“It’s late,” I tell the husband unit. “Tee’s drunk. You’re getting there. Let’s go.” We’re at the Gotha Lounge, and just as we shuffle out of our chairs, a lady approaches us. She recognizes the husband unit from over 6 years ago when she met him at a hostel on a whole other continent. They’d dated briefly, so he’s quick to introduce me as his wife. To make her at ease, I tell her how funny this whole situation is. She asks if we’d like to have a drink with her and her group, and given the unlikelihood of this run-in, we don’t feel we can say no. Tee grabs a cab and we join her posse.
While she and the husband unit catch up, I chat with some of her friends. We’re the only ones left in the place. The bartender changes the music to something that says “closing time.” It’s sluggish, with instrumentation that’s at times jazz-club-bare, at times faintly intricate. The singer’s voice seems lazy, but she shifts from a low alto to a high mezzo without any real effort. Then I hear a familiar intro with chiming bells and a harp. It’s Lana Del Rey.
Outside the context of her notorious SNL performance and the Twitter fury that followed, it turns out that her music—like a lot of music—has a time and a place. For us, it was in an empty lounge on the coldest night in January, surrounded by strangers and old flames. Lana’s sound paints that night. And even if it weren’t for that night, there’s nothing really wrong with her sound.
What we don’t like about Lana isn’t entirely Lana’s fault. There’s no rags-to-riches story with her. She went to boarding school in Connecticut. Her wealthy father financed her early work. And I’m not sure what she was doing in Miami, L.A. or NYC, where she claims to have drawn so much inspiration, but I doubt she was waiting tables. Her background conflicts with the working-class mystique that’s supposed to constitute modern celebrities. If your origins don’t include living in a car with your mother while you attend auditions, people won’t root for you. It’s the anti-aristocratic way of the New World.
Despite being drop-dead photogenic, Lana couldn’t parlay that beauty into tangible sex appeal. Instead, her live performances are hopelessly awkward. She sings well, but she’s fidgety. As my friend Kartina Richardson puts it, “she stopped playing the game and forced us to bear witness to her crippling fear.”
While this is hardly a sin, in the age of Gaga theatrics, it just won’t do.
Incidentally, there isn’t much to Lady Gaga’s songs. They’re dance club fodder, but musically, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about them. It’s pop. And pop doesn’t need to “pop” to be Pop. It just has to be pleasantly predictable.
On closer inspection, Lana’s lyrics are deeper than Gaga’s, not that it takes much. The rhythm and rhyme demonstrate a keen awareness that the words, at some point, have to be sung. Lana’s language is easy, unpretentious and sprightly. When her talent matures, what she’s after will be easier to grasp.
It’s a shame Lana hasn’t been able to shake the SNL fiasco. She rose to fame as an Internet star and couldn’t deliver past radio viability. Though that’s something, isn’t it? Her voice is fine. Her music has a quality of its own. Where most of today’s chart-toppers won’t sing without a robot handy, can’t we get behind the autotune-free vocalist?
Lana’s message is best conveyed in audio. She belongs on your iTunes or in your phone, so long as she’s in the background. We’ll just have to resist her pretty face until she graduates from the Lee Strasberg.