In Defense of Lana Del Rey

On Saturday night, Lana Del Rey performed on Saturday Night Live.

By the next morning, the internet was abuzz: The Huffington Post proclaimed “Internet Sensation Bombs On Her U.S. TV Debut.” NBC’s Brian Williams called her a “Brooklyn hipster” and “the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history” in a personal email. Predictably sneery cyber bully Perez Hilton tweeted “#DontBuyTheHype.” Musician Juliette Lewis tweeted that it was “like watching a 12 yearold [sic] in their bedroom when theyre [sic] pretending to sing.” And then there were hateful responses like this.

So, was it really that bad? Of course not.

After her homemade cut-and-paste clip for “Video Games” unexpectedly exploded all over the Internet, 25-year-old Lana Del Rey was almost immediately thrust into the hype machine by the notoriously self-sacrificial indie blogosphere (they build ’em up, they knock ’em down).

As quickly as she was regarded, she was almost immediately subjected to a merciless barrage of hateful criticism for everything from “exposes” about her lips (they’re fake, we get it) to her authenticity as an artist because–gasp! She was a failed singer-songwriter in a previous life. Apparently, that never happens in the industry–or does no one else remember Katy Hudson, the Christian rock singer revamped and remodeled as Katy Perry? Or Alanis Morrissette, the Angst-Rock goddess known formerly as teen dance-pop princess Alanis back in 1991?

By the time Lana Del Rey actually appeared onstage, visibly nervous, to perform her shaky renditions of “Video Games” (and later on, “Blue Jeans”), her fate was already sealed before she even opened her mouth.

Despite the fact that Lana Del Rey has become synonymous with “Internet sensation,” most people don’t actually know who she is–much less how her music sounds. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have been quite so shell-shocked by her performance. Juliette Lewis quickly changed her mind after giving Del Rey’s music a proper chance this weekend: “Such great haunting melodies! Regardless of my own taste LIVE she’s a #FreshandYummy songwriter. Period,” she tweeted Sunday morning. And it’s likely she’s not the only one to have cast judgment too soon without even knowing what Lana is about.

Watching back, there’s nothing all that bad even happening onstage: The vocals are only slightly different than what’s being offered on the studio versions (she does warble through scales somewhat uncontrollably), but the only actual issues are from a performer’s standpoint: The twirling, the awkward hand placement, a lack of confidence, the turning away from the crowd. These are rookie mistakes by a nervy performer on the rise–technical skills that can be ironed out and finessed through proper TV training, and hardly a testament to her overall talent as a songwriter.

Then again, Lana’s already made it known in interviews that she even doesn’t like to perform live to begin with: As she told GQ recently: “I love to sing and I really love to write, but in terms of being onstage, I’m not that comfortable, which I think is sort of clear [sighs].”

Being able to recreate the studio experience live isn’t the only part of being an artist, although it’s certainly the most heavily regarded–especially within the ‘authenticity’-driven voraciousness of the indie community. (Because God forbid we just enjoy a good song simply because it is good.)

Was it too soon for Lana to perform on Saturday Night Live? Absolutely. Even Lady Gaga–who skyrocketed to fame almost immediately after the release of her very first singles “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” in 2008–wouldn’t take to the stage of Saturday Night Live until nearly a year later in October of 2009.

Still, it would be considered silly for Lana’s management to pass up such high-profile exposure, and it’s not as though she’s always faltered live: Her performance of “Video Games” on The Jonathan Ross Show recorded only one week prior in the UK is absolutely gorgeous, for instance. Was she still nervous there? Of course. And do her vocals still sound sleepy? Yes. Guess what? She sounds sleepy on the actual record too. That’s the point!

All performance criticism aside, the songs–lest we forget–are still incredible: “Video Games” remains a haunting ballad of dreamy harps and Del Rey’s world-weary vocals that initially set the Internet ablaze in the summer (as evidenced by over 20 million views on YouTube since she uploaded the clip last summer.) The song’s accompanying A-side, “Blue Jeans,” is the embodiment of Del Rey’s self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” persona, mixing Del Rey’s hip-hop flow with the twangy Western beat. “National Anthem” is an extraordinarily evocative and winning blend of Americana-meets-nostalgia (“Money is the anthem/God, you’re so handsome”), while “Born To Die,” currently being offered for free on iTunes, is nothing short of a sweeping orchestral masterpiece with all the drama and conviction of a James Bond theme spliced with the gutsy bravado of a spaghetti Western soundtrack.

As an artist offering something truly unique sonically, Lana’s not providing anything even remotely close to Top 40 radio: She’s bringing us back several decades, referencing everyone from Nancy Sinatra to husky-voiced disco chanteuse Amanda Lear to Warhol protégé, Nico.

She was nervous. So what? Who cares? Next time, consider pushing away the haterade and quenching your thirst with a nice, cold glass of Diet Mountain Dew instead. You’ll feel a whole lot better, I promise.

The Lana Del Rey EP was released on January 10. (iTunes)

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