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The struggle to be mysterious in pop

Monitoring Desk

The acclaimed star has always cultivated an enigmatic image – but that has been eroded recently by various public controversies. Is that simply a sign of the times, asks Nick Levine.L

Lana Del Rey is one of the most fascinating and mysterious artists of her generation. Since she broke through in 2011 with the single Video Games – a stunning retro-pop song that sounded eerily familiar yet startlingly unique – she has managed to keep fans captivated without giving too much away. 

This mystique is a key part of her appeal, but it comes at a price – namely, fans and critics asking: “Who is the real Lana Del Rey?” The basic facts can be pieced together from her early interviews. We know she grew up in upstate New York as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant and began writing songs at 18 when her uncle taught her to play “six basic chords” on the guitar. After releasing her debut EP as Lizzy Grant in 2008, she adopted a stage name that better fitted the enigmatic image she was developing – one steeped in glamour, but with a tragic undertow. “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards,” she told Vogue in 2011. “I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba – Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.” From early in her career, Lana Del Rey has developed an enigmatic image – one steeped in glamour, but with a tragic undertow (Credit: Getty Images)

From early in her career, Lana Del Rey has developed an enigmatic image – one steeped in glamour, but with a tragic undertow (Credit: Getty Images)

With Del Rey branding herself a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, this image was so effective and well realised that it sparked a bit of a backlash. When Video Games became a hit and her second album, 2012’s Born to Die, cemented the singer’s mainstream breakthrough, she was plagued by accusations of “fakeness”. Music writer Rhian Daly notes that at this point in her career, some of Del Rey’s critics were “obsessed with the idea of exposing her description of her early life as a fabrication”; they wanted to “prove” that she came from a more affluent background than she claimed. Even her strikingly full lips were considered fair game for a rather sexist line of journalistic inquiry. “They’re real lips, I mean. In real life my lips don’t look that big,” she told the New York Times that year. “I think because I cartoonised the footage of myself in the video for Video Games, things look exaggerated.”

Still, despite this early sneering at her supposed lack of “authenticity”, Del Rey has firmly defied her detractors. Nearly a decade later, the singer’s excellent seventh album Chemtrails over the Country Club has just become another chart success, debuting at number two in the US and number one in the UK. Chemtrails is a richly evocative pop album on which Del Rey continues to build her own mythology – opening track White Dress finds her pondering her pre-fame days as a waitress – and reveals a growing disdain for fame. “It’s dark, but just a game – so play it like a symphony,” she sings on Dark but Just a Game. 

The lack of privacy that exists for anyone with even a modicum of celebrity today makes it challenging to create a sense of mystique – Courtney Smith

Impressively, though Del Rey is playing this “dark” game at a time when artists are subject to increasingly close scrutiny, she has maintained much of her mystique. Thanks to the shape-shifting flair of David Bowie and Madonna in particular, conventional wisdom states that pop stars must reinvent themselves to stay relevant. With such reinventions, the mechanics of pop stardom are often laid bare, because even a genius-level chameleon can’t hide every single contrivance. However, Del Rey has succeeded by doing the exact opposite. With each album, she doubles down on her aloof persona and refines a sound that is cinematic, languid and dreamy. It’s also instantly recognisable as her own. All the while, she has never made it any clearer where Elizabeth Grant ends and “Lana Del Rey” begins. 

In 2021, she doesn’t seem inauthentic – whatever authenticity is – at all. Rather she looks like a proper pop auteur – one who doesn’t try to be “accessible”, “relatable” or anything else that pop stars are supposed to be in the social media era. For years, we have had no idea who Lizzy/Lana might be behind closed doors. In this respect, she recalls old-school enigmas like Prince and Kate Bush: artists we can’t – and don’t want to – picture doing anything as mundane as making a cup of tea. This only enhances her appeal to intensely invested fans who don’t just enjoy streaming her music, but owning a piece of her art. In its first week on sale, Chemtrails became the UK’s fastest-selling vinyl album of the century by a female artist.

The pitfalls of social media

Yet, just recently, cracks have appeared in Del Rey’s glamorous façade, which beg the question: can a pop musician remain truly mysterious in this day and age? “The lack of privacy that exists for anyone with even a modicum of celebrity today makes it challenging to create a sense of mystique, much less separate your private life from your public life,” says Courtney Smith, music critic and author of Record Collecting for Girls. Another significant obstacle to fostering enigma in the 21st Century is social media, which allows artists to be more readily “called out”, then lets them reply to any criticism instantly. It’s this kind of dynamic which has disrupted Del Rey’s latest album release. Chemtrails is another critical as well as commercial hit, but its rollout got off to a bumpy start when Del Rey shared its cover art on Instagram in January. Soon afterwards, she seemed to be needled by comments insinuating that its black-and-white photo of 11 women gathered around a table lacked diversity.Old-school pop enigmas like Prince made sure no-one could picture their mundane 'real' lives (Credit: Alamy)

Old-school pop enigmas like Prince made sure no-one could picture their mundane ‘real’ lives (Credit: Alamy)

In a comment she later deleted, but only after it was widely reported on, Del Rey wrote that the cover photo shows her and her [10] “best friends”. She added: “Yes there are people of colour on this records picture (sic) and that’s all I’ll say about that but thank you.” But instead of stopping there, Del Rey went on to say that throughout her career she has “always been extremely inclusive without even trying to”. She concluded rather defiantly, with a reference to the political situation in the US, by saying: “My dearest friends have been from all over the place, so before you make comments again about a WOC/POC [women of colour/people of colour] issue, I’m not the one storming the capital, I’m literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there on the table 24 seven. Respect it.”

It’s easy to see why this criticism of her album cover touched a nerve. Seven months earlier, in May 2020, Del Rey was accused of racial insensitivity after she complained in an Instagram post that she has been portrayed as less feminist than many of her contemporaries. Because she named a list of mainly black female performers who had in her eyes avoided similar criticism – including Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B – many commentators felt she had been tone-deaf about her white privilege. They also accused her of overlooking the way black women in the public eye have for decades been hyper-sexualised. On this occasion, Del Rey also responded with an Instagram comment, insisting she had simply cited her “favourite” artists and saying it was “sad” to make it an issue involving women of colour. “And this is the problem with society today,” she added, “Not everything is about whatever you want it to be. It’s exactly the point of my post.”

We don’t expect enigmatic artists to respond to criticism generally, or to come out on the defensive quite so hard – Rhian Daly

In both instances, it could be argued that Del Rey simply used social media to state her case quickly and efficiently. But equally, when we factor in her enigmatic image, it’s hard not to regard her somewhat hot-headed responses as diminishing the illusion of detachment she has built up. “We don’t expect enigmatic artists to respond to criticism generally, or to come out on the defensive quite so hard,” says Daly. Still, she also acknowledges that because accusations of racism are so serious and “potentially career-damaging”, Del Rey “might have felt like she had to address them”. However, Daly says it’s difficult to apply the same rationale to Del Rey’s decision to speak out “just as strongly” when NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote about her “persona” in a generally favourable 2019 review – something Del Rey firmly denied she has. “Truly mysterious artists often seem like they exist in another realm to the rest of us,” Daly says. “They definitely wouldn’t be bothered by that kind of thing enough to go on the warpath.”

Del Rey isn’t the only contemporary pop enigma to lose her cool recently. Like Del Rey, Sia has built a certain distance into her public image: since 2014, when she sealed her mainstream breakthrough with the US number one album 1000 Forms of Fear, she has generally hidden her face behind an oversized wig that has become a clever visual trademark. By making herself immediately identifiable yet invisible at the same time, she seemed like one of music’s smoothest operators.

However, she became rather more visible last year – and not in a good way – when she responded to critical comments about Music, her first effort as a film director. When the trailer premiered in November, the film’s depiction of an autistic character played by non-autistic actress Maddie Ziegler was heavily criticised. “Why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY,” she tweeted after engaging in a fiery back-and-forth with actors and activists who were distressed by the trailer. When an overwhelmingly negative response to the film swelled again on its release in February, Sia backtracked by apologising to the autistic community and admitting she had “listened to the wrong people” during production. She also deleted her Twitter account.Sia has used an oversized wig to create a certain distance in her public image (Credit: Getty Images)

Sia has used an oversized wig to create a certain distance in her public image (Credit: Getty Images)

In a less high-profile way, the elusive and inscrutable singer-songwriter Frank Ocean has also felt compelled to defend himself on social media. Ocean earned rave reviews for making two albums rightly regarded as modern masterpieces, 2012’s Channel Orange and 2016’s Blonde, but received a rare slither of negative press when he launched a 2019 club night themed around HIV prevention drug PrEP. He described the idea as paying “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug PrEP… had been invented in that era”. But when some commentators suggested this felt like a crass PR stunt, Ocean took to Tumblr to shut down any criticism. “I’m an artist,” he wrote, “it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to.”

A 21st-Century dilemma

It could be argued that these artists inadvertently fanned the flames of controversy when they engaged with it on social media: by attempting to defend themselves, they simply kept themselves in the news cycle. However, given that public figures are being held more accountable for past words and actions than ever before, it’s probably not realistic to stay quiet and hope for a Twitter fire to burn out. These days, you probably have to acknowledge it, which instantly makes you seem less otherworldly. 

Even Kate Bush, an artist who’s guarded her privacy so religiously that we might call her the patron saint of pop star enigmas, has had to singe her fingers. In November 2016, she gave an interview to Canadian magazine Macleans in which she was asked about Hillary Clinton’s recent defeat in the US presidential election and “the fear of women’s power”. She replied with a warm endorsement of the UK’s then-Prime Minister Theresa May. “I actually really like her and think she’s wonderful,” Bush said. “I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time. She’s a very intelligent woman but I don’t see much to fear.” Bush’s comments were widely dissected online, especially by left-wing music fans who felt disappointed that the seemingly bohemian singer had praised a right-wing Conservative leader.

Bush added nothing further at the time, but because her comments about May kept being quoted in subsequent articles about her work, she felt compelled to post a rare personal message on her website more than two years later. “My response to the interviewer was not meant to be political but rather was in the defence of women in power,” she wrote in January 2019, conceding that what she had said “could make it seem like I am a Tory supporter, which I want to make clear I am not”. Bush had learned the hard way that the internet never forgets.

Beyoncé has managed to parlay her megastar clout into something approaching untouchability – creating a rarefied space for herself where her music alone does the talking

Though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for pop stars to preserve mystique, there are definitely exceptions to the rule. French electro duo Daft Punk announced they had split last month after successfully hiding their faces behind robotic helmets for most of their 28-year recording career. When their disco single Get Lucky became a global phenomenon in 2013, just one grainy photo of the pair “unmasked” hit the internet. We still have virtually no idea who the elusive duo – Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter – might be “in real life”. Sade Adu, better known as simply Sade, the iconic lead singer of the band of the same name, remains an unknowable figure whose musical reputation continues to grow as artists like Drake and Beyoncé hail her as an influence. And Beyoncé herself has managed to parlay her megastar clout into something approaching untouchability: in 2015, she became the first celebrity to appear on the cover of Vogue without granting the publication an interview. She has created a rarefied space for herself where her music alone does the talking. If fans want to know how she dealt with her husband’s alleged infidelity, they can glean only as much as Beyoncé tells us on her stunning visual album Lemonade.French electro duo Daft Punk split last month after successfully preserving their mystique – and hiding their faces – for most of their 28-year recording career (Credit: Alamy)

French electro duo Daft Punk split last month after successfully preserving their mystique – and hiding their faces – for most of their 28-year recording career (Credit: Alamy)

With Del Rey gearing up to release another new album in June, Rock Candy Sweet, what could she learn from these artists? Smith points out that Sade and Bush carved out their musical legacy in an era when it was easier to be mysterious. “They didn’t have the paparazzi following them, gossip magazines running stories about their private lives non-stop or fans wanting to film everyday interactions with them,” she says. But at the same time, enigma will always beget enigma: the less you say and do, the less likely you’ll slip up, and the less you’ll have to respond to any controversy on social media.

Interestingly, though, Daly suggests that Del Rey might care less about her own mystique than she did in the past. “I think she was probably more enigmatic at the start of her career when there were all these questions about who she was and where she came from,” she says. Now that she has proven her artistic worth, she has less need for the protective shield that enigma can provide. “To achieve true Prince-like levels of mystery, I think she’d have to be much more removed from the internet and the press than she is at the moment,” Daly adds. She calls what we’re seeing now with Del Rey “a slow dismantling of mystique in real-time”. Whatever happens next, it will be interesting to see how the next generation of stars present themselves. With mystique becoming even tougher to preserve than in the past, it’s hard to blame any artist who decides it’s just not worth the effort anymore.

Courtesy: BBC

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