“Everything I want I have. Money, notoriety and Rivieras – I even think I found God in the flash bulbs of your pretty cameras.”
… So proclaims Lana Del Rey’s Twitter page, and while the epitaph sounds like it came straight from the mouth of Kanye West, it aptly sums up 2011 for the sultry songstress. It is almost superfluous to write anything about Lana Del Rey at this point in time. So much has been said about the 25-year old singer – from vicious diatribes that attack her perfect figure and sumptuous lips (OK she had a collagen injection, so did your mom!), to wild support from her 50+ thousand Twitter followers, to exhaustingly detailed thinkpieces that comment on the Internet’s role in music distribution and the industry’s profit-seeking manipulation. While everyone seems to disagree on Lana Del Rey’s ‘authenticity’, one thing we can all agree on is her impact on the 2011 music scene. For a previously unheard of trailer-park songwriter (though some have argued that her humble upbringing is part of her manager’s elaborate back-story creation), Del Rey has made quite an entrance into the public consciousness; all this without an album to her name.
My favorite thing about Lana Del Rey is not her voice (which is actually very good), or the artfully poignant video to “Video Games,” or even her careful ‘50s posturing. No, what I find most fascinating is the fact that absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, about Lana Del Rey is genuine. Which in a way makes everything genuine. There are many different ways an artist can create a musical persona. Most often an alter ego is used to try out a ‘new’ sound: see Sasha Fierce or Ziggy Stardust. Or a supplementary persona can be used to create an artistic aesthetic, but generally bears no effect on the music itself: see Katy Perry’s Candy Land pinup girl and Kesha’s drunk glitter-queen – the interesting thing is that despite their aesthetic polarities, both artists produce very similar songs that are written by the same guy (the ubiquitous Dr. Luke). The former involves the sound, the latter, the image. But generally when an artist ‘creates’ this image, or alter ego, the public is fully aware of it; record labels make it explicitly clear. Subtlety is not the answer – just look at Beyonce’s I Am…Sasha Fierce, or Garth Brooks’ horribly misguidedThe Life of Chris Gaines. But what happens when an artist embodies her alter ego so devotedly that her real identity fades away completely?
Elizabeth Grant began hitting the open-mic scene in New York in the early noughties, but when her gimmick-free performances garnered no acclaim, her manager decided to step in and perform a little makeover. Grant moved to London, and began performing under the moniker Lana Del Rey (a fusion of Hollywood glamour star Lana Turner, and the midsized family car, the Ford Del Rey). At first the transition was simply a way to get noticed; styled after Melissa George in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Lana Del Rey oozed old-Hollywood charm. With honeyed hair and newly-pumped up lips (the before and after photos of her lips are staggering), Grant recorded a full-length album entitled Lana Del Rey AKA Lizzy Grant. It would seem that her label was following the tried and true method of complete transparency; the audience would be able to recognize the difference between the small-town Lizzy and the smoky Del Rey.
This is where things took a turn for the interesting.
Grant’s debut album failed to get any media attention, and it wasn’t until the 2010 release of the EP Kill Kill that anyone took notice. But then Kill Kill was withdrawn from iTunes and the album Lana Del Rey AKA Lizzy Grant seemed to just disappear. This was the moment that Elizabeth Grant, the girl who used to perform in school plays at Lake Placid High School, ceased to exist, and was replaced by the pouty Lana Del Rey.
Lana Del Rey is not an alter ego; Lana Del Rey is a reinvention. For official purposes, Lizzy Grant no longer exists. Try and visit lizzygrant.com and you will be taken to lanadelrey.com. When asked directly about her past, Del Rey (there really is no point referring to her birth name anymore) gives vague and ambiguous answers.
Sometimes it seems that Del Rey herself is oblivious to her management’s devious manipulation: “It’s not like I planned on erasing my history,” she told GQ. Well maybe youdidn’t Lizzy, but someone certainly did.Lana Del Rey is an artfully manufactured construct; everything from her name, to her lips, to her makeup is presented in an aesthetically specific way. And so I will say it again: nothing about Lana Del Rey is genuine, which, in its own peculiar way, makes everything about her genuine. She never steps out of character, she never misses a beat. She is so deep inside her own character, that she can’t tell reality from fiction. Despite her artificiality, Del Rey’s music is deceptively personal. “Video Games” sincerely feels like an ode to a lover; “Blue Jeans” drips with honest longing. This is what makes her gimmick so effective. Her stories of love and loss feel real. It never seems like she is acting. So maybe there always was a Monroe-esque Americana diva inside Lizzy Grant, and all it took was a cunning, multinational record label to draw it out. David Lynch couldn’t have done any better.