You know pop music is in a strange place when someone as mediocre as Lana Del Rey becomes genuinely divisive. Since emerging in 2011, fully formed with a DIY-style video for her Baroque-pop smash ‘Video Games’, she’s been treasured and then trashed. Born To Die, her debut album as Del Rey, sold seven million copies. Her rise to fame was flawless, in spite of constant probing about her authenticity, her penchant for being choked in her music videos and the strength of her voice.
In 2010, she released one bland album under her own name, Lizzie Grant, before she wiped the slate clean, deleted her old material from iTunes and relaunched herself as a ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ – a heartland bad girl in Daisy Duke shorts with a taste for bourbon and older men. Her music was cinematic, melancholic yet pretty catchy, propelled by 808 drumbeats and glossed with vintage Bond theme strings. She appeared a new cross-over force in pop: glamorous, artsy and ‘real’.
But when music hacks sniffed out her previous material, found out she was the daughter of a dot-com New York millionaire, clearly had major label backing, and, with one crushing Saturday Night Live performance, realised she was seemingly incapable of carrying a tune outside of the recording booth, they smelt a rat.
Del Rey went from blogosphere darling to heretic in a matter of weeks, her rise recast as a rouse to lure hapless musos into liking another manufactured pop princess. But does any of that really matter? From Motown to Madonna, some of the best pop music has been made by committee. And some of the greatest pop icons have built their legends on complete lies. Bob Dylan used to claim he ran away from the circus – he, in fact, dropped out of college. No one believed for a second that Michael Jackson really was ‘bad’. Whether or not Del Rey really did ride around in the back of an Al Camino with drug dealers is beside the point.
In truth, her only crime was not living up to the hype. She presented herself as the next consummate pop star; the next MJ, Madge, Kate Bush or Prince – someone who could mix style with substance, be pleasing, and yet challenging, on the ear. As her new album, Ultraviolence, proves, she’s easily one of the most distinct voices in chart pop today, but one that still, like that teeth-grinding SNL debut, falls flat.