Even as the term indie rock has lost much of its meaning in the 21st century, some of its ethos remain. Number one is be real. Number two, if you want to gain admission to our exclusive club, you better be real and wear our clothes, speak our lingo, and work our shitty jobs. Number three, if you’re not going to be real, you better be really fucking good, like Animal Collective meats Radiohead produced by Outkast with cameos from Kanye and Kelly Clarkson good.
The problem with Lana Del Rey, is not that she is a pre-fab pop star. The problem is the bungled marketing of this pre-fab pop star. To readers of Stereogum and Pitchfork and indie rock blogs and zines country wide, authenticity still means something. Lana Del Rey, if you haven’t noticed, comes off as less than authentic. This truth became uncomfortably evident when Pitchfork first interviewed Del Rey and revealed her past name and career (Lizzy Grant), and the involvement of lawyers and music biz professionals in shaping her career to date.
Do you remember what happened when the Columbia-educated, world-pop influenced Vampire Weekend first broke? There was a literal shitstorm. We sneered, “How dare these well off young men appropriate musical styles of less affluent young men! How dare they act and dress like Ivy Leaguers! We may have some money, too, but do you see us wearing nice clothes? We were thrift store clothes, because that’s the way we’re supposed to look. You and your preppy looks are ruining it for all of us middle to upper middle class musicians. How dare you!”
Lana Del Rey, like Vampire Weekend before her, got past our cultural guard and gained entry into our indie rock clubhouse, exposing uncomfortable truths and shaking our own notion of identity.
We still like to think that musicians that break on these websites did it the right way. We like to believe that they worked their arses off, playing hundreds of shows in sweaty clubs to crowds of ten, and then they were just noticed one day. We like to believe that they don’t have their content pushed by an army of under paid publicists. (I can attest to the army of publicists, receiving 500+ emails a week). And, most importantly, we like to believe, us, the cultural class, have a role in the making of unknown artists. We listened and tweeted and shared and if it wasn’t for us, they would still be just be another internet musician. Their success had nothing to do with the PR firm feeding links to tastemakers. We are the tastemakers!
In contrast, to viewers of American Idol, a show that attempts to manufacture pop stars (With varying degrees of success) authenticity isn’t even a consideration. The singers go to camp to have their looks redefined. They don’t write their own material. Presentation is as important content. The whole point is to transform a struggling artist into a known commodity.
Now, let’s do a thought experiment. What if Lana Del Rey had came through the Idol ranks and not Pitchfork? What if leading up to her first album, she released a clever DIY video, like the one for “Video Games,” embedded above? The indie-rocking, cultural class would have been all over this mainstream pop musician with a keen sense of aesthetics. They would have pondered in amazement, “How can this mainstreamer could be so in tune with our culture?”
Instead, by trying to break through Pitchfork and Stereogum first, we had a backlash. We had to answer questions we’d rather ignore. What, you mean Lana Del Rey is some invention of the music biz? You mean she used to record under a different name and used to have a different face and smaller lips? You mean she may have used her womanly charms to make her first album on the cheap? You mean her womanly charms were surgically enhanced?
If Del Rey had broken the accepted mainstream way, and not by co-opting our culture, all of the secondary issues would have been moot. Of course a major label would help their new signee look better. Of course they would manage her name, image, and appearances. And, instead of celebrating her high profile failure on Saturday Night Live, we would have sympathized with her with encouragement, “You’ll get ’em next time Lana! Hang in there, girl!”
As it stands, there is nowhere for Lana Del Rey to go from here. The early reviews of her debut album under her new name are in, and they haven’t been too kind. She’s all but destined to be a cultural footnote of 2011 and 2012.
As for us, that was a close one, wasn’t it? We saw through her shaky image. We did not let a major label force feed us culture we didn’t want. If Lana Del Rey had succeeded in breaking through our barrier there would have been more Lana Del Reys, and then we would have needed to find a new clubhouse.
Oh, screw you, music biz. We have a fond saying in these parts, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again.” Or, something like that.