01.31.12

Lana Del Rey’s Hipster Problem: Plastic Surgery, ‘SNL,’ and Her Past as Lizzy Grant

Del Rey’s album will be released Tuesday after hate has been heaped upon her for her Saturday Night Live performance and hazy past. But has she already won? Tricia Romano reports.

Type the words “Lana Del Rey” into Google, and you will find more than 40 million results. MTV News, Billboard, and Reuters all currently have stories running about her. This weekend, The New York Times ran music critic Jon Caramanica’s 1,200-word article deconstructing her persona, demolishing her mythology, and, oh yes, discussing her record. (He didn’t much care for it.) Caramanica wrote: “This is album as anticlimax, the period that ends the essay, not the beginning of a new paragraph.”

Ouch.

All this for a singer-songwriter whose first major-label record album, Born to Die (Interscope), is only now coming out (on Tuesday), and who, until three months ago, was a little-known artist with a few intriguing self-made videos floating around on YouTube. But in the span of three months she’s fallen from lauded Internet sensation into a Grand Canyon–size snakepit of haterade, which climaxed when she appeared on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago, an appearance derided as being a massive catastrophe. The performance—during which she warbled unsteadily through her two singles, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” while she swished awkwardly in a long ball gown—compelled even Brian Williams to write a personal email to Gawker’s Nick Denton saying she’d “had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night.”

As a character on Portlandia likes to say: “She’s so OVER!”

Or is she?

Lana Del Rey has already run through four of her nine lives, but she might prove to be resilient. Bill Werde, the editorial director of Billboard, thinks she’s just getting started.

“I think that if you are talking to online music cognoscenti, they would say the hype cycle has gone back and forth seven times,” he says. “But if you talk to my mom in Delaware, she has no idea Lana Del Rey exists.”

In fact, appealing to the 20,000 tastemakers on Twitter isn’t the point: “That’s not the game,” says Werde. “The game for Lana Del Rey is to sell a million albums. She’s signed to Interscope. I think if you take a longer view of this, this notion that she’s been built up and torn down seven times, that’s a tempest in a teapot.”

“The reality is I think she had a fairly steady rise and awareness online to people that pay attention to these things, and then she went to Saturday Night Live, and that elevated a whole level of conversation,” he says. “Can she rebound from that? Absolutely.”

Part of the reason Del Rey inspires so much ire is that her persona is somewhat made up. Three minutes of Internet browsing will tell you a few things: She had once been a struggling singer-songwriter named Lizzy Grant. Her self-produced videos as Grant—a pastiche of nostalgic Americana imagery—were remarkably similar to that of “Video Games.” She is from Lake Placid, in upstate New York, where her father was in the domain-name business. It is not clear whether she was a trust-fund baby or she really lived in a trailer park, which is what she later told Complex magazine.

But, most controversially, she looked quite different as Lizzy Grant. She used to wear her hair short and bleached it blonde. She did not wear ball gowns. Her lips were considerably thinner. (She has denied getting lip injections.) She did not look like the gangsta Nancy Sinatra—which is how she describes herself. She looked more Mary Ann than Ginger.

But then her new music, now produced by Emile Haynie of Kid Cudi fame, stole a dash of Mazzy Star’s heroin slumber, fused it with so-called sad core soul, and paired it with mournful, poignant lyrics about a lovelorn girl. And her vocals were being sung several octaves lower. The result: Lizzy Grant had turned herself from sweet and airy to sultry and dark.

Or someone had turned her into that.

Perhaps people were upset, says Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston, because “they believed in a particular bill of goods they thought they were buying, and it turned out they weren’t.”

They were mad that she was maybe a rich girl, and she was maybe faking being a struggling singer-songwriter: “The class thing—you don’t hear this in the States that much,” says rock critic Chuck Eddy, author of the recently released book Rock and Roll Always Forgets, who also writes for Spin and Rolling Stone. “But at this time, the United States is probably losing its delusion about us being a classless society. I don’t know if this has anything to do with that or not.” Besides, he doesn’t understand why people object to her supposedly rich roots: “It seems like there’s always been trust-fund babies in indie rock. What else would they do? It’s not like there are trust-fund babies making heavy metal or country.”

And the indie-rock and hipster community bristled at the thought that it was being callously marketed to.

“If somebody thought her music was great, and then they found out, ‘Oh, she’s being marketed’—like other indie acts are not marketed—they suddenly find out that she’s marketed or she had a different image or that people are complaining about her rich dad, and that they don’t like her music, that’s utter bullshit,” Eddy says. “If her music is good, it’s good.” (For the record, he doesn’t like it much either.)

“What happens is that people hate feeling like idiots,” says Johnston.

The Internet keeps no secrets, and for the tastemakers, learning about Lizzy Grant was “the beginning of the backlash,” she says. “It was almost intensified by the fact that they were being swindled by a pretty young woman. The interesting thing is female singers invent their personas all the time,” she says, citing Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé. “I do feel the backlash against her in the early-adopter community is this offense at being a test market for things that they think are antithetical to their ideals.”

The key difference between someone like Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey is that it’s understood and accepted that the former is the invention of a bigger image-making machine. But someone like Del Rey dredges up those age-old questions around authenticity in art: Can she really sing? Is she a true artist with a real vision? Is she just a puppet of the record label? Did she write her own lyrics?

Eddy and many other critics will tell you that authenticity doesn’t matter, anyway.

“Stupid people do judge musical acts if they write their own songs,” he says. “Incredibly low-life idiots do judge music that way. Smart people judge music by the music. You know, pop acts for decades and lots of rock acts haven’t written their own songs, so are they good or not? It doesn’t mean anything. It just doesn’t. It just seems so dumb, I’m amazed that people are still arguing about it.”

It is Del Rey’s lips—which look like they were airlifted from Angelina Jolie’s face—that have perhaps caused the most flak. In the hipster community, plastic surgery is sacrilege, and artifice is OK only if it comes in the guise of dyed black hair, tattoos, and skinny jeans.

“People are mad because she wears makeup?” scoffs Eddy. “How old are they? Eleven?”

“If we want to go on a witch hunt through the entertainment business on who hasn’t had plastic surgery, you’d be left with seven people at the Academy Awards. We are in an age where we expect our entertainers to be beautiful,” says Werde. “Look on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and show me the ugly people.”

“People are mad because she wears makeup?” scoffs rock critic Chuck Eddy. “How old are they? Eleven?”

But it takes more than a brunette dye job, luscious lips, and liquid eyeliner to grab people’s attention. There’s an X factor to Del Rey that makes her enticing. And the newly exposed Lana Del Rey is also intriguing and enigmatic because of how little we know about how she got from point A to point B. In a weird way, the Internet, which can suck all the intrigue and mystery out of a celebrity by showing every last thing about her, has oddly helped Del Rey in the same way that it’s hurt her. 

“There’s a lot of curiosity around her because of this perception, where people don’t really understand the story, they don’t know why there’s a Lizzy Grant and why there’s now a Lana Del Rey,” says Werde. “And that adds a little bit of intrigue around this, which helps gets people’s attention for maybe that split second that’s required to get them to click on a video and to listen to a song.”

If she had appeared 30 years ago, we would have known only about Lana Del Rey, and Lizzy Grant would never have existed to us. Today she’s on everyone’s lips, whether they like it or not—a true achievement for any musician these days.

“If, at the end of the day, if you find yourself at a point where everyone is rabidly searching for information about your past,” Werde says, “then you’ve already won the game.”