Fundamentally wary of any artist who whiffs of pop contrivance, indie-rock circles greeted singer Lana Del Rey with equal parts fascination and skepticism. After all, her aesthetic—a boutique blend of ’60s pin-up glam and indie listlessness, with a light dusting of trip-hop—was so refined that it had to have been manufactured. When details about Del Rey’s past as the much plainer singer-songwriter Lizzy Grant confirmed those suspicions, the Internet’s cynicism gave way to blunt hostility. The ensuing debates about Del Rey’s authenticity were overheated and dispiriting, riddled with gender prejudices and unfair jabs about the artist’s cosmetic overhaul. Unfortunately, Born To Die almost seems to go out of its way to vindicate even Del Rey’s smuggest detractors. Shallow and overwrought, with periodic echoes of Ke$ha’s Valley Girl aloofness, the album lives down to the harshest preconceptions against pop music.
Although Del Rey’s early marketing teased her as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” the creation on Born To Die is never so strong-willed. Instead, she’s a severely outmoded imagining of the ultimate male fantasy: a flighty Talking Malibu Stacy doll who pledges her complete devotion in a pouty baby voice. Her lyrics linger lustfully on her body: her pursed lips, painted nails, short dresses, and black bikini tops. She exists only to titillate.
Some of this was possible to excuse on Del Rey’s torchy breakout single, “Video Games,” wherein she fruitlessly throws herself at a distracted boyfriend. She carried that song with winking assurance. A curdle in her voice seemed meant to drolly mock her boyfriend’s obliviousness, if not the sheer melodrama of her own song. But the stifling desperation of Born To Die suggests that any cheekiness in “Video Games” must have been an illusion. If there is a joke in the song, it isn’t on the boyfriend, but on Del Rey, a one-note vixen who’s so solely self-defined by her feminine allure that sexual rejection undermines her reason for being.