[Editor's note: The Upsetter is a new weekly column exploring music news and pop history from a perspective that is both bewitched and bothered. Here, Andrew Stout will explode the old clichés of rock journalism to make room for some new ones.]
In 1995, Brian Eno took a break from Photoshopping womens' bottoms "to cosmic proportions" and producing a David Bowie album -- two of his more notable preoccupations that year (as detailed in his published diary A Year with Swollen Appendices) -- and jotted a memo to himself.
"Where do you work?" Eno asked. "Do you work 'inside' or 'outside'? To work inside is to deal with the internal conditions of the work -- the melodies, the rhythms, the textures, the lyrics, the images: all the normal day-to-day things one imagines an artist does. To work outside is to deal with the world surrounding the work -- the thoughts, assumptions, expectations, legends, histories, economic structures, critical responses, legal issues, and so on and on. You might think of these things as the frame of the work."
With these words, Eno, ahead of the curve as ever, must have been thinking about Lana Del Rey. The Internet phenomenon has just wrapped a year spent working almost entirely "outside" (to use Eno's term) releasing a series of trailers-for-videos-of-singles-leaked-to-promote-an-album -- Born to Die.
Last week the Internet received her latest video, "National Anthem." As with her previous four singles, the production is strangely non-descript, as if it was constructed from a smattering of GarageBand's preset drum loops and synth sweeps. Del Rey tries to pick up the slack with her words, striving as she does for a certain bold ambiguity, the stock-in-trade of self-styled controversial pop. But with lines like "Money is the anthem/ God, you're so handsome" she falls well below the ear-teasing standards set by the likes of Little Richard and Lady GaGa.
That Del Rey's actual music isn't very interesting doesn't much surprise her detractors anymore. I don't get the impression the songs are really what Team Del Rey invest their resources in anyway. She is an artist who works outside "the internal conditions of [her] work -- the melodies, the rhythms, the textures, the lyrics." And it's based on "the thoughts, assumptions, expectations, legends, histories ... and so on" surrounding her work that she should be discussed. So let's do that.
The video for "National Anthem" plays with the defining imagery of the early 1960s. We see glimpses of the Kennedys, Marilyn in decline, and the phenomenon of fame at its most powerful and untarnished, right before Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan implored us to have a conscience about these things. The video conjures the last moment in American history before the anonymous person's dreams of glamor became complicated by a growing awareness of its often inhumane cost.
All these signs and referents serve the Del Rey brand well, which is based on conjuring an update of the Atomic Age with its doomed optimism. Del Rey describes her brand as "Gangsta Nancy Sinatra" and calls her own music "sadcore pop." But Jackie, Marilyn, and Jack represent the most tired iconography this side of the Bible, and "National Anthem" doesn't lift a finger to freshen these clip art images of looming tragedy. With "National Anthem" we've taken a turn into the realm of cliché -- the suburban side street of bad art -- and it's an embarrassing place to slum it for a bloated seven-plus minutes.
It's all very puzzling how unclever and ultimately corny Del Rey's exceedingly stylized world is. Once stitched together, the shots of Camelot's rise and fall in "National Anthem" play like a perfume ad run through an Instagram filter. The video doesn't defuse a series of charged images so much as document a dress-up party -- "Hey, let's pretend we're the Kennedys!" -- and the flippancy this might suggest doesn't even retain the fuck-you spirit of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. There's an odd reverence in Del Rey's nod to the Kennedys, something that calcifies the video's mood and makes it less thought-provoking than it could be.
It seems if you're going to be an artist who works "outside", if you're going to present yourself as more a phenomenon than a talent -- as a spectacle around which the zeitgeist should organize itself -- then it might behoove you, before you sign-off on the trailer-to-the-video-for-the-single-that's-promoting-the-album, to make sure you have something to sell: an idea, a worldview, a strong intuition about something (anything) that you can transmit to an audience as viscerally as you first received it. To lack the conceptual gifts to bolster the songs is really the death of an artist who chooses to work outside.
In Brian Eno's diary from 1995, he goes on.
"Who said music should be at the center of experience?" Eno asks. "Why isn't it acceptable to have an artist who works in a number of fronts, one of which is music? Why not, further, accept the idea that the music could itself become a package -- an interesting way of presenting a series of modern haircuts, for example?"
If only Del Rey had an interesting haircut to present behind the neverending leaks and launches and releases and promos and reveals that, in the year since "Video Games" appeared, have defined her art. If only she had some startling new insight about fame or death or sex or Googie architecture or cutlery -- something. Anything. If only there was a there there. Then these little advertisements for herself might be kind of cool.