Two Thursdays ago it seemed like the only thing the music-critic blogosphere wanted to talk about was Lana Del Rey. That was partly because Del Rey had played an exclusive “secret show” the night before at the Glasslands in Brooklyn. It also probably had a lot to do with the fact that, as my friend Maura Johnston at the Village Voice pointed out, it was a rainy day in New York, and the weather was “keeping everyone cooped up and unable to go out to lunch.”
To be fair, Del Rey gives critics a lot to talk about. Even though her first single hasn’t even officially come out (it drops in October), she’s already a lightning rod, largely because she’s conventionally attractive and unabashedly exploits the possibilities that her looks open up for her. In many eyes, her apparent eagerness to cast herself as a sex object—and the media’s eagerness to treat her as one—are both transgressions against the indie ethic that obliges artists and journalists alike to refuse to perpetuate the sexism of the mainstream music business, even if they can benefit from it.
Of course, Del Rey also makes music, and opinions about its merit (or lack thereof) have fueled the arguments about her image. Since the spring she’s been uploading her own music videos to YouTube. Her songs explicitly nod to the sound of 60s girl groups and Chris Isaak’s studied revivalist rockabilly, and they make somewhat less explicit references—mostly in the lyrics, but also in the subtle hip-hop feel of some of the beats—to a couple decades’ worth of gangsta rap. (In her PR she describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.”) The videos use found footage to draw a line connecting 1930s Hollywood glamor, the bohemian hedonism of the 1960s, and today’s hip-hop heads and skate punks.
The clip for “Video Games” that Del Rey uploaded in July seemed to hit the mark on all counts. It matches a sweeping, orchestral ballad that sweetly/sadly celebrates new love (while predicting its inevitable end) with a string of seemingly disjointed images—Super 8 films of couples at play, grimy skate videos, vintage black-and-white clips of paparazzi juxtaposed with more recent footage of Boardwalk Empire actress Paz de la Huerta being walked to a car in a state of serious inebriation—that hinted at an obscure existential narrative. The original version racked up more than 500,000 views before Del Rey was forced to take it down (she’d allegedly included some copyright-infringing material), and its replacement is closing in on a million after less than six weeks. Multiple cover versions of the song have already popped up on YouTube—evidence that her music, not just her face, is connecting with people.
Much of the talk about Del Rey, though, continues to be about her appearance—and about the fact that her persona is almost entirely invented. Del Rey’s real name is Lizzy Grant. Now 24, she spent several years pursuing a musical career (in 2009 she released a three-song EP as Lizzy Grant) before reinventing herself as Lana Del Rey. She recorded an entire album in 2010 with Depeche Mode producer David Kahne, which she’s since removed from the iTunes Store. Caustic indie commentary site Hipster Runoff has published photos of a pre-transformation Grant “canoodling with industry insiders” at what looks like a Miley Cyrus meet-and-greet. More damningly, at least in the minds of some observers, in the older photos her lips are noticeably less plump—it’s hard not to conclude that she’s had collagen injections in the meantime.
Even “serious” media outlets have covered Del Rey by foregrounding her prettiness. The Pitchfork post about her Glasslands show was almost entirely images—gauzy, layered photos by Erez Avissar that look like something out of a high-end fashion house’s ad campaign. But other critics took offense at the enthusiastic reception Del Rey received in the indie blogosphere—and especially the focus on her looks. Voice contributor Christopher Weingarten—better known in some quarters as the creator of blog-turned-book Hipster Puppies—went apoplectic on Twitter, deriding “Hugh Hefner’s idea of pretty enforced by tastemaking ‘indie’ blogs.” He also got into a Twitter argument with Del Rey supporter Chris Cantalini (of popular blog Gorilla vs. Bear) that quickly degenerated into ad hominem attacks on both sides.
Weingarten not only defended what he saw as indie ideals (“‘No one in our underground is shallow enough to want plastic surgery’ is like one of those truisms I just took for granted I guess”) but also defended Hipster Puppies, which his online detractors brought up in an attempt to undermine him: “There’s not a page in Hipster Puppies that’s pretending to be something its not.” Despite his implication, though, Lana Del Rey doesn’t seem to be pretending to be something she’s not—she doesn’t even conceal the fact that she’s pretending to be someone she’s not, or at least acting out a role she’s invented for herself. Her official press bio is up-front about Lizzy Grant and her relationship with Lana Del Rey. She’s acknowledged the role that managers and lawyers have played in the development of her persona, and that same bio refers to her “natural propensity towards stardom”—she seems to have knowingly disqualified herself from membership in the underground, at least as Weingarten apparently defines it.
Leave aside questions like whether the indie-music scene has ever overlooked a female musician’s appearance or whether a woman has the right to get collagen injections for any reason she wants (or whether collagen injections are any more radical a cosmetic procedure than, say, getting a tattoo). The bigger issue might be whether there’s any real underground left to transgress against, or whether it’s even possible to defend it anymore. During the golden age of indie punk—roughly the late 80s through the mid-90s—a number of safeguards operated to keep punk and indie rock at a relatively safe distance from the mainstream. I’m not just referring to intensely snobby record-store clerks; entire scenes were steadfastly devoted to avoiding popular notice, and of course the Internet hadn’t yet matured to the point where it could blow anybody’s cover.
Since then the lines between underground and mainstream have become porous—frighteningly so, for some people. Even purposefully arcane music scenes are only a Google search away from the most out-of-touch record execs and ad-agency creatives, and thus only a step or two away from a potential breakthrough. In less than a year, chillwave went from being the exclusive property of the hippest of hip Brooklynites to being an appreciable influence on major-label pop and hip-hop.
It’s not crazy to imagine that a wannabe pop star would be able to craft an identity and a sound almost entirely out of what the counterculture’s most cutting-edge bohemians think is cool. Nor is it crazy to imagine that some of those tastemakers would be part of her audience if she did. It’s happened before. Nancy Sinatra did a pretty good job of it.