Lana Del Rey’s place in the pop firmament has been ambiguous from the start. At the beginning people argued about her relevancy and authenticity, whether she was a legitimate artist working within the aesthetic culture of hipsterdom, or a corporate shill mining it for major labels to market in a watered-down way to a mainstream audience. After her disappointing coming out on SNL a lot of the anti-Lana contingent gleefully labeled her a flop. The fact that she and her album Born to Die failed to dominate pop’s attention in the way that Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or even Adele have seemed to confirm that, and since music journalism has become as bubble-fied as political journalism it’s been easy for some often very vocal people to hold onto that view.
But despite its inability to dominate the zeitgeist, Born to Die was the fifth best selling album of 2012 and has gone platinum several times over in an age when selling a million records can be a challenge for even the biggest pop stars. Last year a remix of her single “Summertime Sadness” made it into the Top Ten and stayed on the Hot 100 for 23 weeks. Browse around on any social media platform that’s popular with tween-to-twentysomething females and Del Rey’s inescapable presence might make you think she’s the biggest star on earth. And if her importance to the pop industry needs to be underlined further, note that the majors are starting to push Lana Del Rey clones to see if they can replicate the first one’s success.
Christina Perri’s “Human” is a prime example of a copycat work of art that gets all the details right while completely missing the bigger picture. The song’s list of Lana-isms is extensive, and picking it apart to ID them is more entertaining than the song itself. Some of them are big and broad, like its widescreen cinematic arrangement, languorous pacing, and overall swoonability. Others are charmingly specific, like the underwater-sounding drum track and Perri’s attempt to emulate Del Rey’s kittenish croon.
But while the song does a good job of sounding like a Lana Del Rey track (I’d give it a B minus), it fails at feeling like one. Del Rey’s appeal, which drives her online cult, goes further than her looks or her charmingly awkward attempts at hip-hop appropriation—much of it comes from how thoroughly existential her portrayals of romance and general existence are, how seductive she can make self-annihilation seem, whether through abusing substances or letting your identity be subsumed within a romantic partner’s. Her songs succeed because they ache, and the major-key self-help that Perri dishes out on the chorus gives us bland chicken soup for the soul where Del Rey would offer well liquor and weed.
Like Madonna before her, Del Rey’s allure runs much further than the surface attractiveness that her haters like to use as an excuse to dismiss her outright. And as Madonna proved so many times throughout her career, sometimes it takes a bad copycat to show how good the original is.
ALSO: The number 30 single on this week’s chart is Trey Songz’s DJ Mustard-produced “Na Na.” At number 31 is Sam Smith and Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” This seems somehow important, although maybe not enough for an entire blog post.