Ultraviolence” is out, and the critical apparatus is finally coming to the conclusion that I’ve been proclaiming for years – that the entertainment commodity “Lana Del Rey” cannot be discussed within the “this is good, this is bad” qualitative system, but instead demands we start somewhere closer to “this is something and it is happening to me!” The reason a spectacularly mediocre record like “Born To Die” threw the critical world into such a collective tizzy is not because the music (or its musical performance) was anything remarkable – it was because no one knew what in the world to do with it. We are not critically equipped to talk about Lana Del Rey, or “Lana Del Rey,” or “Lana Del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant”; pop music critics have never faced this sort of adversary. Or, at least, we’ve never been forced to so actively confront it.
In his review of “Ultraviolence,” Pitchfork editor-in-chief Mark Richardson writes that Lana’s songs “would make no sense if anyone else sang them. In this way, and a few others, she draws inspiration from rap music, broadcasting her obsessions and forcing you to engage with the persona first and the content of the songs second.” Richardson, whether he intends to or not, makes a remarkably salient point: to talk about Lana Del Rey (that is, the artwork of/that is Elizabeth Grant) we need to talk about Lana Del Rey the way that hip hop talks about the concept of “swag.” “Swag” is a remarkably difficult quality to pin down, as a perusal through the 478 (and counting) definitions of the term on Urban Dictionary might indicate. To define “swag,” or to identify it’s relationship to a particular entity (his swag, her swag, the song’s swag, the invention of swag, the swag that is turned on or off) has proven to be nearly impossible. A “swag-based” critical system then – that is, a method of criticism that focuses on that quality of an entity that would appear to intangibly define its very existence outside the confines of qualitative experience – would prove to be no system at all, at least under current critical operations. This is why, I think, Lana Del Rey has proven to be such a thorn in the rational critic’s side, and why “Born To Die,” as Grantland’s Steven Hyden puts it, “did for thinkpieces in the early ’10s what Farrah Fawcett did for bedroom posters in the late ’70s.” We are not equipped to talk about Lana Del Rey. We may not be equipped to talk about the relationship with pop music and pop musicians at all. The entire pop music critical industry could be a mistake. “Ultraviolence”‘s greatest achievement might be that it has finally forced us to realize it.
If we’re going to proceed, then, I think that it’s necessary to “construct a tool kit” for “swag-based” criticism, or what I have at other times labeled “sacramental” criticism. This is not a particularly easy task – I’ve spent the better part of three years trying to come up with one and have failed to cull together anything that makes sense to anyone else. In my mind the quickest route lies somewhere in the Catholic doctrine of Real Presence, but this has proven to be largely unhelpful to the average heathen/Protestant. So whatever to all that. But I think, now that the world is finally catching up, that it’s time we put two and two together and get this done with. With any luck we’ll get two, and by the end we’ll all be pleased with that result. I have nothing better to do with my life so this will be all this site is interested in anymore. Toss yr cents in if you have them. Stay rich if you dont. Together we can solve art.