In 2012, people called Lana Del Rey a fake. Now they call her one of the best pop stars of her generation.
At the end of August, Lana Del Rey released her latest record, Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Not two months later, in October, it was named the 19th best album of the 2010s by Pitchfork.
“Her indelible pop melodies are strung together with the grace of a tragic ballet,” writes Pitchfork, in what’s more or less a reflection of the critical consensus that includes her being the only musician on the Washington Post’s “Decade of Influence” list: Lana Del Rey is a mature pop artist, one of the greats of her generation, and someone worthy of being taken seriously.
But that wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of this decade, Del Rey — the nom de plume of 34-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzy” Grant — was frequently dismissed as a fraud or a faker or “a groupie incognito posing as a real singer,” as Del Rey herself would put it in her 2012 song “Gods & Monsters.”
Or, as the Observer wrote in 2012: “She’s a failed pop singer who got lip injections, changed her name, and now has a great backstory about living in a trailer that makes her New Jersey Chanteuse schtick as Urban Outfitters-ready as a pair of tight Levi’s.”
Compare that to how critics talk of Del Rey seven years later, in reviews of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, in which they laud both the album and Del Rey herself: “a fully-realized artist who has remained true to her obsessions — aesthetic, cultural, and personal — outlasting the misogynist criticisms that could have derailed her early career”; “a 21st-century pop poet documenting, much like [Walt] Whitman did, her own perspective of America”; and “one of the most consistent album artists and world-builders of this decade.”
So what’s changed? Is it Del Rey herself? She’s certainly grown as an artist since the days of her breakthrough single “Video Games,” but she hasn’t changed so much as to explain such an enormous turnaround in the public consensus on her. The Lana Del Rey that the Washington Post anointed as one of the decade’s most influential musicians is still in many ways the same figure that the Observer sneered over as a failure and a fake.
What seems to be behind the shift is less anything in particular that Del Rey herself did and more a massive change in how we as a culture think about pop, celebrity, and artifice. Lana Del Rey had the misfortune to come up within a musical moment that heavily prized the idea of authenticity and that loathed poseurs — and now, nearly a decade later, she’s reaping the benefits of living with a new musical moment, one that takes it as a given that everyone’s a little bit fake, that we are all performing at all times, and that to own your act is beautiful.
We’ve known for a long time that the character of Lana Del Rey, pop star, was a work of fiction. Here’s how that fact went from liability to asset.
How a panned Saturday Night Live performance changed Lana Del Rey’s career
The defining event in Lana Del Rey’s early designation as one of music’s biggest contrivances was her Saturday Night Live performance on January 14, 2012. The performance — and, to this day, her only SNL performance — turned her into a national conversation and made her, for the worst reasons, into a household name.
But before the “cool girl” would be deemed an anti-feminist cliché, Del Rey was celebrated as its poster child. Her subversive, 1950s-Americana musical and aesthetic style, her pout, her talons, those impeccable waves — those who had been introduced to Del Rey wanted to consume every part of her. And knowing who Del Rey was in 2011, when she’d released only a few songs, made you cooler than the people who hadn’t heard of her yet.
“Lana Del Rey isn’t exactly garrulous, but always says just enough; though our interview is long and uninterrupted, she raises far more questions than she actually answers,” the Guardian’s Rosie Swash wrote of her alluring mystique in September 2011, in an interview in which Del Rey described herself as “Lolita got lost in the hood.”
“She leaves the impression of someone both shrewd and vulnerable, which combined with the quality of her songs, is not only an intriguing concoction, but feels like the embodiment of genuine star quality,” Swash wrote.
Del Rey’s real breakthrough came from her woozy, dreamy June 2011 hit “Video Games,” and its popularity exploded when she released its music video in October; today, it has over 200 million views. You can almost smell the hairspray in the slapdash, blurry, and non-linear video. It pushed her star even further into the sky, but it also made her the target of suspicious critics.
New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica saw her perform at the Bowery Ballroom in December prior to her SNL performance, when she had still only released three songs, and attempted to define what he called her “carefully plotted” act.
“Lana Del Rey is a singer of songs that are very popular on the Internet,” he wrote. “Stop. Rewind. That’s not quite it. Let’s try again. … Lana Del Rey is a tabula rasa, a punching bag, a reflection of our collective nightmares about American cynicism and disingenuousness. Sure, that’ll do.”
That was the general read on Del Rey in the weeks going into the SNL spot. Prior to the performance, a backlash was building that the ghostly chanteuse didn’t “deserve” a hallowed, national stage like SNL. “[Del Rey’s rise is] the kind of leap few have made, one that’s led many to question whether she deserves so much so quickly,” MTV News wrote the Friday before Del Rey’s SNL performance. “This weekend, she’ll perform on Saturday Night Live, the kind of gig usually reserved for the biggest of the big — and, yes, those same critics have already expressed their displeasure over that fact.”
But Del Rey defended the show’s decision to have her on so early into her career — before she even had released an album.
“I definitely think it’s an honor. … I don’t think they’ve ever had anyone [perform] who didn’t even have a record out, so I do appreciate it,” she told MTV at the time. “[But I got it] because I’m a good musician. And I may not have a record out now, but I have been singing for a very long time, and I think that [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] knows that, and everyone over there knows that. It’s not a fluke decision.”
Then, on the night when the world would finally discover the myth and magic of Lana Del Rey themselves, she did the worst thing possible: She flopped.
No one sounds great on SNL’s stage, with its notoriously poor acoustics. But Del Rey’s two performances during the live show objectively were not good. Her performance of “Video Games,” her hit single, was particularly striking in that she was warbling through the song, her voice vacillating from a croaking lower register into a bleating chorus. It got worse on “Blue Jeans;” Del Rey sounded like she was a ventriloquist singing with a 72-pound dummy sitting on her chest (the “no, please” at 1:26 is a particular lowlight):
Del Rey’s bad showing was, to her biggest critics, a sign that her meteoric rise was undeserved, her sudden popularity a product of smoke and mirrors orchestrated by her label Interscope. The rough live show was taken as proof that her supposed talent was all talk, no substance; Lana Del Rey was a fluke.
Prior to her SNL performance, people were trying to find out everything about the mystery woman who was Lana Del Rey. What they were decided afterward was that Lana Del Rey was nothing but a stage name for seeming spoiled rich girl Lizzy Grant, who had released an album titled Lana Del Rey in 2010 that was quickly pulled from digital retailers and streaming.
“Rather than being an outsider struggling for recognition, Del Rey is in fact the daughter of a millionaire father who has backed her career,” the Guardian wrote in January 2012. “People were suspicious of the way Grant’s failed album, and all her social media websites, appeared to have been scrubbed from the internet just before Del Rey appeared.”
Del Rey’s poor SNL performance gave critics reason to dig into her history in search of more ways to justify their disdain, and that brought more attention to Lizzy Grant. These two performances were proof that her prior failed music career wasn’t a fluke and that her true talent was all image.
The SNL performance became a cultural moment. As the Ringer pointed out in its review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the event seems overblown, looking back: It got to the point where NBC News’s Brian Williams emailed Gawker owner Nick Denton and told him to have the blog punish Del Rey more. “Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night — booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters),” Williams wrote.
“There’s backlash about everything I do,” Del Rey said. “It’s nothing new. When I walk outside, people have something to say about it. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was absolutely excellent. People don’t have anything nice to say about this project. I’m sure that’s why you’re writing about it.”
Even if she failed to see her SNL set as a setback, Del Rey was memed into immortality, and SNL itself even spoofed her — portraying her as a sexy dummy just weeks after she performed:
Del Rey’s debut album Born to Die would come out just a couple weeks later, on January 31. The reviews were mixed, and the specter of her SNL performance loomed over them.
“For all of its coos about love and devotion, it’s the album equivalent of a faked orgasm — a collection of torch songs with no fire,” Pitchfork wrote in its 5.5/10 review. Entertainment Weekly gave Born to Die a C+ and questioned Del Rey’s authenticity: “Is Lana the real deal, or the result of a misguided attempt to build the perfect femme fatale out of Nico’s leather jacket and Nicki Minaj’s wig?”
As Pitchfork and Entertainment Weekly point out, her songs weren’t the real issue. If Lana Del Rey had delivered a stunning, confident, more personal performance on SNL, it’s not difficult to believe these reviews may have been more positive — because it was Del Rey herself that critics couldn’t get behind.
The clash between artifice and authenticity, and how that relationship translates into artistry, has existed before and will continue to exist long after Lana Del Rey. But it has been the defining conversation surrounding her career and her image, and just how much Del Rey is in control and aware of said image.
As Del Rey argued then and continues to uphold now: If her songs are good, does it matter if her persona is all just a show? Does Del Rey truly need to feel every gory bit of bleak doom that she expresses in her songs to create great art? If Del Rey’s greatest crime is cultivating and calculating her own image, then what keeps us from being deemed guilty of the same thing as we edit and present our lives on social media today?
And does it really matter who Del Rey is if her music is good? In 2012, it sure seemed like it. Now, that’s no longer the case.
In 2012, calling a pop star a poseur was a major insult. Today, it seems beside the point.
The idea that Del Rey was inauthentic was nearly fatal in 2012. But in the seven years since then, it’s become less a liability for her and more of a strength. And that’s because over that time, the way we think about pop stars and the personas they wear has changed radically.
For a long time, music critics held that the greatest thing a musician could be was “authentic.” And “authentic” meant something specific: It meant the musician wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and performed live (never lip-synching). All of this together meant that, through the power of their art, they were expressing their truest self to the world.
That ideal emerged from a rockist idea of authenticity, a system of thought that held sway in music criticism from the ’70s into the 2010s. Rockism held that rock and its grittiness were self-evidently superior to the slick artifice of pop, and it continues to hold sway at institutions like the Grammys. But through the 2000s and into the 2010s, it slowly began to lose its dominance in music criticism. By the end of the 2010s, artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX had become critical darlings — women who embraced pop music at its most synthetic.
“To glorify only performers who write their own songs and play their own guitars is to ignore the marketplace that helps create the music we hear in the first place, with its checkbook-chasing superproducers, its audience-obsessed executives and its cred-hungry performers,” wrote Kelefa Sanneh at the New York Times in 2004. “To obsess over old-fashioned stand-alone geniuses is to forget that lots of the most memorable music is created despite multimillion-dollar deals and spur-of-the-moment collaborations and murky commercial forces. In fact, a lot of great music is created because of those things.”
In place of the rockists rose up the poptimists, who held that pop could be its own art form on equal footing with rock music, who broke down the craft that it takes to write an unspeakably catchy pop hook, and who argued that out of the artifice and theatricality of pop could emerge a new kind of authenticity.
Poptimism’s love of artificiality laid the groundwork for the idea that it is okay for a pop star to have tried on multiple personas on their road to success and that this does not necessarily make them bad or inauthentic artists. And in the era of poptimism, rock’s focus on a very specific idea of authenticity has come to seem a little passé. By 2017, rock had lost its crown as music’s most consumed genre in Nielsen’s yearly analysis.
Pop, meanwhile, flourished, and so did the theatricality and playful persona-building that came with it. But while pop was gaining critical credibility, we didn’t quite have a vocabulary ready to talk about all of it. We didn’t have a way of talking about the image building and performance that is intrinsic to pop as a genre — or at least, we didn’t until star studies went mainstream.
Star studies is an academic discipline that emerged out of film criticism. It says that we don’t know who celebrities “really” are, what they’re really like as human beings. Instead, what we see is a persona that they develop for public consumption, a construct that academics call the “star image,” made up of interviews and public appearances and the movies and music and work that stars make.
From the star studies point of view, whether that star image is fake or real is a meaningless question. We aren’t ever going to have access to the real human being under the persona, so who cares? What matters is the way we perceive the star image and the way it affects how we experience the star’s art.
Star studies emerged in academia in the 1970s and ’80s, but it wasn’t a discipline that most laypeople heard about until the 2010s. Arguably, the person who did the most to mainstream it was the writer Anne Helen Petersen, who has a PhD in media studies from the University of Texas and began writing gossipy, accessible star studies analysis for culture websites like the Hairpin in 2011. In 2014, Petersen did a star studies analysis of Jennifer Lawrence, then at the peak of her fame, for BuzzFeed, and the piece went viral.
For many people who read a lot of viral online discourse, Petersen’s article was their introduction to the idea that every celebrity — even those celebrated for their apparent authenticity, like Lawrence — has a persona that can be analyzed, a star image. And having a star image doesn’t make a celebrity manipulative or fake. It makes them a star.
With this analytical framework in place, Lana Del Rey’s past as failed bubblegum pop star Lizzy Grant is no longer a liability. It’s a curiosity, an early stab at a star image that didn’t quite work for her, just like that failed SNL performance is no more than a blip in what’s now a career of consistently excellent performances.
“She is thriving, and mutating, and improving such that the spotty but occasionally excellent Born to Die is probably, in retrospect, her worst album,” Rob Harvilla wrote for the Ringer this summer, looking back at Del Rey’s career in anticipation for her album Norman Fucking Rockwell!. “[S]urviving a pitched internet shaming back then turned out to be good practice for surviving in the real world now.”
Harvilla points out that Cedric Gervais’s 2013 remix of Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” is Del Rey’s only Top 10 hit song, but even amid the heavy EDM beats, it still flexes Del Rey’s morose, fatal existentialism — a trait Harvilla says has become Del Rey’s signature musical and visual style.
Del Rey would stick to her glamour death aesthetics on 2014’s Ultraviolence, which topped the charts and gained critical acclaim.
“Ultraviolence masterfully melds those elements, and completes the redemption narrative of a singer whose breakout-to-backlash arc on 2012’s Born to Die made her a cautionary tale of music-industry hype,” reads Kyle Anderson’s review in Entertainment Weekly, the same publication that docked points for Del Rey’s authenticity two years prior. Her SNL failure seemed to have faded from memory; no longer was it proof that she was an undeserving wannabe. Critics now could hear the effort and quality of her music, but they saw her sad girl Americana style as a boon, not a detriment.
Del Rey’s lack of traditional rockist authenticity is what now makes her exciting. “Del Rey made a sonic and emotional argument for collapsing the boundaries that uphold authenticity as a cultural value,” wrote Ann Powers at NPR earlier this year, arguing that the Lana Del Rey character that Lizzy Grant created emerged directly from “America’s psychic swamp.” To Powers, the persona of Lana Del Rey is part of the same artistic tradition that connects “European Surrealism to American horror and noir, free-associative jazz improvisation to the transgressions of post-punk” — and, now, to Del Rey herself.
Del Rey reacted to Powers’s review with outrage. “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will,” she tweeted, despite the unassailable fact that Powers’s review was by any measure highly complimentary and “Lana Del Rey” quite literally being a persona.
While Del Rey’s response was in some ways understandable, coming from an artist who’s been repeatedly dragged during her career for being fake, to many onlookers it seemed wildly out of proportion. Couldn’t Del Rey see that when Powers talked about Del Rey’s persona she was complimenting her artistic project?
“[Del Rey’s] entire act and legacy is built around a cinematic and larger-than-life vision, and her rich and dreamlike music reflects that,” wrote Eden Arielle Gordon at Popdust about Del Rey’s reaction to Powers’s review. “That vision is what makes fans follow her every move. It’s what defines most great artists, that element of performance that cuts through and creates something real, if only in its distortion.”
In other words: Lana Del Rey is made up, and it is precisely what makes her great. A real person could never contain all the ideas that a fictional persona can.
So if the existence of Lizzy Grant suggests that the idea of “Lana Del Rey” is maybe a little bit fake — well, as Del Rey’s successor in weird girl pop Billie Eilish would say, “duh.” What pop star isn’t made up? And in the end, isn’t the fakery the thing that actually makes her real?
Author: Alex Abad-Santos