Two Thursdays ago it seemed like the only thing the music-critic blogosphere wanted to talk about was Lana Del Rey. That was partly because Del Rey had played an exclusive "secret show" the night before at the Glasslands in Brooklyn. It also probably had a lot to do with the fact that, as my friend Maura Johnston at the Village Voice pointed out, it was a rainy day in New York, and the weather was "keeping everyone cooped up and unable to go out to lunch."
To be fair, Del Rey gives critics a lot to talk about. Even though her first single hasn't even officially come out (it drops in October), she's already a lightning rod, largely because she's conventionally attractive and unabashedly exploits the possibilities that her looks open up for her. In many eyes, her apparent eagerness to cast herself as a sex object—and the media's eagerness to treat her as one—are both transgressions against the indie ethic that obliges artists and journalists alike to refuse to perpetuate the sexism of the mainstream music business, even if they can benefit from it.
Of course, Del Rey also makes music, and opinions about its merit (or lack thereof) have fueled the arguments about her image. Since the spring she's been uploading her own music videos to YouTube. Her songs explicitly nod to the sound of 60s girl groups and Chris Isaak's studied revivalist rockabilly, and they make somewhat less explicit references—mostly in the lyrics, but also in the subtle hip-hop feel of some of the beats—to a couple decades' worth of gangsta rap. (In her PR she describes herself as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra.") The videos use found footage to draw a line connecting 1930s Hollywood glamor, the bohemian hedonism of the 1960s, and today's hip-hop heads and skate punks.
The clip for "Video Games" that Del Rey uploaded in July seemed to hit the mark on all counts. It matches a sweeping, orchestral ballad that sweetly/sadly celebrates new love (while predicting its inevitable end) with a string of seemingly disjointed images—Super 8 films of couples at play, grimy skate videos, vintage black-and-white clips of paparazzi juxtaposed with more recent footage of Boardwalk Empire actress Paz de la Huerta being walked to a car in a state of serious inebriation—that hinted at an obscure existential narrative. The original version racked up more than 500,000 views before Del Rey was forced to take it down (she'd allegedly included some copyright-infringing material), and its replacement is closing in on a million after less than six weeks. Multiple cover versions of the song have already popped up on YouTube—evidence that her music, not just her face, is connecting with people.
Much of the talk about Del Rey, though, continues to be about her appearance—and about the fact that her persona is almost entirely invented. Del Rey's real name is Lizzy Grant. Now 24, she spent several years pursuing a musical career (in 2009 she released a three-song EP as Lizzy Grant) before reinventing herself as Lana Del Rey. She recorded an entire album in 2010 with Depeche Mode producer David Kahne, which she's since removed from the iTunes Store. Caustic indie commentary site Hipster Runoff has published photos of a pre-transformation Grant "canoodling with industry insiders" at what looks like a Miley Cyrus meet-and-greet. More damningly, at least in the minds of some observers, in the older photos her lips are noticeably less plump—it's hard not to conclude that she's had collagen injections in the meantime.