Since then, the 25-year-old has become the most talked-about pop singer in the indie rock blogosphere, a relatively closed cultural circuit that presumes that all of civilization is listening. She charmed tastemaking indie rock sites, including Brooklyn Vegan, Stereogum and Pitchfork. The fact that Del Rey had released only a few songs couldn’t stop a punchy, prolonged debate among insiders and obsessives about her rapid ascent, the publicity push behind her and her supposed lack of authenticity.
When evidence of her earlier, less-stylish pop recordings under her given name, Elizabeth Grant, began to surface in the wake of “Video Games,” the bloggerati began to wonder if they had fallen in love with a “real” artist or a mere entertainer — as if making pop music were that kind of binary pursuit.
If you’re in the minority of music fans who have been paying attention to all of this, Del Rey’s debut, “Born to Die,” brings disappointment and relief. It’s an album of irritatingly comatose love songs, but at least we finally have something to talk about.
That won’t surprise anyone who caught Del Rey on “Saturday Night Live” two weeks ago. She gave a frozen, thin-voiced performance that many have called the show’s worst since Ashlee Simpson was caught lip-synching at 30 Rock in 2004. (Even a leaked e-mail that NBC anchor Brian Williams sent to Gawker editor Nick Denton tut-tutted Del Rey’s performance.) Although Del Rey didn’t lip-synch, she certainly didn’t appear to want to be on television, onstage, in that dress, holding that microphone, or trying to push that sound out of her lungs and into posterity, either.
But the central failure of “Born to Die” isn’t Del Rey’s lack of vocal agility — it’s that her music doesn’t communicate actual feeling. Seemingly divorced from experience, or even imagination, her moody, melancholic music carries only the aura of emotion. It delivers glamour without mystery, desperation without consequence, escapism without destination.
On “Million Dollar Man,” when she sings, “It isn’t that hard, boy, to like you or love you,” she sounds like someone who hasn’t learned the difference between the two. That’s problematic when so many of your twinkly, orchestral pop songs are about falling crazy in love.
And it’s the lyrics that make “Born to Die” truly insufferable. Good ones come up against the odds, like daffodils in the snow. On “Carmen,” a song about a teenage prostitute working the Coney Island boardwalk, Del Rey sings, “She laughs like God” — an evocative line in a notebook full of lines that are trying way too hard to be evocative.
“I got my red dress on tonight, dancing in the dark, in the pale moonlight,” she sings on “Summertime Sadness,” assembling a collage of clunky cliches. “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows it, it’s a fact/Kiss, kiss,” she awkwardly raps on “National Anthem,” forcing rhymes that feel haphazard. Like a teenage poetry reading, it’s humiliating for all parties involved.
So let’s remember this collective blush on our cheeks. At worst, this music is a black hole that’s swallowed far too many keystrokes and listening hours. At best, it’s a wide-open slab of meaninglessness — a space for us to project our anxieties about what pop stardom means to our shrinking attention spans.
When our thirst for next big things becomes so unquenchable that it prematurely pushes new artists onto national television, we have only ourselves to blame when they whiff. These increasingly violent micro-cycles of hype and backlash are bad for young artists and exhausting for the rest of us.
The Internet will never slow down, but, as listeners, we can learn to be more patient. Because the next next big thing is always on its way.