The last song on Lana Del Rey’s debut album, Born to Die, could probably fuel enough comments-box arguments to keep a feminist pop-culture blog afloat for a good six months. For starters, it’s called “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” It’s about a group of small-town teens who drink (PBR), play hooky, dance on tables, get whistled at, drink more (cherry schnapps), go “running from the cops in our black bikini tops,” and shed tears because — and this is allegedly what makes them girls — they “put love first.” The sad climax comes when the singer’s packed off to a School for Wayward Girls somewhere; it’s all very elegiac. Turns out Del Rey’s nostalgic versions of a cool, tough girl, in addition to feeling cribbed from B-movies, are the types who can annoy both traditionalists and progressives — those of us who figure girlhood might be about more than bikinis and heartbreak.
But that’s the type of character whom one of the most argued-about musicians of the past six months is interested in — all-American bad girls with Vegas pasts and moony, lovelorn souls; straight from central casting and backed with lots of strings; and, for the record, surely no worse for the youth of America than the billion pop songs where guys work through creepy, unenlightened visions of being men. The backlash against her has been epic and complicated, especially after her wan performance on Saturday Night Live. The most persistent strain of it says that Del Rey is an empty, contrived ploy — a failed singer-songwriter (real name: Lizzy Grant) who refashioned her look and style around a clutch of easy, evocative signifiers (vintage Hollywood, mid-century Americana, billing herself as “the gangster Nancy Sinatra”) so a massive record label (Interscope) could foist her on the public as a grassroots discovery.
In other words, Lana Del Rey is — get this — a pop singer. With an aesthetic, no less. But when she irks people, it’s not because she’s being slick or cunning. Usually, it’s because she’s reaching for some glamorous mood, somewhere between modern pop and Peggy Lee, that she can’t entirely reach — and for some, that’s a sound as tooth-grindingly cringesome as an actor trying and failing to pull off an accent, or a stuntman almost making a jump.
This is good news for Born to Die, because everyday human limitations are a lot more interesting than corporate marketing conspiracies. The album’s full of Del Rey’s lurching attempts to Pull Things Off — and it’s most interesting when she’s not quite succeeding, but trying very hard regardless. The music is more or less fine: slow-rolling beats, grandiose strings, and a great deal of cooing, like trip-hop tunes from a nineties movie soundtrack. (Or, sometimes, a mascara commercial; or sometimes just well-imagined pop, with a sleepy, dolorous quality you don’t hear in much pop these days.) It’s the persona that’s dicey. When Del Rey whisper-speaks lines in “National Anthem,” sounding like a cross between Betty Boop and those small-town tough girls? On “Off to the Races,” when she half-raps and makes her voice squeak, sounding now like some drunken wayward niece of the Andrews Sisters? Given the regressive version of femininity she’s after here — the squeaks come when she’s singing lines like “I’m your little harlot” — you may have the valid impulse to strangle the universe for giving her so much attention; I won’t argue. But in other moods, you might find something touchingly, delightfully campy about her rocky efforts to put these sad-eyed bad-girls across.
Listening to Born to Die, it turns out, is a lot like watching the movie Showgirls — right down to the cigar-chomping bad men and swimming pools that populate both — only as told from the point of view of some moonier, more passive woman in the corps behind Elizabeth Berkeley. The album should come with a drinking game, like one DVD edition of Showgirls did. It already shares a number of qualities with a drunk person. It repeats itself often, the same stock phrases popping up in song after song. It swings from lively, upbeat teasing to sad, torpid moans, and it’s usually the latter that’s tedious. (Some of the torch songs in the middle, like “Million Dollar Man,” are a handy reminder that Fiona Apple will be releasing new music this year, and it’ll be much better at this sort of thing.) And it stumbles, often. One critic compared it to “a drunk chick at the bar trying to convince someone to come home with her,” and maybe that’s true — maybe she tries to whisper a come-on and hiccups in someone’s ear instead, or attempts a seductive pose and winds up falling over. And maybe, to some, that drunk girl’s an annoyance or an embarrassment, but Del Rey clearly loves her.
This is the thing, amazingly, that everyone’s been arguing about: a medium-good pop record with a slightly more imaginative, moody milieu than usual, and a bad late-night thriller’s view of the world. Portions of it are quite nice; others are grandiose in ways they can’t back up and wind up sounding like huge, empty costumes. Sometimes Del Rey’s just trying so gamely that camp appeal starts bursting out of her: It’s like one of her small-town teenagers wound up in a record studio, a little lost but full of grand ideas. I’m sure some people would like her better if she were a little less Showgirls (bombastic, luxurious, poignant) and a little more John Water (winking, lively, camp on purpose). But that’d be no fun at all. She’s really quite earnest about what she’s trying, and alarmingly scattershot in her ability to get there — good news for those of us with the critical distance to chuckle happily over Born to Die, and also, perhaps, for anyone who wants to swallow it whole and digest a lot of strange, messy ideas about being a “girl.”