On “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” the final song of Lana Del Rey’s much-anticipated major label debut Born To Die, all questions of authenticity and indie cred are answered when Del Rey whispers an order to her imaginary bartender “Pabst Blue Robbon on ice.” Whereas much of the controversy surrounding Del Rey’s image and the marketing that delivered it is able to stay away from the fold, on “This Is What Makes Us Girls” this contrived bit of detail is groan-inducing. Later in the song it seems even more out of place when the girls are drinking “cherry schnaps.” Sure, it might seem like the most insignificant of details, but “This Is What Makes Us Girls” is the only song where Lana Del Rey seems present in the song as a fleshed-out character and the listener feels less than at arm’s distance. The story told is typical enough, with young girls being wild and making mistakes, ultimately growing up too fast. It is a moment that could have brought the whole album together, but, if you don’t believe in what Del Rey shares, the entire record crumbles like a house of cards.
To nitpick the substance of Del Rey’s lyrics and, ultimately, her persona, may seem a little harsh, as most pop music is held up to different standards (lyrically, at least) than we hold up what we might call “serious” music. But, Lana Del Rey does not present herself as pop music, and thus does not fare well when we put her up to the scrutiny that we would place on Fever Ray or Lykke Li or even Grimes. Even one of the album’s strongest lyrical moments, “Video Games,” bites one of its central ideas from Belinda Carlisle. So, while we could sit around and think about what the hell Diet Mountain Dew has to do with anything, or what Del Rey is actually saying when she requests “let’s take Jesus off the dashboard / Got enough on his mind,” it seems like a fool’s errand. As both a music fan and a critic, it is much more reasonable to focus on what exactly works on Born To Die, because, at its base, there is a lot of simple pleasure to be had in listening to the album, mostly with regards to the style.
The self-proclaimed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” is most successful when she focuses on the Sinatra half of her formula, but there is something about the overall production – mixing orchestral backing with hip hop samples – that comes off as fresh, and reveals a keen eye for subtleties with repeat listens. But, as evidenced on “Video Games,” “Million Dollar Man,” and, perhaps the album’s most masterful number, “Radio,” Del Rey can get under your skin when she is selling us the sexy lounge singer; equal parts old Hollywood and trashy strip club. “Radio” is particularly meta, showing trace amounts of Madonna in the verse and even going as far to unleash an f-bomb in the chorus, and delivering her most believable lyric: “baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio.”
Del Rey’s hip hop-inspired delivery (try saying that out loud with a straight face) works within the confines of the record, though the actual substance of her rhymes are weak to say the least. Where “Off To The Races” is silly fun, with love-it-or-hate-it vocal twitches (though, the fake Who-esque stutter in “Summertime Sadness” is far more distracting) that I adore with the same breath that I admit there is no way in hell she will be able to pull them off live, it still must be said that the word “loins” doesn’t sound good on record, in any context. “Blue Jeans” would probably be described by Del Rey as “gangsta spaghetti western,” but, aside from its most basic of forced rhymes (“‘Cause I’mma ride or die / Whether you fail or fly / Well shit at least you tried”), it is still a clever spin on genre, sounding unique, even inspired. And, as easy as it is to pick her apart, what makes Lana Del Rey interesting to listen to, and to write about, is that there are genuine ideas here. Sure, they may borderline on gimmick at times, but Born To Die has its own sound, and that is more than we can say about a lot of music that is presently being released, whether it is pop or indie. And while there are a couple stinkers (“Carmen” and “National Anthem” – in the latter she actually says “booyah”), there is a lot of room for Del Rey to grow if she wants to, as she already has a developed style for delivering her ideas and just needs a bit more to say.