Hey, why do you hate Lana Del Rey so much? I don’t mean her music—to each their own—I mean her. In the two years since that unfortunate Saturday Night Live performance and the subsequent onslaught of jokes and Llama Del Rey memes, Del Rey has captured a fervent following. The online popularity she gained with “Video Games” bloomed into mainstream success as Cedric Gervais’ “Summertime Sadness” remix reached Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. She’s proven herself commercially and to a wide swath of music critics as well, yet the same set of endlessly-recycled reasons to discredit her as an artist still plague her.
Debates about her authenticity are problematic, as far as authenticity even exists in an age where “indie” bands are signed to major labels, and every artist is micro-marketing their origin story via Twitter. If it really bugged you that she changed her name from Lizzy Grant, you’d also dismiss Bobby Zimmerman and Declan MacManus (that’s Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello to you, respectively). Katy Perry recorded a Christian rock album as Katy Hudson before she kissed a girl and liked it. Alanis Morissette recorded two albums of teen-pop prior to Jagged Little Pill. Aliases and reinvention are a time-honored tradition in the music industry, so Lizzy Grant doesn’t cancel out Lana.
“Her father is rich and helped her get famous” is another absurd attempt to discount her success, and not just because Del Rey says she was out of touch with him as she rose to stardom. Whitney Houston’s talent might have languished in obscurity were her cousin not Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin her family friend. Taylor Swift has drawn similar criticism because her stockbroker father was an early investor in Big Machine Records, but nepotism accusations toward Taylor are largely drowned out in the din of award show accolades and her perceived likability.
There’s the keyword: “likeability.” To quote a Fuse Twitter follower’s recent reply to a Lana post, “I've been fairly indifferent to all the hype surrounding her, but there was always something about her that rubbed me the wrong way.” Likeability is a gut reaction, and one that’s often linked to relatability, though plenty of people enjoy Lady Gaga and her entire public life is a surreal performance.
But that’s the big difference, and the real reason Lana’s persona needles some people: Gaga’s costumes couldn't be more obvious, while Lana’s particular brand of artifice confuses people. Her veneer of detachment makes them angry as they watch her sing of love and loneliness. They see an ever-pliable identity reflected in her songs and videos, and it makes them suspicious. It’s the uncanny valley effect, a distant cousin to the fear a clown-phobic person gets from seeing a frozen grease-painted smile.
Lana told Fader, "I don’t really know what I’m doing…I’m trying to do what feels right.” To me, that’s a telling comment from an artist who steps into variations on a seemingly vapid character to explore honest emotional territory in some very fine songwriting. To her sharpest critics, they’re words from a moving target.
Lana recently said she wished she were dead already in a Guardian profile, and that she “never felt any of the enjoyment" from the success of “Video Games” due to the near-instant backlash. Being constantly underestimated does seem exhausting, even if you think that's a prison of her own making.
Whether Ultraviolence will win new hearts and minds with Lana's stripped down, Dan Auerbach-influenced new sound remains to be seen, but if people listen to Lana's music and stop trying to figure her out, it just might.