The ‘authenticity’ of Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey

This past Sunday morning couldn’t have been pleasant for singer Lana Del Rey.

The already controversial up-and-comer had just made her American television performance debut as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. With this month’s upcoming release of her first major label album, Born To Die, there was much hype and anticipation before her SNL appearance. But her two performances (which you can watch here) were distinctly underwhelming.

Del Rey looked nervous and bored and had very little stage presence. Not to mention her vocals seemed off. All of a sudden, her post-SNL career seemed to have been given the Ashlee Simpson kiss-of-death before it had even really started. Across the web, Del Rey was panned from all angles.

But there’s just one problem: a large portion of the criticism of her failed to focus on her music. Which is why I say let’s not rush to judgment.

True, I haven’t yet been blown away by any of the songs I’ve heard from Del Rey. But I want to listen to Born To Die before forming my opinions. Sadly, I seem to be the exception here. Many people are all too eager to write her off before the record even has a chance to hit the stores. Why? On the grounds that she is “inauthentic” – an adjective that has been used by Del Rey’s critics almost synonymously with her name.

But how exactly is Del Rey “inauthentic”? Because she was born as Lizzy Grant and opted to use a stage name for her pop persona? That argument really sucks. Think of Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and a substantial chunk of the rest of the entertainment industry. Stage names are everywhere and we love stars who use them, forgetting that they ever were called anything else.

Or is it because she had obvious plastic surgery? If Del Rey’s infamous pout had been enhanced by Photoshop on a magazine cover instead of by needles at a doctor’s office, we’d probably be okay with it. She’d be adhering to our cultural expectations of what a 25-year-old female singer should look like.

What so many people aren’t willing to admit is how petty and illogical many of the “authenticity” critiques of her really are. Or that the “identities” of other pop stars we culturally embrace are not carefully manufactured to maintain certain public perceptions of who they are.

Take Lady Gaga. One day, she’s Tisch alumn Stefani Germanotta playing open mic nights at piano bars on the Lower East Side. The next, she’s a global pop icon who can sell out three headlining shows at Madison Square Garden in just one hour.

Yet the fact that Gaga transformed herself into this expertly crafted piece of performance art when she released her debut record in 2008 never produced the charge that she wasn’t “being true to herself.” Instead, it got fans so interested in her that she’s selling millions of copies of her records and is the world’s most followed person on Twitter.

Lana Del Rey is no different. She is to Lizzy Grant what Lady Gaga is to Stefani Germanotta: a carefully crafted character who illustrates the side of her that she feels best represents the music she’s making. And there’s no arguing that the character of Lady Gaga is what put Stefani Germanotta on the map.

Then there’s Katy Perry. Before she was singing wretched songs about blacking out on Friday nights, she was gospel singer Katy Hudson. But when she wanted to rip off her wimple in favor of whipped cream shooting out of her chest, she started fresh by releasing her “debut” album under the pseudonym of Katy Perry. Now she’s a record-breaking pop sensation and international sex icon who couldn’t be more opposite from the wholesome pastor’s daughter character she was when she first entered the music scene. Yet of all the things that have been said and written about her, Perry has never been crucified (at least on a mainstream level) for her lack of authenticity.

So then why is Del Rey? If she had waited until she experienced Billboard success and then slapped “Sasha Fierce” to the title of her next album, would it have been okay for her to take on an alter ego? To be relevant in a continuously and rapidly evolving pop climate, you need to at least be open to the idea of revamping your image. Do you really think Madonna would be playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2012 if she hadn’t reinvented her persona time and time again after her 1983 debut?

There’s a reason that artists like Christina Aguilera have entirely brand new looks with each new album they put out. It’s so that the focus of the conversation is on them. That doesn’t mean they’re not genuine. It means that they’re smart business people.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with Del Rey. Her first major album hasn’t even been released yet and she’s already been asked to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and has made countless headlines. She’s even got NBC news anchor Brian Williams sharing his opinion of her. How many people can make these claims? And despite the seemingly negative attention, Del Rey’s album sampler EP climbed to #2 on the iTunes charts (falling just under the adorably untouchable chart-hog Adele).

“It’s evident that the American public is now not only aware of this controversial new singer, but that they’re interested in learning more about who she is and what she sounds like,” wrote VH1 Managing Editor Mark Graham in a blog post following the SNL debacle. “In other words, mission accomplished for Team LDR.”

So if you want to dismiss Lana Del Rey, that’s obviously totally fine. Just realize that the criteria you should be judging her on is her music and her music alone. Her “authenticity” should play no role in how her songs are received. Sorry America, but as the genius South Park episode about Britney Spears pointed out, it’s not your job to dictate how pop stars should live their lives. Not to be that guy, but can we just for once collectively decide to let the music do the talking?

Born To Die is now available to pre-order from iTunes.

Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.