Lana Del Rey is the most-talked-about new artist of 2012. But where most pop starlets court controversy – think of Katy Perry and her cheeky lyrics, Rihanna and her risqué stage attire, Lady Gaga and just about everything she does – it seems to stalk this 25-year-old singer. In fact, she’s battling a backlash before she’s even released an album.
She became a hip name to drop back in June, when she uploaded her track Video Games to YouTube. Apparently self-produced, its low-key video mixes webcam footage of the singer with archive clips of familiar American scenes: kids skateboarding, teenagers sunbathing, paparazzi snapping. Combined with the song itself – a tear-stained retro-pop ballad about a neglectful lover – the effect is mesmerising. "It's you, it's you, it's all for you," Del Rey sings, sounding sad and hopelessly obsessed.
Video Games became an online sensation – one that's now been viewed 20 million times – and then it became an old-fashioned hit. Released as a single in October, it cracked the top 10 in France, the UK and Ireland and rocketed all the way to the top in Germany.
Del Rey has since professed surprise at its success. “I just put that song online because it was my favourite,” she explained in a recent interview. “To be honest, it wasn’t going to be the single but people have really responded to it. I get very sad when I play that song. I still cry sometimes when I sing it.”
However, the artist hasn’t been allowed to bask in her song’s popularity. The problem? Some pop commentators have claimed that she’s a phoney. One prominent blog even suggested that her plump, pouting lips may have been cosmetically enhanced.
To understand these accusations, it’s helpful to explore her background. The exotic-sounding Lana Del Rey actually spent her formative years as plain old Lizzy Grant. She was born in New York City on June 21, 1986, but grew up a five-hour drive away from the metropolis, in a remote town that she calls “the coldest place on earth”.
Her childhood was comfortable but solitary. “Growing up I was always prone to obsession, partly because of the way I am, but partly because I felt lonely for such a long time,” she admitted. “So when I found someone or something that I liked, I felt hopelessly drawn to it.”
This pattern, she conceded, probably “accounts for some of the creepiness in my music”.
After a spell at a Connecticut boarding school, ambition lured the teenaged Lizzy Grant to the city. Success initially proved elusive. “I’ve been singing in Brooklyn since I was 17 and no one cared at all,” she complained to one journalist. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2008 that she actually released any music.
By this point, Lizzy Grant was morphing into the eminently more marketable Lana Del Rey – whence stem those accusations of phoniness. Exactly whose creation was “Lana Del Rey”?
The answer to that question isn’t entirely clear. The singer is reluctant to discuss her stage name and persona – except to describe herself as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”. But here’s what she said in a 2010 interview: “Lana Del Rey came from a series of managers and lawyers over the last five years who wanted a name that they thought better fitted the sound of the music. My music was always kind of cinematic, so they wanted a name that reflected the glamour of the sound.”
However, she also insisted that Lana and Lizzy are “the same person. I wish I could escape into some alter ego, just so I could feel more comfortable on stage, but I feel the same as Lana as I do Lizzy.”
What is certain is that her early recordings are no longer available to purchase. In 2008, the fledgling singer recorded an album with David Kahne, an experienced producer whose CV includes work by Paul McCartney and The Strokes. The record eventually received a digital release in 2010 – under the telling title of Lana Del Ray (sic) aka Lizzy Grant. However, two months later, it was deleted from the US iTunes store. Team Del Rey insist the decision wasn't driven by embarrassment. The singer was just anxious not to confuse her fans. The album may even re-emerge in the future as a compilation of B-sides.
But whether or not she was "created" – and by whom – there's no denying Lana Del Rey's appeal. Her new album, Born to Die, is an evocative collection of film-noir pop songs. Fresh yet retro, and as luscious as her lips, it's both melodically rich and lyrically nifty. "God you're handsome, take me to the Hamptons," she winks on a track called National Anthem.
If this is ear candy, though, it's the aural equivalent of dark chocolate. Its 12 tracks may have been culled from more than 70 written with a palette of collaborators, but Born to Die isn't disparate. The veil of American glamour rarely slips and there's a recurring theme of doomed, destructive love. For Lana Del Rey has a weakness for the bad boys. "My old man is a tough man, but he got a soul as sweet as blood red jam," she swoons on a song called Off to the Races. The subject of Million Dollar Man is hardly meet-the-parents material either. Her three-word assessment of his character: "Dangerous, tainted, flawed".
Naturally, when our heroine falls for her bad boy, she falls hard. Remember that doleful pledge from Video Games: "It's you, it's you, it's all for you"? That was just a surface scratch. On the album's closing song, This Is What Makes Us Girls, Del Rey reveals precisely how far she's prepared to go for love. "Don't you know we'd die for it? It's a curse," she sings.
In an early interview, the singer admitted that she’d experienced “a dark side to love”. “After I was sent away to school when I was 15, I had to start life on my own, so I began to look for that someone to hang on to,” she recalled. “And if it so happened that I found him, then there have been occasions in the past where I’ve been overtaken by my feelings.”
Even without this provocative subject matter, the controversy surrounding Lana Del Rey is escalating. Earlier this month she became the first artist in 13 years to perform on Saturday Night Live in the US before releasing a major label album. It was a peach of a promotional opportunity, but one that she squandered. Muddling through Video Games and Blue Jeans, the singer looked nervous and sounded under-rehearsed.
Twitter was bewildered. "Wow, watching this 'singer' on SNL is like watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they're pretending to sing and perform," wrote actress/singer Juliette Lewis.
Of course, the contrast between her shakiness onstage and confidence on record has only fuelled her critics' fire. Expect a full-on inferno when they dissect the self-mythologising lyrics on Born to Die. And then spot the names of several well-known professional songwriters in the album's credits.
But whatever help she’s had along the way, Lizzy Grant has certainly managed to amplify and glamorise her personal experience into the compelling music of Lana Del Rey. Is that being a phoney or being an artist?
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.