I know this might sound silly, but I like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die. A lot.
Around this time last year, something weird was going on in the music scene. A relatively unknown Lana Del Rey was blowing up hits on Youtube with her songs “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” and while other artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy have earned wildfire fame in a similar manner, there was something different about Del Rey. These songs weren’t particularly funny; they weren’t novelty hits with sing-a-long choruses, and they weren’t absolute train-wreck-can’t-avert-your-eyes disasters like Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” The music press simply didn’t know what to make of Lana Del Rey — was she a pop diva in the vein of Katy Perry? Was she a art-house-lite indie songwriter? The problem here is that Lana Del Rey, at this time, wasn’t clearly defined. With just two songs out, it was easy for people to make assumptions and expectations about her upcoming album: those pining for a new Lady Gaga could get their hopes up, as could someone looking for the next Amy Winehouse, the next Nancy Sinatra, etc… By the time she released her first major release, Born to Die in January 2012, there was already blood in the water — people paying attention to music blogs were liked tired of hearing about the promise of Del Rey. The early attention that started out full of hope and promise quickly soured into vitriol, and when Born to Die hit stores, people (including myself) wanted the album to fail so that Del Rey’s 15-minutes of fame would end and she would once again fade into obscurity. And that’s largely what happened, but there’s a problem — a big problem, actually — Born to Die is actually a great album.
It makes sense that Del Rey’s Born to Die would be critically panned: it’s a super easy target. Lana Del Rey is a character — a shallow one that feels about as authentic as Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here phase. Many of the lyrics on the album seems like they were supposed to be penned by a do-it-yourself gangster, but instead it comes across as a well-to-do suburbanite aping what she thinks a do-it-yourself gangster would do. Even though she tries to come across as dangerous and seedy, she’s appears to be even less genuine than Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. And the lyrics. Boy oh boy, these lyrics are not good, at all. Now part of it does come from the fact that Del Rey feels inauthentic, but most of the lyrics are just plain-out horrible. In any given song, I could pick out a laughable set of lyrics, and instead of trying to pick out the worst of the worst, I’ll just give you a sample from the song I’m listening to now: “Money is the anthem, of success / so before we go out, what’s your address? / I’m your national anthem / god you’re so hansome,” and so on. When Del Rey isn’t trying to come across as a self-styled gangster, she’s supremely melodramatic (take the title of the album for example) with plenty of nods to the idea of dying young and dying for love. The early hit “Video Games” raised expectations that Del Rey might deliver feminism in a pop-package. It turned out that Born to Die delivered the opposite, with many songs centering around a dependence and neediness for male figures that would nauseate even the least feminist women.
So yeah: there’s a lot not to like about Born to Die, but this article is supposed to be in defense of Del Rey. Unfortunately, it’s rather easy to articulate why it would be easy for people to hate the album rather than why it’s full of great songs. Because it is indeed easier to criticize it than champion it, writers (and critics) have found it all too easy to detract from Del Rey’s first mainstream release. Here’s the reason why the album is great: it’s full of great songs. Really great songs, even. “Blue Jeans,” “Born to Die,” “Carmen,” “Off to the Races;” all of these songs, while inauthentic and shallow, not only have extraordinary melodies, but the song production is top notch. I have no reason to believe that Del Rey is a good songwriter — her album is littered with a healthy range of songwriting partners and producers. While more chefs in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily make the food more delightful, it pays off on Born to Die: the music blends electronic beats, 1950’s lounge music, and sweeping strings, all covered in a healthy sheen of detached pop glossiness. The music (as with the lyrics) is about as subtle as a Hans Zimmer score, but let’s face it, the scores to The Dark Knight, Inception, and Gladiator are awesome, right? For the same reasons Hans Zimmer’s scores work, Del Rey’s album works. This isn’t cerebral — it’s not trying to make a grand statement or speak to the human condition. It’s much more simple than that: it’s just great melodies. Some critics/bloggers have accused Del Rey of being too misogynous, anti-feminist, shallow, and materialistic, but these criticisms assume that Del Rey is trying to say something with her music. She isn’t trying to speak universal truths — hell, I’d even argue that she’s not trying to speak her truths. The album can be dumb, insensitive, and busy, but at the core of it, these songs are catchy and fun to listen to. As Kurt Cobain said, “everything comes back to melody because it’s the most palatable thing to the human ear.” It’s easy to write the album off: its melodies are wrapped in layer upon layer of unpleasant and silly things, but at the core of it is melody, and if you’re willing to just accept the faux-gangster Nancy Sinatra persona, there’s so much here to enjoy.
Is Born to Die the best album of the year? Not even close. I’m sure that part of the reason I like it so much is because my expectations for it were so abysmal. And maybe that’s the key: low expectations. Even though I’ve just described why this album is great, try to go into it expecting nothing. In January, the music press had its hopes rise too high too quickly, and when Del Rey was lackluster on Saturday Night Live, the inevitable backlash felt supremely justified. But does that give us reason to dismiss her? One of my favorite bands (and a band that almost always receives critical acclaim), TV on the Radio sounded absolutely horrible on Saturday Night Live, but did that change the music press’s opinion about the band? Not in the least. Del Rey has a new album coming out this November — it doesn’t seem that anyone is really talking about it, and maybe that’s for the best. Maybe we need to be surprised by music sometimes instead of expecting it.