The day will come when the singer will die, and when it does we will have to say, “Lana Del Rey we hardly knew you – and that suited us (and you) just fine.”
The woman whose debut album as Lana Del Rey was called Born to Die was born Elizabeth Grant in 1986. Before that album came out, Del Rey was a pop-music phenomenon for her moody videos and noir balladry, as well as for her sultry, mysterious air and pouty, glamour-puss persona. Following her awkward Saturday Night Live performance in early 2012, though, witch-burning critics branded Del Rey as a fake, and by the time Born to Die was released later that year the title had taken on prophetic proportions.
Fake? Not natural? Or is it the artifice of any pop somebody?
Del Rey, whose follow-up album Ultraviolence is forthcoming, gave a sold-out concert at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Tuesday. Her fans there were mostly girls and young women, outfitted in summer frocks and flowers in their hair. They screamed when their expressionless star took a stage lit by candles and filled with palm trees. She wore blue-jean cut-offs, a white button-down shirt and a mane of luxurious brown hair – a blank-eyed farmer’s daughter ready for Hollywood.
She mostly avoided any unreleased material, choosing instead to concentrate on the slow, doom-stricken drama of the Born to Die cuts and the more rocked-up EP Paradise. Her voice is not supple. Mostly she stays down and dusky, with the occasional high operatic flare up for effect. There’s a strange stillness to her, as if she was concentrating on something other than the moment or the music. She is either acting or hypnotized.
It’s funny that over-the-top pop artists are often described as eccentric or freakish. They are not. Rather, it’s the simple unadorned singer who is the weirdo, as it is not a natural impulse for most of us to want to perform in front of an audience. So music acts often adopt personas to compensate. Covered in costumes and/or dipping themselves deep into character, their inhibitions disappear.
This past weekend, the Toronto musician who called himself Nash the Slash died. He played a mandolin and a violin, and wrapped himself mummy-like in white bandages. Upon his retirement in 2012, he posted a message to his website, saying that he had “refused to be slick and artificial.” Some might have seen his act as put on, but, to the contrary, he was the invisible man turned visible in his get up, free to be himself in his disguise.
In his thoughtful new autobiography Face the Music: A Life Exposed, the Kiss singer Paul Stanley writes about his liberating grease paint and Starchild character: “My makeup was a mask that provided the distance between me and the crowd. It gave me the shield I needed … it was also freeing.”
I suspect everyone from Alice Cooper to Lady Gaga would agree with Stanley, and I’d be curious to hear what Tom Waits and Leon Redbone have to say about it as well. Those two have been at it for so long that they’ve melded to their quirky onstage personas, seemingly 24/7. Maybe that’s the goal.
It’s hard to say what Del Rey’s goal is, other than pop stardom. With her lush gloominess and the video imagery behind her on stage – old home movies, time-lapsed storm clouds – the reclusive singer-songwriter portrays herself as tragic and vulnerable. What she doesn’t seem to be is liberated. Maybe there’s nothing there, or maybe she’s just a bad actress. We may never know.