It might be too early to say, but Lana Del Rey’s wooden performance of “Video Games” on Saturday Night Live on Jan. 14 could be a defining musical moment of 2012.
After an unprecedented level of media saturation – a free single on iTunes, countless celebrity remixes and seemingly ceaseless coverage on music and media sites – Del Rey’s late night debut was palpably awkward. Del Rey looked like a swaying deer caught in the headlights of national television cameras – an impression exacerbated by the fact that she was the only musician lit on a dark stage. Internet music sites subsequently exploded with controversy, tearing down the celebrity they had helped create. The recoil of the Lana Del Rey hype had begun.
After this watershed moment, it is worth rediscovering the origin of the hype surrounding Del Rey, beginning with the music video for “Video Games.” Featuring a combination of washed-out, fuzzy footage of Del Rey performing (and her unbelievably large lips), its effect is undeniable. The song’s subject, a girlfriend frustrated about her boyfriend’s unchanging fixation on video games, perfectly suits Del Rey’s tired, slow voice. It’s a moving plea to a vacuous boyfriend and perfectly illustrates the alienating, isolating effect that modern technology can have.
“Born to Die,” the eponymous track off Del Rey’s debut album, offered another glimpse into the foundations of her popularity. While “Video Games” criticized a boyfriend’s relentless desire to play video games, “Born to Die” relishes in escapism. Over strings and a slow, relentless beat, Del Rey both laments the fatality of life (“you and I, we were born to die”) and suggests that drugs will offer the only refuge (“let’s go get high”). Del Rey pleads with the listener to not make her cry but make her laugh instead. “Born to Die” recognizes the futility of life, but Del Rey chooses to run from life rather than face it. This dichotomy makes for an interesting and effective song.
Two songs, however, do not make an album. Born to Die, released in late January, was alternately praised and panned by major music sources. And where the first few tastes of the album succeeded (including another single, “Blue Jeans”), much of the rest of the material is flat. After the opening title track, the second song, “Off to the Races,” finds Del Rey singing “Gimme them gold coins, gimme them coins.” This snippet epitomizes the poor lyrical content of the album. While “Born to Die” and “Video Games” make a point about modern life, much of the rest of the album is simply Del Rey mindlessly celebrating wealth, New York City and the Hamptons. Furthermore, the drums and strings of “Born to Die,” while effective in one dose, grow cloying and monotonous over the course of an album.
The rise and (partial) fall of Del Rey prompts a criticism of the modern music press. Instead of incessantly hyping an artist with only a handful of songs out, perhaps more material is necessary to understand an artist’s potential and style. Of course, in the age of the Internet, an age in which content quickly circulates all over the Internet and the influence of music blogs and cultural sites is huge, that is probably easier said than done.
But perhaps the future is still bright for Del Rey. Her performance of “Video Games” on the David Letterman Show was understated and effecting, capturing much of the style that made the original single so popular. And while Del Rey’s album might underwhelm as a whole, individual tracks (even outside of the released singles) show potential. Perhaps we should learn from Del Rey and reserve buzz hype about upcoming artists around a more substantial body of work.