Ups And Downs

18 July 2012 | 11:04 am | Anthony Carew

"I think what people don’t like is the way that I look... I don’t think it’s the actual songs, because they’re not controversial. And in person, I’m actually not controversial either."

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"What do you think of Lana Del Rey?”

It was the defining question of modern music in 2011, a conversation starter that's been batted back and forth between music fans in their millions. You've been asked this question. You've asked the question yourself. You've thought about an answer, likely informed by two polarising narratives – the goodness of Video Games, the pitch-perfect pop song that descended from the one-hit-wonder heavens last year, and the backstory of its performer, Lana Del Rey, a botox-blasted daddy's girl who scrapped her stalled initial career under her real name Lizzy Grant and launched herself anew with an ethnically-exotic handle.

“I can honestly say I didn't expect anyone to have any interest in me at all, because they didn't for some time,” shrugs Lana Del Rey, the 25 year old at the centre of the ultimate blogospheric storm in a teacup. “Once people started going back and forth with their opinions on me, I realised I was going to have to separate myself from it. If I started living by what other people were thinking, I'd be on a rollercoaster, because it's so up-and-down.”

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Thus, here's the story of the hyping of Lana Del Rey, the artist's essential detachment from her own hollow persona and the equivalent to the abortion debate in 2011 indie music. It began, as always, with the blogs, even 'trusted' organs of indie cred like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear giving the evocative Video Games video and the 'unknown' siren therein their own personal seal of approval. When the 'true' story behind this overnight sensation came down, the backlash was ferocious, vicious and unprecedented. Those who'd been seduced by the song (and, comically in hindsight, compared it to Beach House or Cat Power) suddenly feeling duped; those who pride themselves on their inbuilt cred detector seemingly dismayed at falling for someone whom, the more you looked, appeared to be a lump of commercial clay, sculpted by surgeon's scalpels, airbrushed imagery and PR sleight-of-hand.

So why Del Rey? Why has this fairly vanilla artist with one really good pop song ignited a debate and shone a light on the blogosphere's self-consuming circular cycles – its essential ouroboros – of hype/backlash? Why has she become both villain and victim, a pitiable – and symbolic – figure of fame gone wrong? Why has Born To Die, the thrown-together-feeling Lana Del Rey debut LP, become a musical event for 2012?

“I think what people don't like is the way that I look,” answers Del Rey. “I don't think it's the actual songs, because they're not controversial. And in person, I'm actually not controversial either.”

Del Rey isn't controversial in conversation; in fact she's anything but. In interview mode, the New York native – and daughter of domain investor Rob Grant – is unendingly nice and somewhat supplicating, projecting calmness and serenity with an air of pantomime as she answers a series of semi-stinging questions with served-up sweetness, only a slight hint of annoyance – pissed-offedness, moreso – coming through in her sugary tone.

“You don't want people to hate you,” Del Rey admits. “I don't believe one person should sort of be revered above many, or put down above many, depending on the context. Sometimes I meet people through interviews who I really enjoy speaking to. Sometimes I make friends with journalists, because I, myself, really like to write. If I feel like the person on the other end of the phone is a real writer, who's doing this because they like to write, then interviews are fine. But sometimes if they really don't like me, I also have unpleasant experiences and I'll just hang up the phone if I know that they hate my straightaway.”

There's little doubt why Del Rey's been fielding countless phone calls from puff-piecers and haters alike – she's a fascinating interview subject. A promotional conversation provides a chance to place the person dwelling behind the sculpted LDR look, a glimpse into the soul of a mammal whose effective humanity has been obliterated, Del Rey (“it's one hundred per cent me, it's not a character I'm playing”) now mere meme, not human being. How much does it weigh on Lana Del Rey's soul to be mocked, lambasted, laughed at?

“I know what people say about me. And I read it sometimes. When I hear them talking about me, it sounds like they're talking about somebody else, whether it be really good or bad. Sometimes it upsets me. I do care what people say about me, but I know that it's not important, because I as an individual am not important. All this just doesn't matter… Why this would even be a talking point of any sort is interesting to me, when we're threatened with the collapse of the Euro; when we're faced with serious social problems in America. We've got serious concerns! I have serious concerns for this world and the people living in it. I've got friends with young children and I'm worried for them; the future of this planet is fucking frightening.”

Del Rey has a point – the pop-cultural discourse on the potential plastic surgeries of public figures seems like the ultimate example of fiddling whilst Rome burns, a tragicomic distraction tickling interest whilst island nations from the South Pacific to the Indian are slowly swallowed by global warming's rising tides. Whilst Del Rey's clearly deflecting criticisms of her own career by bringing up the bigger context, she's also showing a hint of her fatalist side, one that comes out in calling an album Born To Die.

“When I was really young and I realised that we were all going to die,” Del Rey explains the title's genesis, “I was really overwhelmed by that thought and that overshadowed a lot of my life. But I also had fleeting moments of happiness where I found true love and I had good friends. So, the verses in that song are heavy, but then in the chorus I say, 'Come and take a walk on the wild side/ Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain.' So, it's just a good place where two worlds meet, the place where death and love come together.”

Whilst there are tinges of losing-her-religion to Del Rey's childhood haunting by the spectre of mortality, she considers herself a “spiritual person”. To wit: “Because of the life that I've lived I've gotten to the point where I believe there is a divine power working in the universe. Because I've had to ask for guidance from, I guess, a God that I don't understand and I felt like I was given good direction, when I begged for it. I don't feel like I ended with a fairytale, but I got hope in life when I got direction.”