Lana Del Rey, What's a Girl Supposed to Do?

Lana Del Rey's Born To Die captures the challenge girls (and some boys) have to negotiate in a pop world that follows many waves of feminism and sexual liberation. Del Rey's music allows us to see how traditional images of sex and femininity push against fifty years of social evolution. Lana is a pin-up, but she knows the trouble of her predicament; her obsessions will give way to despair, and her sadness provides resonance to what otherwise appears a retrograde portrait of love and relationships.

Of course, Lana Del Rey has not made any new statements, but rather performed the seminal pop move by re-fabricating old statements with her own tastes. In fact, her penchant for "Hollywood sadcore" (her term, not mine) creates tension in the same way Katy Perry's humor, Britney Spears' initial innocence, and Madonna's discussions of her "art" transform their music from being mere provocation. By creating contradictions, the songs become the intersection of our culture's conflicting values. "Video Games" became a sensation because it painted the portrait of a helpless creature who knows she is abused but feels apathetic about her position; she is frustrating but relatable.

The album also creates interesting paradox through production, pairing retro images with hip-hop beats. On some of the most intriguing songs--including the infectious "Off to the Races," "Diet Mountain Dew," "Dark Paradise" and the title track--thumping instrumentation gives the melancholy some rap swagger, and allows the singer to move from declarations of love to images addiction, from cutesy rap to baby-doll coo and straight-up laments.

That said, Born To Die has its problems. The depressed pace and subject matter cause some songs to sag. For example, in "Carmen," Del Rey delivers another tale of fame gone wrong on the heels of "Radio," a better track on the same theme. "Million Dollar Man" feels like a sluggish and less visceral re-envisioning of "Off to the Races;" "Man" lacks pulse and Del Rey gives us a list of trite phrases rather than the images and signifiers she opts for earlier in the LP. "Summertime Sadness" also feels redundant; it tells us Del Rey feels sad, like we did not know already.

We do get to leave the album on a high note: "This is What Makes Us Girls," which again shows the singer's ability to create heartbreaking images about girls doomed by their love and bad behavior. It is tracks this good that makes one wonder why the singer and her producer did not opt to trim out the weaker and more sluggish songs in favor of creating a punchier nine-track record. (Not to mention, the artist or her label made the unfortunate choice of offering a deluxe edition with two subpar tracks tacked onto the album that ruin the atmosphere created by "This is What Makes Us Girls.")

Nonetheless, Born to Die builds a captivating if exhausting world unlike anything else on pop radio right now. Lana Del Rey will not steal the alt-pop crown from Fiona Apple anytime soon, but she has created a persona that mirrors the contradictions pop music and its many commentators are peddling these days. Perhaps that is why critics and bloggers are having such a difficult time facing this fascinating and flawed experiment.

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