Born to Die is a bona fide guilty pleasure: fascinating but espousing something ugly.
Lana Del Rey wants to tell you what she's wearing. Sometimes, as on her break-out, heartsick single "Video Games," it's her man's "favorite sundress." Often—twice on her album Born to Die, out today—it's a "red dress." Elsewhere: leather tight around her waist, a white bikini, a red bikini, a "party dress," ribbons for her hair, "glass room perfume / cognac lilac fumes," nail polish, mascara. Elaborate descriptions? No. But what Del Rey puts on and takes off form a big part of what we know of her through her lyrics.
We learn a few other things about Del Rey by listening to Born to Die. She's infatuated by a guy who may or may not be dead, and who certainly isn't a good boyfriend either way. She sought stardom and somehow—it's never made clear on the album exactly how—achieved it. She was sent away from her friends when she was 16. And she likes money.
How much of this stuff, imparted in a voice that ranges from gloomy sigh to Betty Boop-ish squeal, is autobiographical for Lizzy Grant, the woman who became Lana Del Rey? We don't know. A comments-section debate has sprung up over the last few months about whether Del Rey is "authentic"; it's a perennial and useless debate in pop music, where the person behind the voice coming out of your speakers will always be unknowable. What we do know: Grant has fashioned a character and written a record called Born to Die, which leans heavily on trip-hop beats and movie-score strings. And given the how much attention that she has gotten—and how genuinely fascinating, even begrudgingly enjoyable, Born to Die is to listen to—it's worth asking, to what end?
When Del Rey first came to Internet notoriety last year, she was slotted alongside indie songstresses like Cat Power. It's since become clear that this was a mistake, and that Del Rey should really be seen as an aspiring pop star, outfitted with a songwriting team, major-label marketing muscle, and most importantly and controversially, a discernable desire to become famous. But even when judged against her more-fitting contemporaries, female vocalists topping the Billboard Hot 100, there's still something odd about Del Rey. It's not just her music (though her morose, whooshing balladry doesn't square with chart pop's current dance-floor obsession). Rather, it's that her point of view over the course of Born to Die represents an idea that is both everywhere in culture and yet uncool lately among her peers: the retro gospel of stereotypical, codependent, frivolous girlishness.
To be sure, it's not as though modern pop music has jettisoned sexism or a gendered world view. But its biggest players have recently been fixated—though with varying levels of sincerity and effectiveness—on depicting women as willful, and of empowering all kinds of people act and think independently. There are, of course, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" and Katy Perry's "Fireworks," entries into the genre that some have cheekily named It-Gets-Better-core. There's also the Ke$ha/Rihanna/Britney/Beyonce embrace of head-over-heads romance on a level playing field, where it's OK to be in the throes of lust or love, and to be sexually in charge or not, so long as either party is willing to walk out on the other's bad behavior.
Born to Die says "to hell with all that," which incidentally isn't the only manner in which it invokes Caitlin Flanagan. Del Rey's character is depthless and agency-free, enamored by her guy, helpless without him, and heartened by the ways in which he's terrible. It's stated again and again on the album: "You're no good for me / but I want you," "I don't know how to get over someone as dangerous and tainted and flawed as you," "You went out every night / And baby that's all right / I told you that no matter what you did I'd be by your side." It's the trope of being in love with a bad guy taken to the extreme—she's unable to quit the guy not just when he's bad, but also when he's boring. The chorus of "Video Games" says it all: Her man's playing video games; she's dressed up, trying and failing to get his attention. In Del Rey's eyes, it's a slightly sad, mostly romantic situation:
It's you, it's you, it's all for you
Everything I do
I tell you you all the time
Heaven is a place on Earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do
And to be sure, this kind of thankless devotion is romantic. It's been the subject of art forever. But Del Rey's view of it is single-faceted, colored but not complicated by modern liquor references, hip-hop lingo, and a materialist kick. We all know people in unbalanced relationships, where one party's more enamored than the other, but Del Rey sells this problem as not a problem at all—and as inevitably tied to gender. Album closer "This Is What Makes Us Girls," ("whose title alone is just trolling you so hard," writes Spin's Rob Harvilla) lays it out: Girls "don't stick together" because they "put love first." It's surprising she didn't drop in a "bros before hos" reference.
It's maybe no coincidence that "What Makes Us Girls" also happens to be the album's best song, pivoting kinetically from vignette to manipulative vignette about a rambunctious, Lolita-esque teenhood interrupted. Indeed, all the would-be hits here initially scan as the most outrageous. "National Anthem" opens with the line "money is anthem of success," which grates at first for its sentiment and then later for the dissonance of its metaphor—even though you'll be lisping along by the third listen. "Radio," meanwhile, bears a silky chorus that brings to mind Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" while delivering insufferable hate-the-haters brags: "Now my life is sweet like cinnamon / like a fucking dream I'm living in / Baby love me 'cause I'm playing on the radio / How do you like me now?"
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But even on the up-tempo productions, in which she's lapping up fame, "gold coins," and "Bacardi chasers," she remains obsessed with how she appears in the eyes of her man. "Am I glamorous, tell me, am I glamorous," goes one of her many, many questions. It's posed to the hypothetical "you" in the song—her guy—but also, of course, asked of the listener. To an extent, naked insecurity like this resonates. But mostly, to adult ears, the sentiment repulses: In every instance, her stated belief is that without being beautiful, she's nothing. And what's really uncomfortable is that she can't seem to conceive of the world in any other way.
Some have read this repulsiveness as something Del Rey may have intended—that her world view on Born to Die is so off-putting that she's actually trying to critique it. That reading feels like a stretch to me, but who knows. It won't matter to the people who are most likely to make this album a relative hit: teenagers. Born to Die's pop pleasures are packaged in a way that scans both musically and lyrically as unique, even if they're actually not. The emotions are huge and seductive; in a lot of ways, Del Rey could received the same common knocks that Twilight's Bella Swan received for passivity, and she's not exactly languishing in obscurity. The funny thing is that the album actually is alternative to what's been going on in pop, but certainly not subversive. Rather, the word is regressive: dressing up the Disney-princess version of girlhood as if it's punk rock.
Of all the lines about clothing and appearance on the album, the best has to be in "Summertime Sadness": "Got my hair up real big, beauty-queen style." When was the last time that beauty queens were associated with earnest sexuality rather than the plummeting ratings and the horror of Toddlers & Tiaras? This is what Del Rey does: reclaim a version of femininity that few thought needed reclaiming, reselling it with an unsettling but undeniable verve. For an adult listener, there's little choice but to be icked out even while humming along; file Born to Die under the rare "guilty pleasure" that legitimately induces guilt. For others, the album will live on for a while, its words destined to be scrawled on binder covers and locker doors.