Let’s get something out of the way: polarity. Elizabeth Grant, also known as Lana Del Rey (Henceforth LDR) has lots of it. After posting “Video Games” on YouTube late last summer, she experienced a meteoric rise, earning a record deal with Interscope and a performance on Saturday Night Live. “Video Games” was the stuff of indie music fantasies. Vintage and nostalgic imagery: check. Vague, psuedo-emotional lyrics: check. Syrupy theatrics: check.
Then the backlash began, starting with the discovery that LDR used to be Lizzy Grant, a failed mainstream pop star. An anti-LDR movement emerged to viciously pick her apart, noting everything from her “inauthenticity” to her puffy lips to her live performances. Eliciting surprisingly passionate responses from haters and lovers alike, the attention made her debut album (as LDR) Born to Die one of the most anticipated releases of early 2012.
But the haters are not without their legitimate points, because the pre-made image of LDR simply does not fit with her music. When Grant starts describing broken hearts, fame and glamour, she makes serious lyrical missteps; her words are ultimately directionless and constantly stick with the safety of established themes. And, even within 12 songs and 50 long minutes, Grant fails to establish the purpose and justification for becoming LDR. All these factors certainly do not undermine the positives of the album, but they certainly do make the lyrical content of Born to Die stiff, awkward and kitschy.
Though “Video Games” is included in the album, Born to Die as a whole lacks the same emotional exploration and self-image deconstruction that made “Video Games” so popular. In “Video Games,” we find an unsure LDR questioning her self-worth in a true moment of sadness and desperation: “Only worth living if somebody is loving you … I heard that you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” Desolation swirls around a LDR living very much in the moment: “He holds me in his big arms/Drunk and I am seeing stars/This is all I think of.”
The rest of the songs, however, come off as lyrical flops. They are so generic and uniform that no matter how great LDR’s vocal delivery is they seem emotionless and materialistic. In every song she constantly attempts to woo an unseen male into going home with her with multiple variations of choice lyrics like “just grab me and take me” and “take that body downtown.” Even when she tries to project an image of dark glamour in “National Anthem” it comes off as cheap and simple-minded: “Money is the anthem/of success/So before we go out/What’s your address?” In the end, because there is no development among the songs, the album feels like a jumbled singles compilation where each can be sold separately.
But there is a glimpse of hope that LDR has not entirely transformed into a singing statue. “This is What Makes Us Girls” at first has the same old laughable lyrics, including seductively whispering a gem like “Pabst Blue Ribbon on Ice.” But then she surprisingly removes the fourth wall asking “And you know something?” before breaking down into one of the few true emotional bits of the album, revealing that she really is a human being: “They were the only friends I had/We got into trouble and when stuff got bad/I got sent away … crying cause I know I’m never coming back.”
What is the takeaway of this confession? Ultimately, it shows that Elizabeth Grant, and not LDR, has talent, and that the LDR hype has hurt Grant by encouraging her to write cheap, vacuous lyrics. Nevertheless, once the hype and the silly image are removed the remainder reveals a solid pop record, showing that Grant doesn’t need her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” theatrics in order to make great music or sell records. Her cluelessness on this point only proves that she is still not quite ready for the music industry. Those who listen to music without paying much attention to lyrics will have no qualms with this record. Those who want some borrowed nostalgia from the over-remembered ’60s are better off listening to Frank Sinatra. Many others, however, will discover that Born to Die is their guilty pleasure of 2012.