How to create a pop sensation in 2011: take one millionaire’s daughter. Change her name, give her some ludicrous soundbites about being a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, perhaps make her over with plastic surgery. Get her debut major-label single to be accompanied by a video made with webcam clips of herself, mingled with clips of Hollywood actress Paz de la Huerta falling over, skateboarders falling over and couples kissing (but not falling over), all directed and edited by the artist. Wait for Pitchfork to laud the song, for it to go viral as a result and for people to discover her original name and album released under that name. Sit back and watch the rumour mill buzz about whether or not she’s had plastic surgery while YouTube users ferociously debate whether she’s a fake and whether or not she’s ‘indie’. Most importantly, ensure she’s vocally and aesthetically captivating – and, hey presto!, you have a star in the making.
…At least, that’s how the marketing of Lana Del Rey, ‘the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant’, has gone. While painfully bitchy website Hipster Runoff has made insulting her its manifesto, and people still can’t work out if her face has been surgically enhanced (the nose is pointier, the mouth is poutier…), there’s no denying that her star is firmly in the ascendancy. Her debut single ‘Video Games’ was a top 10 hit in six countries, topping the chart in Germany, and has had 16 million hits on YouTube (adding the original video’s views with the Vevo ones); it was also The Guardian’s critics’ song of the year for 2011. Her first London show sold out in minutes after her live performance of the song on Later… with Jools Holland – the show that is, let’s be honest, the closest thing that mainstream 21st century Britain has to John Peel’s Peel Sessions as far as breaking new artists is concerned. She’s in the top 10 of NME’s 2011 ‘Cool List’ and is currently the cover star of Q magazine. Born To Die, her major-label debut album, is released at the end of January (on the 30th in the UK), released a week after the album’s second single, ‘Born To Die’. And, if you were doubting how successful she’s becoming, compare the budgets of her singles’ videos to date. Where her ‘Video Games’ video was all but budgetless, the video for ‘Born To Die’ is partly shot in the Palace of Fontainebleau, with Del Rey accompanied in the palace by tigers… yeah, it’s pretty safe to assume that Interscope are convinced that 2012 is her year.
Her New York upbringing and stage name, not to mention her gender, have raised comparisons between her and Lady Gaga in articles. (Adele hit the nail on the head about journalistic laziness on the latter front when she said that “We’re a gender, not a genre”.) But there’s little to compare apart from the points already mentioned – Del Rey’s brand of relatively minimalist ‘Hollywood sadcore’ sounds nothing like Gaga’s brash, gimmicky pop/R&B, and Gaga’s voice is nothing remarkable whereas Del Rey’s sultry vocals, alternating between girlish breathiness and an assuredly deep tone, are used to stunning effect in her atmospheric songs. Whether Lana Del Rey will ever generate the tabloid column inches that Gaga does is questionable, despite the former’s superior talent – but she’s already generating them by the tonne on the likes of Pitchfork. Admittedly facets of her image are throwbacks; the teaser clip for ‘Born To Die’s video featured her, topless, in the arms of a similarly bare-chested male. Insert debate about whether she’s taking the feminist movement back 50 years here. When you add the is-it-or-isn’t-it surgery into the equation, that debate becomes even more heated; she’s signed a modelling deal with Next Model Management this week – is this part of her management’s masterplan? After all, the name change definitely was. Her sensuality and sexualisation certainly make up a large proportion of her bankability, like Gaga’s LGBT following and themes were part of hers.
Is she just a submissive sex symbol, slaving and selling her soul for ‘the man’ at Interscope/Polydor? Who knows. If she is, she’s doing a bloody good job of it. According to Polydor’s president, the excellently-named Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, “she likes to control every aspect of her career”. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? Essentially, though, what it boils down to is the music; on the radio, everything else is superfluous. And that’s why, whatever the BBC’s polls say, Lana Del Rey is going to be the real sound of 2012.