One of the peculiar tensions in quote-unquote indie music is the notion of authenticity, which stems from the fact that the genre of music is defined by a production ethic rather than any of its inherent musical characteristics. The wariness of co-optation by the unseen forces of commercialization and mass culture was a product of its time; in the 1980s a slew of new record labels like DC’s Dischord and Seattle’s Sub Pop sprung up across the country releasing music with no chance of mainstream acceptance, catering to a small but growing demographic of idealistic young white people. What they all shared was the conviction that their music stood apart from the hit machine, and the implication that the territory folk music had ceded to pop culture since the beginning of the era of recorded music had begun to rebalance.
Alongside the music itself, a critical ethos developed that paradoxically centered on perfecting one’s consumption habits, as memorably caricatured in the movie High Fidelity. But the market remained fragmented, with a variety of regional styles and the average consumer largely unaware of what and how much music was actually out there. Then two important things changed. First, the authenticity conceit on which indie music depends came crashing down in 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the success of which proved that the new music was mass-marketable. Second, file-sharing specifically and the internet more generally democratized the consumption process; for every stolen Metallica album cutting into Warner Music Group’s profits, people were downloading music in greater diversity and volume than ever before, which sometimes but not always translated into seeing an unfamiliar band live or purchasing higher-fidelity recording media like records or CDs.
Which brings us to Lana Del Rey, the subject of absurd amounts of spilled digital ink whose debut album was finally released three days ago after months of hair-splitting critical anxiety. To authenticity obsessives Del Rey is a product of cynical marketing, no less so because her initial buzz came from a homemade YouTube video that went viral. Her defenders couldn’t see what the big deal was, the songs were reasonably pretty and Del Rey deserves a break as much as anyone else. (Spin Magazine points out the chimerical nature of authenticity by noting that Bob Dylan was never his real name. They’re right, but it’s kind of beside the point.)
Most of the critical response now that the album is out warns of the perils of the hype machine, or blames her for not rising to meet the stratospheric expectations with which Born To Die had only recently been freighted. Whether the album sells despite the critical backlash is an interesting question, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. The latest attempt by major labels to latch on to trends in indie music in the form of bucolic, diet folk groups like Mumford and Sons or The Head and The Heart generally fared poorly among critics but whose albums have sold like hotcakes.
Tiny Mix Tapes, a webzine to which I also contribute, has a review out today ascribing a combative 0/5 rating to her new album. I recoiled initially at the rating because I’ve always felt critics need to be aware that they occupy a position of power that can in a very real sense make or break musicians (granted, TMT not so much). But critics also have an obligation to be honest, and no matter the proddings of Interscope and various public relations men who prompted her name change and other focus-grouped alterations, Del Rey is responsible for her album in the same way Ron Paul is responsible for his newsletters. Writer Nathan Shaffer applies an unusual format for critical writing, creating an index of various references in her album that reveal its flimsy construction. None of them are surprising, it’s a melange of postwar style and 60s solipsism, spoken through wan string-drenched arrangements; a lot of talk about cars and cities and the American Dream, sensitive music for Mad Men watchers. Shaffer also took the unusual step of soliciting the thoughts of other TMT writers, and quotes Jeff Rovinelli thusly:
“We all acknowledge that it’s a shtick, but then presume that we can intuit whatever’s under the shtick — we assume she’s dumb, we assume she’s inauthentic in a way that is somehow reprehensible vs. other inauthenticities that are somehow commendable (ignoring capitalism’s role on either end), but we always refuse to acknowledge the shtick on [its] own, as shtick (especially in her case). Let the shtick stand, address it on those merits.”
The emerging critical consensus seems to be that Born To Die is just, well, kind of boring. Along with the rest of TMT, that’s what I’ve thought from the beginning. Born To Die gambles on the assumption that an album will be successful if you simply assemble the right combination of cultural signifiers; high-waisted jeans, James Dean, etc. In that way it embodies both the shrewd marketing tactics of the music business and the prevailing consumption ethos of this generation, a congruence that makes those of us raised on notions of authentic music very uncomfortable. Both are symptoms of a doomed culture, the former’s undoing lies in the fact that the scarcity on which the music business depended doesn’t exist anymore. The music listeners themselves are caught in a strange contradiction in which music is still viewed as a consumption good but its marginal value is practically worthless. And I notice these habits in myself too, the rapaciousness with which young people perfect their personal cultural assemblages borders on maniacal.
It’s this latter part that Del Rey’s masters at Warner Music Group have underestimated. If the fragmentation and micro-specificity of musical genres says anything, it’s that people’s tastes are getting more specific. In that context, Born to Die reads more like a desperate paean to a unified demographic that is never coming back, especially in its generic appeals to masculinity in the form of one-dimensional fidelity (“This is what makes us girls/ We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first”). Authentic or not, it is shrewd. In the face of an upended music industry, I have to believe Del Rey’s 50s-throwback profile has as much to do with the reactionary impulses of the music industry as it does with retromania.