I must admit that your critiques are valid: I certainly short-changed LDR’s vocal capabilities (unfairly so), and I am most certainly a cynic! Allow me, then, an opportunity to re-evaluate and rephrase. I suppose I was trying to say that, although Lizzie Grant is certainly a capable vocalist, her presence on the album didn’t dramatically affect my impression of the record. Yes, I enjoyed her efforts on “Off to the Races,” but I would have enjoyed the song just as much had her singing been replaced by rhymes from Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. As a matter of fact, this song from Rick Ross’s Rich Forever mixtape would have fit in perfectly on Born To Die:
All of which is to say that, while LDR certainly has some talent, that talent isn’t what makes the record’s high points high, and it isn’t what makes the record’s low points low. I don’t think this should come as a shock to people: pop music history is full of great songs that were great regardless of who was singing them (think, for example, of anything Frank Sinatra ever sang, or any blues song). And so, if Lana del Rey’s actual influence on Born To Die is not particularly dramatic, why are the critics evaluating the record so fixated on her? You wrote in your previous entry “Who cares about her fake name or fake lips,” yet the answer seems to be: a lot of people. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that such things are not relevant, but I remain intrigued by why so many critics seem to think they are.
Luckily, I think I may have found the answer to this question. I have recently been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, a fascinating study of why human beings cast judgments the way they do, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. In it, Kahneman makes the extremely evidence-based argument that, when confronted with an intricate and challenging question, the human mind will unconsciously replace it with an easier one, answer that, and then convince itself that it has in fact answered the initial question. We do this in many interesting ways, but perhaps the most powerful is known as “the affect heuristic,” whereby the difficult question “What do I think about this?” is replaced by the easier and more intuitive question, “How do I feel about this?” This switch is simple, and we do it constantly: it is the technique that most often leads us to choose a college, buy a car, or elect a presidential candidate..
It is also, I think, the underpinning of a lot of the negative sentiment surrounding Born To Die. The question “is Born To Die any good?” is actually quite difficult. You have to have some sense of the record’s goals, compare and contrast it with its historical antecedents, be able (as you mentioned) to separate its lyrical and musical content…it’s a lot of work! By contrast, the question “How do I feel about Lana del Rey?” is quite simple for most people in our demographic. She is the artificial product of corporate engineering. Her lips are fake. She’s filthy rich. Success has been handed to her. We hate her. She sucks.
It is of course a quick trip from this answer to “the album sucks,” and as we’ve both mentioned the album provides plenty of post hoc justifications for this conclusion (“Feet don’t fail me now/Take me to the finish line?” Really?). But, the conclusion also forces you to ignore or even deride the album’s many engaging qualities, not the least of which is that it’s incredibly infectious. Like all difficult questions, the true answer is nuanced and complex, and it cannot be arrived at without acknowledging one’s biases.
The affect heuristic is the constant enemy of the cultural critic, and it is one with which I frequently struggle. In this case, however, I may have found my way past it: I was admittedly pre-disposed to mock Born To Die, but I find myself increasingly drawn to it, if for no other reason because of its confounding mix of compelling strengths and distressing flaws. I wonder then, Keith, what your final impressions of the album are. Do you think you’ll find yourself tossing it aside, spinning it nightly, or allowing it to fade into the recesses of your memory? Or, at the very least, do you think it will have you drinking more Diet Mountain Dew?