When Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” first spread across the Internet like wildfire earlier this year, bloggers and tastemakers went gaga over the slinky ballad and also over Del Rey’s throwback glamor image.
Pitchfork helped lead the charge, including the video on their Forkcast, proclaiming the song a “Best New Track,” and publishing a feature on Del Rey with this lede:
Lana Del Rey is old-school Hollywood glamor meets splice-friendly YouTube culture with a fair share of coquettish attitude and smoke-parlor Stevie Nicks vocals thrown in.
And as is wont to happen in the male-dominated music blogosphere, a pretty face and a pretty voice attracted positive reviews and the benefit of the doubt. Del Rey still doesn’t have an LP out — “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” were only released as a single last week. And Del Rey only began playing live shows — a handful of “secret” Williamsburg shows at that — in September. But nothing spurs hope in today’s music industry like secrecy and unavailability — think of Sleigh Bells or WU LYF. In an environment where every writer, publication and blog wants credit for finding the next big thing, there was a dogpile on Del Rey. At its worst, the mp3 blog culture is the equivalent of a comments section where everyone fights it out for “firsties”. If you publicly state you like an artist before that artist blows up, it’s a feather in your cap.
As more information about Del Rey and her past became available, though, the blogosphere turned on her as quickly as it had tried to make her a star.
Some comments from music blogs about Del Rey and “Video Games” prior to September:
- Lana Del Rey’s Video Games vibrates with beauty, cigarette smoke, and loneliness. (via MusicUnderFire)
- Lana del Ray is a delicious combination of old and new. A thoroughly modern pop star with a sultry retro twist… (via The Music Ninja)
- Del Rey’s sultry, incredibly rich voice stands like a lighthouse on the safe shores of unconditional love, lost behind the stormy seas of the outside world. (via Mixtape Muse)
- Pure heart-breaking resignation and devotion at the same time. (via And Everyone’s a DJ)
- The track is like a bolt of genius lightning straight into your skull. (via Hyperbole)
As summer turned to fall, details about the mysterious Ms. Del Rey slowly emerged. Her given name is the much blander-sounding Lizzy Grant, and rather than springing from nowhere, she’s been trying to make it in the music business since she was a teenager.
The vile Hipster Runoff ran with the “dirt,” noting with particular glee that Del Rey’s lips seem much fuller than they did in her days as Grant. The gist is that the Del Rey persona is a fairly dramatic reinvention both in sound and looks, and that rather than making her name on a wave of grassroots support, she’s an industry insider with a savvy PR and management team. She’s not Howard Dean, she’s John Kerry. There’s even a picture of her with Miley Cyrus.
Then let’s just say that the tone of Del Rey’s publicity started to change. Bloggers felt tricked and betrayed. Del Rey was no longer one of us; she was one of them. Part of the old-school music industry that today’s Internet culture was built to destroy. It was like we found out Kurt Cobain’s original stage name was Johnny Nitro and he spent years as a backup dancer for Bell Biv Devoe before releasing Bleach. Del Rey was no longer indie, she was no longer authentic, and the pitchforks came out (no pun intended). Del Rey was attacked on blogs, in The Village Voice and in alt weeklies, on Twitter, and in comments sections.
Instead of a sexy throwback singer with a big future, Del Rey is now viewed as a Frankenstein’s monster, built from scratch by a team of corporate suits with no agency and no power other than the power to let other people remake her. There are two major problems with the debate now swirling around Del Rey and her music: the myth of authenticity and the casual sexism that still pervades the music scene.
In their trolling, hit-job post, Runoff asks, “Who will be a coward and say ‘It doesn’t matter where she comes from and what she looks like. She makes good music, and that’s all that matters’?”
I’m your huckleberry.
I’m your coward.
The Runoff posts about Del Rey are just the latest and most prominent examples of one of indie music culture’s greatest failings: the unwavering belief that the music we listen to is somehow more real than the music you listen to. Our bands record their albums on used iMacs in garages. Your bands get $100,000 advances from Clive Davis. Our bands release music because they have something to say. Your bands release music because they’re ambitious, money-grubbing fame whores.
Punk rock begat college rock which begat alternative rock which begat indie rock. There’s a direct bloodline from the DIY ethos and nihilism of the ’70s British punk scene to the Pitchfork/Stereogum culture of the last half-decade. Those punk bands, and their descendants (everyone from The Minutemen to Nirvana to Sufjan Stevens) were reacting against the more outrageous excesses of the music industry: the money and the glad-handing and the insane, big-budget studio production. For the most part, I believe and I agree with the values indie music is built upon. About 80 percent of the music I listen to falls somewhere on that punk-to-indie timeline. But the idea that this music, and these artists, are somehow more real and therefore superior is laughable.
Runoff proclaims, “[Del Rey’s] career works against the indie ideals that if you are ‘talented enough’, u can make it.” Bullshit. (And spell out “you,” dick.) That’s not an indie ideal at all. If anything, the indie ideal is that if you’re talented enough, you deserve to make it — and that’s a very different sort of story.
Purists have been deriding the concept of falsity in music ever since recordings of sound existed, and probably well before that. When Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, he was excoriated. Never mind that he was already using a fake name and lying about significant aspects of his past. John Mellencamp began his career as tight-jeans Johnny Cougar and he’s no less respected for it now. He’s an elder statesmen of Americana. It was ever thus: artists create an image. For some artists, that image is much less constructed and much closer to reality than it is for others. But records and tickets are still sold on those images. There’s no such thing as a “real” band — there’s only the reality of what the music means to the listener. If you move beyond that, you enter into a cult of personality that’s just as present for Animal Collective as it was for Frank Sinatra.
An acoustic guitar is not more inherently genuine than an electric one. A song sung by a busker is not somehow more authentic than one performed under layered synths and drum machines in a studio. But Del Rey changed her name and her sound and so now she’s a fraud. But when countless other indie artists have changed their names, their styles and their looks over the years, those changes have been ignored or even celebrated. Think about the commercial turns that Spoon, Modest Mouse or The White Stripes have taken. Think about the aliases and the forced mystery of acts like MF Doom or the bait and switch of Justice. For God’s sake, Justin Timberlake is accepted in the indie community despite his ‘N Sync past. Which gets at the second problem: in the cases of the artists just named and countless others, image change is forgiven or appreciated. Because they’re men.
Lana Del Rey became such a hot-button issue not just because she tripped off authenticity alarms, but because her supposedly fuller lips and revealing outfits threatened the power structure of the current music culture. Despite how far women have come in the music industry in the last few decades, men are still threatened by female sexuality. Much of Del Rey’s image change involved her looks, and men resent being manipulated like that. Particularly the supposedly sensitive and enlightened men who comprise the indie rock community. We like to think we’re above that. We can’t be fooled by a great pair of legs or a sexy come on. We know good music when we hear it. And Del Rey fooled us. So now we hate her.
And it’s all ridiculous. Because “Video Games” is a great song. “Blue Jeans” is a good song. Maybe that’s all she’s got. Maybe the LP will disappoint, she’ll be awful live and we’ll never hear from the erstwhile Ms. Grant again. Or maybe she’ll be fantastic. Either way, she shouldn’t be punished because she looks hot. She shouldn’t be punished because her publicity team knows what it’s doing. And she shouldn’t be punished for wanting to be successful. More than anything else, women with naked professional ambition frighten men. In the eyes of so many, Del Rey already has two strikes against her because she’s inauthentic and she’s using her looks prominently in her persona. Just as being attractive can be an advantage for male and female artists, so too can it be a disadvantage. As an already-tainted “It Girl,” Del Rey has a lot to overcome.