The knock on Lana Del Rey is that she’s all style and no substance, a pouty product placement trading on unearned hipster cred that was essentially manufactured by a major-label marketing machine.
Put another way, she’s the ideal embodiment of an age of grasping artifice on her new album, “Born to Die” (Interscope). It’s a fascinating blend of calculated naïveté, cynical nihilism and naked ambition, sometimes juxtaposed one line to the next on songs that mix swirling string arrangements with hip-hop beats; retro-chic with a shrewd, modern self-awareness.
In fact, it’s hard to figure out whether the vitriol directed at Del Rey (nee Lizzy Grant, 25, an alumna of Connecticut’s Kent School boarding school) stems from a sense that she’s phony, or from discomfort that her alleged phoniness is a more accurate reflection of our values than we like to admit. She’s either superficially authentic, or authentically superficial, and neither is much of a credit to the ribbon-for-participation cohort to which she belongs.
That’s not to say that Del Rey — or, more accurately, the apparently incompetent team managing her career — hasn’t earned some of the backlash. It was, for example, a curious decision to book a singer with precious little on-stage experience on “Saturday Night Live,” where her paralytic performance generated the wrong kind of buzz, prompting a barrage of scorn that included a dismissive mention on Gawker from NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
Also, it obscured the fact that Del Rey can actually sing. She has a languid, throaty voice that she makes effective use of, pushing to breathy, fluttering heights on the title track and murmuring with discomfiting allure on “Video Games.” She exaggerates a coquettish yelp over a booming beat on “Off to the Races” and sounds wearily worldly at the top of her vocal register on “Lucky Ones,” bolstered by rolling timpani and gauzy strings.
They’re catchy enough songs, split midway between the sensual haze of Mazzy Star and Katy Perry’s candy-pop shtick, and they’re prone to sticking in your head. What’s truly striking, though, is the lyrical content, which is often a merciless evocation of pop-culture hedonism that has become codified by reality television and the tabloid media. Del Rey revels in pursuit of shallow self-fulfillment, and lyrically she’s always slipping into red party dresses with the air of someone who knows — and likes — that we’re watching. Her songs treat sex as currency, reenact teenage rituals from three generations ago and covet luxury, or at least the appearance of it.
“Money is the anthem of success,” she coos at the start of “National Anthem.” “So before we go out, what’s your address?”
That’s clearly an affected sentiment. What’s less certain is whether it’s intended for an audience likely to mistake it for sincere, or a dead-eyed parody of their materialism and self-absorption — or both. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Even if she’s satirizing the hollow glamor of entitled youth, she’s beholden to it all the same. In other words, Lana Del Rey is the voice of her generation.