Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Pop Music Finally Finding a Soul?

Spinner put together a pretty fascinating article recently entitled Lana Del Rey: Can Artifice Survive in the Age of Adele?.  The article discussed how in 2011 the masses embraced an artist that went completely against the modern pop music grain—Adele—and how in turn those same masses (or at least the music blogging community) has turned against an artist that in many ways embodies the plastic glamour of modern pop music—Lana Del Rey. 

Admittedly I have not kept up with the rise of Miss Del Rey despite having seen her name and picture hundreds of times while perusing the various music blogs that I follow in Google Reader.  I figured she was just one of the new hipster flavors of the month like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, but after her SNL performance I read a piece on PopBytes discussing the idea of attacking Del Rey for her apparent lack of authenticity. 
… 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.

The post went on to make references to Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Katy Perry and how each have taken stage names and created personas. 

Now let’s go back to Renee Gold’s piece for Spinner -- 
The British songbird was a commercial and critical success, selling over 6 million copies of her Grammy-nominated sophomore effort '21' and occupying most critic year-end lists. '21' debuted atop Billboard's charts and spent 16 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1, tying the 'Titanic' soundtrack from way back in 1997.

Adele embodied authenticity by refusing to fit into pop music's superficial and sexed-up landscape; she broke its mould altogether. Adele simply stood on her own laurels as a great singer. No bells, no whistles, no fireworks-blasting boobs. Despite wallets being tight, people shelled out in record-breaking droves.

Enter stage left -- wayyy left -- Lana Del Rey.

Working the fringe, play-to-your-friends club scene in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she began her 'professional' career in 2006 under her real name Lizzy Grant and sported a short blond crop and a SoCal skateboarder aesthetic. She'd released music on three separate indie labels when, last spring, she uploaded her DIY vid for 'Video Games' to YouTube and quickly caught fire across the blogosphere.

Redubbed Lana Del Rey -- an evocative name picked by a curious new manager -- she now sported a '60s sex-kitten bouffant and, or so the bloggers blogged, collagen lips, a more streamlined nose and possibly chin-and-cheek implants. (Del Rey has, of course, denied all reports of plastic surgery.) Months after the video went viral, she signed to Universal's Interscope Records.

But perhaps in an attempt to hold onto her hipster fanbase, news of the record contract only became public in October 2011 -- despite the ink being dry in July. During that three-month buffer, Interscope enlisted indie media to build buzz off Del Rey's already bubbling retro-hipster persona. But at the same time they also started plastering Del Rey's face on the cover of glossy magazines as 2012's new 'It Girl' and procured her Next modeling contract.

Eventually, the contradictions became too much.

Months before Del Rey's 'Saturday Night Live' debut became an epic fail, the 25-year-old singer had already become a whipping gal online. Most complaints centered on her authenticity, or rather lack of. Her glamour-puss persona and new blinged-out videoshot in a Parisian castle (with tigers!) seemed a far stretch from her Mac Book-made 'Video Games.' And when the dots were connected further, people discovered she was the daughter of a millionaire. Nothing pisses off tastemakers more than the affluence and privilege of the questionably talented.

And so the questions began...

Was she a real indie artist? Did she write her own songs? (Yes, actually.) Was she manufactured by money-hungry studio execs? Why did she tell people she used to live in a trailer park? Did she get signed to Interscope based on the expertly produced/auto-tuned demo she made with daddy's wallet?


An Adele she is clearly not -- never was -- but that didn't stop Interscope from trying to package her as 2012's 'answer to.' Hell-bent on turning her into a superstar, they instead made Lizzy Grant the first victim of the Age of Adele. She failed the litmus test and now the label could have a bona fide disaster on their hands and are remaining tight-lipped, despite requests for a comment.


Where Adele is art, Lana Del Rey is all artifice -- and that may have been good enough a few years ago. After all, we consumed a steady diet of auto-tuned lip-syncer Britney Spears but she puts on a damn good 'live' show and regularly drops killer singles. And though Stefani Germanotta may have reimagined herself as Lady Gaga, her artifice isauthentic. Like Ziggy Stardust before her, she has the voice, charisma, songwriting and instrumental abilities to make her far more than her cultivated look.

But even if we ignore Del Rey's appearance, the 'SNL' debacle has sullied her live reputation which doesn't bode well for her business-wise, since the new trend in 360 record deals depend on revenue from ticket sales and merch table sales to make up for the dwindling CD market.

In trying to make sense of the backlash thrum -- which, in Del Rey's defense, has always held a wiff of plain 'ol jealousy for the 'pretty new girl' -- one thing is clear, Adele has changed the game.

She skyrocketed to the top on the perfection of her cashmere voice and never let the poptart peacocking so demanded by the music industry define her. Adele's pedigree doesn't dominate Internet message boards (like Del Rey and her fabulously rich father) nor has her stage name ever been focus-group tested. She is pop's zeitgesit and the new standard for which to measure other artists. So why, especially when we're at the apex of a recession, would we settle for anything that reeks of an elaborate ruse? Authenticity is popular music's new currency and everyone (and their blog) are on the lookout for counterfeits.

It’s those last few paragraphs that I think are the core of this entire article.  Essentially, thanks to Adele, the pop music audience will no longer settle for prefabricated pop stars.  The economy is certainly, at least partially, to blame for this.  People have less disposable cash and thus are going to be very picky about what artists they are going to support.  On top of that, after a decade of pop stars that were so plastic and inauthentic that they could have been walking Barbie dolls, there had to be a breaking point. 

In a lot of ways, Adele’s success mirrors that of Nirvana’s 20 years ago.  Back in 1991 we were in the middle of a recession and the masses had been spoon fed a steady diet of manufactured glam metal and glitzy pop music since the dawning of MTV ten years earlier.  With “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana punched a hole through the façade of what it was to be a rock star.  They were three regular guys, playing music from their heart that was raw and struck a chord with people.  Not only were they a huge success, they changed the game.  People wouldn’t settle anymore for bands that were just preprogrammed by record labels and music executives (for a couple of years at least…). 

Fast forward to 2011.  The economy was in the midst of a terrible recession (one that makes the recession of ’91 look like a hiccup) and the masses had been spoon fed a diet of prefabricated and plastic pop stars that completely lacked anything that felt real.  Enter Adele.  She showed up with a voice that’s to die for and she didn’t care that she didn’t fit into the pop star mold.  On top of that, there was real heart in her music (the heartbreak in “Someone Like You” is palpable and painfully honest).  With “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele punched a hole through the façade of what it was to be a pop star.  Now only time will tell if her success was enough to change the game for a whole new generation. 

This brings us back to Lana Del Rey.  In a lot of ways, the backlash against her has not been that different from the backlash thrown at Motley Crue when they tried to reemerge with a new singer and a rougher sound.  People just didn’t buy it and a lot of people aren’t buying Miss Del Rey either.  This also gives hope that finally the masses are ready to embrace those artists that have been playing the fringes but never breaking through.  I suspect that we will see some of those artists breaking big in 2012—The Gaslight Anthem for example.  Just like in ’92, there will be some artists from the underground that become big simply because they are good and the public is more receptive, but I also suspect that it will be a temporary thing (just like it was 20 years ago).  The difference now is that the cycles is much faster (thank you internet) and the public is much more fractured (also thank you internet).  It’s hard, if not nearly impossible, to become an artist that transcends genres and scenes in this day and age.  But now that the public is more perceptive maybe artists like Kate Nash, Jenny Lewis, Lucero, and the aforementioned Gaslight Anthem will become household names.  Lord knows that there are tons of great bands and artists out there that have been making tremendous music and garnering cult followings.  Maybe now will be their time to shine.  

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