Full disclaimer: I came here today ready to defend Lana Del Rey. I had a really well-conceived, intellectual argument about Ms. Rey and her confusing past—which is arguably strange. The artist stirred up controversy last fall when news outlets uncovered her first stab at the music industry under her given name, Lizzy Grant. Little Lizzy had a bit of pink in her bottle-blond hair and would have been right at home in any midwestern high school’s “alternative” crowd. Of course, hipsters everywhere began to scream and mourn the loss of their “badass” Nancy Sinatra—the woman who could sing haunting, unique ballads about blue jeans and bad boys that made us feel like smoking cigarettes, shooting whiskey, and maybe crying while looking out a foggy window.
However, it wasn’t little Lizzy Grant’s early music that had these fans angrily putting away their eight-ball glasses and jumping on the Internet hate cycle that labeled her a “fake.” Even without her husky tone and vintage lens, Grant’s old music wasn’t mainstream or commercial. They weren’t even that upset about her somewhat contradictory upbringing that, though described as “trailer-park,” seemed to involve a lot of help from her domain-investing father, who wasn’t hurting for cash.
No, what made hipster music aficionados everywhere so indignant was the way Grant had been so clearly remarketed to fit the in-crowd of 2011—and the way they had fallen right into her trap. Which, I’m sorry, is bullshit. There is no reason that Lana Del Rey should bear the burden of centuries of marketing and commercialism, and there’s no reason that should deter people from enjoying her music, which is fun and great.
Every band anyone has ever liked, save for perhaps some isolated Irish folk music, has been somehow geared toward an audience. At some point, all successful musicians have sat before a desk while somebody older and more powerful told them what to wear, whom to talk to, and what to say. And it worked—they’re now on the “safe” playlist you pull out at parties because their music is “alternative” but well-liked.
The terrifying thing about Grant’s transition from Lizzy to Lana is the realization that maybe, just maybe, our big ol’ brains and liberal arts smarts aren’t enough to discern “true” quality and, worse, that the personal tastes we’d like to believe are so nuanced and unique can be generalized, packaged, and labeled with ease and a few adjectives: “mad men,” “retro,” “haunting,” “big lips.”
So my defense is made—but this article was pitched to me before whatever kind-hearted drug dealer got to Ms. Del Rey at her SNL performance and caused her to sound like a sad cow fighting off a bad cold. More than anything, I wanted Daniel Radcliffe to come on stage and Expecto Patronum that disaster off the stage before the banshee in Lana Del Rey clothes ruined her music for me forever. Still, though critics who were so up-in-arms over Grant’s past were thrilled to see her flounder, I see last Saturday night’s catastrophe not as an example of why you shouldn’t trust musicians made by record executives, but as evidence of a larger, much scarier question: How can we begin to define quality in an age when machines can make a warbling, plump-lipped girl sound magical?