as though she's moaning her blues.
The tune, "Born to Die," is the album's title song for a reason — it features Del Rey's most typical vocal, a sort of moody croon that increases to a supplicating intensity. The lyric actually contradicts the eye-grabbing title: The phrase "born to die" may imply pessimism or moroseness, but Del Rey is actually pitching a message that's something more like "live life to the fullest." Del Rey does make a few false steps on this album, most notably the bad rapping — stilted and affected — that she does on "National Anthem."
What it comes down to, ultimately, is that for all the charges that Lana Del Rey is a manufactured pop star, she's actually squarely in the tradition of young performers with an assertive naivete about how much of a rebel she wants to be. She's referred to her music as "Hollywood sadcore" and herself as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra." Oh dear: Wasn't Nancy Sinatra, with her flat affect and boots made for walkin' pretty "gangsta" herself? Del Rey sings about her quote-unquote "tar-black soul" but I think at her best, she's got a good, red-romantic heart.