If you printed out every word that was written on the Internet about Lana Del Rey by the time her debut album, Born to Die, leaked earlier this week, the resulting stack of paper would reach from the lowest point on Earth to the moon. OK, that’s probably not true. But it sure seems like it, doesn’t it? And now that the full album has reached the hard drives of fans and detractors all over the world, the polarizing reviews are already rolling in.
Although I decided, a while back, that I wasn’t terribly interested in adding to the “LDR” chatter that’s consumed the blogosphere, I couldn’t resist trying out a little experiment on Born to Die. Instead of engaging with Del Rey’s appearance, music videos, interviews, Saturday Night Live performance, and critical reception, I wanted to listen to the album with fresh ears. What follows is an attempt — and not an entirely successful one — to review Born to Die based solely on the music itself.
There isn’t a living thing on this earth that wasn’t ultimately “born to die.” But you wouldn’t call your first complete statement as a musician “sky is blue” or “income tax returns are due April 15th.” The title suggests, then, that Lana Del Rey was born specifically or solely to die. Death isn’t simply the inevitable outcome of her life; it’s the single or most significant outcome. So, before we even press “play,” we’ve got to keep in mind that we’re listening to someone who not only believes she’s doomed, but believes that her purpose is to be doomed (or, at the very least, wants us to believe that).
Aside from some swooning strings (about which, more later), what’s notable about the sound of Lana Del Rey’s music is her voice. It does two things, and not much in between: Most of the time, it’s a liquor-soaked sub-alto, a whisper so lethargic that it almost seems artificially slowed down. This is a jaded and world-weary voice, and one without a whole lot of range or nuance. It sounds like a copy of a copy, a conscious attempt to sing in a certain way.
Del Rey’s other mode — her baby voice — feels even more affected. It’s a pouty, Marilyn Monroe falsetto, the aural equivalent of simpering. On “Off to the Races,” she alternates between the two in a way that’s jarring, as though she’s regressing to childhood and then growing up again as we listen, and that can’t be totally meaningless in a song that also quotes the opening lines of Lolita. Still, these extremes fit a bit too comfortably into a mighty entrenched female dichotomy, without really registering as ironic.
Here is the other funny thing about Lana Del Rey’s voice: High or low, it is almost always monotonous. What makes that particularly strange is that she’s always singing about some extreme emotion — love so intoxicating it commandeers every cell of your body, longing so desperate that it renders thinking about anything but the object of desire impossible. On “Born to Die,” Del Rey sings about how she wants to “kiss you so hard” and begs, “Don’t make me sad/ Don’t make me cry.” But she utters these lyrics in the catatonic drone of someone who’s feeling no pain. You can practically hear her yawning through the big, emotional breakdown on “Without You,” when she laments, “I’m nothing if I can’t have you.”
This juxtaposition of emotionally charged lyrics and limp vocals is curious. Is it subversive? It seems like it might be. Many of Del Rey’s lines are quotes or clichés. They probably don’t actually come straight from her reportedly lovelorn heart. But is she aware of it? Is she doing this on purpose? Are we supposed to hear her drawl and think about all the times we’ve heard these phrases before, and why they’ve come to sound so empty?
Now, about those strings. Outside of some occasional, dramatic percussion, they’re the only instrumental element worth mentioning on Born to Die. Hearing the first swells of the opening title track, I immediately thought of cinema — specifically, the sweeping strings of mid-century classics, suggesting no particular movie so much as the general idea of movies.
The lyrics draw from the same medium and period, bringing to mind both the French New Wave and Nicholas Ray. Del Rey name-drops James Dean and paints pictures of swimming pools and the Hamptons and New York City. Coney Island comes up in at least two separate tracks. Her characters are constantly smoking. “This Is What Makes Us Girls” is practically a ’50s coming-of-age movie in itself, complete with retrograde gender roles: “This is what makes us girls/ We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first.” The problem is that the music and the lyrics fit together so well that their fusion obliterates any trace of spontaneity; Del Rey’s point of view is relentlessly on-message, making the songs on Born to Die so similar to each other that they become interchangeable. Three tracks into the album, the idea that I had 12 more to hear was exhausting.
Lana Del Rey tells us what she and her paramour are wearing so often that, listening to Born to Die, I sometimes felt like I was eavesdropping on phone sex. “Summertime Sadness” warns us that she’s “got my red dress on tonight,” with her “hair up real big beauty queen-style.” The first thing she tells us about her James Dean-like lover in “Blue Jeans” is — guess what? — that he’s sporting “blue jeans, white shirt.” In “Video Games,” she informs us that she’s “in his favorite sundress” and has spritzed herself with “his favorite perfume.” Del Rey even wants us to know what she’s not wearing. On “Off to the Races,” she’s got her “white bikini off with my nail polish.”
Born to Die is practically obsessive in its need to tell us what the singer looks like and which sorts of places she tends to find herself in. But just because it conjures up some vivid imagery doesn’t mean it gives us a sense of who she actually is. Is there anything we can say about this woman beyond physical description? She’s beautiful, she’s in love, and love is painful — but it takes more than that to create a character. Was Lana Del Rey always supposed to be an empty signifier, or did she turn out that way by accident?
So, here’s where this experiment fails. This is the point where I concede that it’s impossible to talk about Lana Del Rey without delving into the reams of criticism that attack, defend, or otherwise analyze her existence. It’s the lyrics to her songs themselves that prove there’s no way to think about her on her own terms — she doesn’t have her own terms. What she wants so desperately is to know what we — that is, the default heterosexual male listener — make of her.
Del Rey is tireless in driving home this point. “Do you think we’ll be in love forever?” she wants to know in “Diet Mountain Dew.” (Yes, that is really the song title.) “I’ve heard that you like the bad girls. Honey, is that true?” she teases in “Video Games.” On “Radio” — a pre-fame song about achieving fame — she demands, “Is my body sweet like sugar?” On “Without You,” it’s, “Am I glamorous?” Sometimes she recalls observations her lover has made about her in the past: “You said I was the most exotic flower,” she sings on “Million Dollar Man.” Listening to Born to Die straight through, it becomes clear that there is no Lana Del Rey, really. Not only does she not have a fixed meaning or character, she wants you to tell her what she means.