I love Lana Del Rey, but her performance on Saturday Night Live earlier this month was godawful. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m not surprised by how negatively people reacted to her TV debut, because it was bad. Bad! No need to qualify it. And no need to defend her either—she choked.
But I’m interested in the more general rejection of Lana Del Rey, the accusation that she’s somehow “too manufactured.” I won’t contest that—Lana Del Rey is no more authentic than any other pop star, indie or otherwise. She’s a calculated assemblage of attractive traits designed to lure us in: her persona is just as important (if not more so) than her voice. And Lana Del Rey isn’t doing this because music is her passion (she’s said otherwise) or to save the lives of bullied gay teens (however noble a cause that is). She’s doing it because she can, and she’s upfront about it.
Why does that get under our skin? Is the admission of fakeness worse than the fakeness itself? While most would be loath to admit it, I’d say the answer is yes. We don’t want to see the man behind the curtain—or in this case, the forced hipster buzz propelling Lana Del Rey to insta-fame. We don’t want to distinguish the performance from reality, and artists like Lady Gaga pander to that. It’s an open secret that however weird she may have been growing up, Stefani Germanotta did not wake up one morning dressed in meat. As a rallying cry for queer youth, “Born This Way” works, but let’s not pretend Gaga’s behavior isn’t an affectation.
I love Lady Gaga, too, and so far she’s shown more promise than Lana Del Rey. (At the very least, she’s a lot more prolific!) Still, I roll my eyes at her assertion that yes, she would dress the way she dresses even if she weren’t Gaga. I’m not questioning her authenticity: I’m questioning why authenticity is even an issue. By now, we’ve been exposed to shows like American Idol—we’ve seen exactly what goes in to the creation of a pop star. This is the way it’s always been, but now it’s more obvious than ever before. So when Elizabeth Grant plumps her lips, bats her eyelashes, and becomes Lana Del Rey, why do we care?
Even growing up with ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached, we knew there was a puppeteer, right? Sure, there’s a difference between bubblegum boy band pop and Lana Del Rey’s “indie” aesthetic. But both are different products created to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. For me, part of Lana Del Rey’s likability is her self-awareness. There’s talent there, yes, but she’s not “real.” That works for me, because I know that no one is named Lana Del Rey, and that no one is born looking like that. If she tried to convince me otherwise, I’d appreciate the effort but I’d sneer just the same.
When people rail against Lana Del Rey, I’d guess their anger has more to do with the fact that what she’s doing is working. She went on SNL and gave what some would call a career-destroying performance (I wouldn’t go that far, but I grimaced the whole way through)—and she’s more successful than ever before. In the wake of that televised debacle, she has given a few cringe-worthy interviews. Talking to FUSE, she put it plainly: “You can’t expect too much from my show.”
But here’s the real kicker: I don’t buy that either. That “honesty,” the disaffected response to the haters, is as fabricated as Lana Del Rey herself. It’s all part of the creation, a weirdly meta character who is somehow in on the joke and above it at the same time. When a performer admits, “I think, like, the people who have been listening to my music for a little while know that I’m more of a writer and, like, a studio singer,” she is daring you to like her. (Like, seriously.) Can you hear shit like that and still get behind Lana Del Rey?
Of course. I don’t care, and neither should you. Because while Elizabeth Grant might give a shit, Lana Del Rey doesn’t. When we attack an artist for being fake, we’re attacking her for exposing the artifice, which is silly. If Lady Gaga can capitalize on our naïve perception of individuality, why shouldn’t Lana Del Rey be able to make a career out of subverting it? Perhaps it reflects poorly on us: she flubs, she shrugs, she rises to new heights of fame. But that’s on us. We can no more criticize her than we can a Kardashian: Lana Del Rey has fashioned herself into exactly what we need her to be.