The ecstasy and the agony of the Internet celebrity
Even before her infamously awkward appearance on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago, Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant) had become "one of the most controversial figures in indie." That's largely because the singer -- she of YouTube mega-celebrity, and thus she who often, in press accounts, gets the term "Internet sensation" appended to her name -- has, it turns out, a dad who is a wealthy Internet entrepreneur. She has, it turns out, close ties to the music-industrial complex. She has, it turns out, hair that used to be blonde.
Lana del Rey, in other words, is a pop musician who has been manufactured as a pop musician. In that, she is no different from Beyoncé or Gaga or Madonna or any other musical act that has ever existed ever. Music is manufacturing. Music is performance. Music is spectacle. It lives and dies on its ability to combine sincerity and falsity in approximately appropriate ratios. And so, inevitably, it has introduced many an artist to the business end of the hype cycle.
Lana, however, is different from her counterparts in one particular way: She found her current fame, such as it is, on YouTube. She is not a celebrity so much as she is an Internet celebrity.
And, as an Internet celebrity, Lana-née-Lizzie is not just a product; she is a possession. She is, in a very real sense, ours. We, the Internet -- we buzzing democracy of views and virality -- created her. We have made her both what she is and more than what she is, aura and reproduction in one, a celebrity forged in the fire of 26 million YouTube views. We have, link by link, converted Lana del Rey, the person, into Lana del Rey, the meme.
Which would be terrific for all involved -- the singer gets her audience, the audience gets its singer -- were it not for the fact that Lana del Rey is also, inconveniently, a person. She isn't a LOLcat; she isn't an image that can be fractured and amended and replicated and transmitted at will. She is an artistic and aesthetic product, sure, but one that comes with an unavoidable narrative arc -- an arc whose plot line, archived on the Internet, involves past forays into the music business that were much less "gangsta Nancy Sinatra" and much more "knock-off Britney Spears."
The community that created Lana del Rey, in other words, turned on Lana del Rey. She became the digital version of the electrified Dylan, with an invented name and an incorrect instrument. Even as a folk singer, Greil Marcus put it, Dylan-né-Zimmerman was "always suspect." He "moved too fast, learned too quickly, made the old new too easily."
Del Rey made her old new too easily. She whirled too quickly, and on a crooked axis. Her voice, my colleague Spencer Kornhaber has written, ranges "from gloomy sigh to Betty Boop-ish squeal"; her persona, it seems, is equally variable. And so the singer broke the compact that was implied in her viral celebrity, which was that she would respect the platform, the Internet, that created her in her current form. She used the Internet's world -- a world that prides itself on its meritocracy, that enables and ennobles organic self-expression -- for the very analog purposes of album sales and album tours and Saturday Night Live spots and Vogue covers.
And it worked. Her album debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, right above Dylan's old friend Leonard Cohen.
But her fame was also a violation. "People seem to feel that Del Rey is trying to trick us," Sasha Frere-Jones noted.
You'd think, in this era of the Facebook Timeline -- an era that finds us archiving our own evolutions in the vast scrapbook of the Internet -- we would be more tolerant of evolution in our celebrities. You'd think, actually, that we would celebrate it. And, to some extent, we do. Madonna has made her history part of her current story. Lady Gaga's transformation from cabaret-style pianist into egg-dweller is there, on YouTube, for all to see.
As an Internet celebrity, though, Lana del Rey lacks the privilege to transform. She exists not merely for the Internet; she is of it. We, the Internet, are responsible for her. We are also culpable for her. And that means that we are invested in her authenticity -- or in, more specifically, her ability to produce authenticity -- more than we are in celebrities whose origin stories are of the analog world. We are increasingly aware of ourselves as taste-makers. What my colleagues are sharing on Twitter, what my friends are listening to on Spotify, what my neighbors are rating on Yelp -- these, increasingly, are determining the products I choose to consume, as well. Their choices are influencing mine, explicitly.
Which means that our choices, collectively, take on the freight of artistic implication. My friends are not just my friends, but my filters. They play a curatorial role in my online life, just as I play one in theirs. And: We are all increasingly conscious of that fact.
This invests us much more in the things and the people we endorse. And it means that authenticity becomes not just a matter of subjective value, but of collective. We get to decide, we tell ourselves, whether Lana del Rey is sincere in the art she produces for us. Because to be true to herself means also to be true to us, her audience and her enablers. It means, apparently, to give herself -- her self -- over to the community that propelled her rise. The singer's most recent album, the one brought forth by the Internet, is titled Born to Die. It seems appropriate.
Image: Thomas Heylen/Flickr and Alexis Madrigal.