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The Calvert Report

An American Nightmare: Lana Del Rey Live By John Calvert
John Calvert , September 27th, 2012 06:02

This week The Calvert Report attempts to understand Lana Del Rey live, "chart music where death is a 'dark paradise'". Live photo by Katja Ogrin

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I met her last year. She talked about loneliness and how she never had any time for religion, until she got into some trouble in New York and prayed in her bed, and God became a light. She laughed like a hellion and at other times was melancholic, said she would never sing again if anyone hurt her family, said she hoped I wasn't an assassin, because the week prior to our conversation, and the week after 'Video Games' blew up, the American blogs had written terrible things, about her father and her past. She told me all her best friends were Glaswegian and that sometimes she felt out of control. She told me depression was something she knew all about, after she was sent away to school at 15, and again at 18, when she moved to Manhattan and would walk the streets at night in lieu of having anyone. She said she'd been the prey of industry seniors, fiends testing how far she was willing to go for success, and that things can get 'a little crazy' in that way. She said that she was looking for love not sex.

I listened back on that interview tonight, this night on the edge of winter, on the way up to the fearsome queues and The Roundhouse. I noticed something I hadn't a year ago. At the end of the recording I speak softly in farewell and the way you do when you're being grateful. She responds to my newly tender tone with a baby-doll at bedtime act; her small-town accent, permanently on the verge of a croak, pulled into tongue-clicking cuteness. Yes it's Psycho(tic)-sexual. It's Marilyn in white and blood. I think about The Exorcist, Karras replaying his dark afternoon in reverse in a shabby office, alone with the knowledge of his imminent fate on the steps of M Street. I was spooked on the Northern Line to Camden Town.

You see, whoever works on marketing Lana Del Rey as pop star, and deriving this image from the raw material of Lizzie Grant, got the idea only after meeting the girl. I'm sure of it, always have been. Because what are we talking about here but pop music as self-abjection, as self-defeat, a distorted sexuality and a very American kind of strangeness, completely at odds with an art-form where vitality, competition, confidence and most of all triumph have always been the real message, however agonized the subject matter. And it is for this reason – the woman she is and the music she inspired - that tonight is a bust for the iTunes competition winners. The songs are slow - slow in their crawling, blossoming darkness and slow in their languorous glamour. It has a way of highlighting just how rare Born To Die was, how depth and measure are a lost art amid the most prolonged dominance of dance pop since the 80s - the same hegemony that made 'Video Games' such a exotic proposition last year. But tonight these widowed ballads leave the audience at a loss for what to do with themselves. And I think to myself 'what were they expecting?' Light years from the days of Britney-pop, this is chart music where death is a "dark paradise", where lovers are united only "on the other side", where the wish to die is always placed in uncanny parallel with sexual longing, and where affectless 'Lolitas' give themselves over to gold-toothed wolves, who watch them "through the glass" like "trap door mammas." Irresponsible? Manufactured in some studio laboratory? Detrimental to the cause of feminism? Yeah, all these things. But frankly I don't give a fuck. Because this is pop music at its most sinister, and which has found its way into the very highest levels of the mainstream - maximum exposure. And so 2011's most ubiquitous pop song expires on: "Now you're doomed... Now you're doomed."

And as I always do when I'm covering these kind of events, in order to better understand the artist I try to put myself in the place of the artist's fans, in this case the battery of teen girls at the front; no mean feat for a semi-neurotic 32-year-old male with short hands and weird hair. How do they relate this stuff to their own lives, I think. Do they identify with the perceived artistic beauty of suicide? Or the thrill of bad men? Or maybe the apocalyptic melodrama, because every setback seems like that as a kid? Ah maybe I'm over-thinking it and it's just the glamour and the great singing they like. Then again, maybe they feel empowered by their female idol? Who knows? In truth, for all I know the Lynchian aesthetic is so ingrained in the popular consciousness by now that even kids understand and take as much pleasure in Lynchism as an adult film fan such as myself does. But if so, then just what the hell are they internalising here, at such a young age? I think about my ex-girlfriend, who played this album for weeks on end, and who dealt habitually with obsession and hopelessness like they were knives she kept. I know now what she saw in old Lana.

The underwhelmed audience are whelmed further under by a number of factors. For starters, there are no drums – substituted for a piano on rhythm duties. Along with lending extra menace, on Born To Die the drums modernised the songs, offering either Bjork-ian industrial percussion or slow-jam R&B rhythms: sorely absent here, at least where the good time revellers are concerned. To make matters worse, there's an extended section featuring just Lana and the piano, stripping 'Million Dollar Man' of its pendulum-assed strut, while the (let's face it) Shakespeare Sister-esque 'Radio', Born To Die's most bewitching track, loses its hip-hop beat and fatalistic synths. And with just the ivories as accompaniment, 'Video Games' is suddenly upon us and suddenly over. It's a non-starter when it should have been a blockbuster. There's no peaks, no downs, no arc here; no signposts and markers to orientate the crowd around the set; just a listless and twitching plateau.

And then there's Lizzie herself. Reaching out from behind dramamine eyes is a frail, dazed and, yes, industry-coerced person, entirely ill-suited to the world of corporatised entertainment, with its expensive sets and Howitzer-like TV cameras; with people everywhere, sitting around the floor, swarming the sound desk and leaning from between rigging, or else watching live from home on the iTunes livecast.

She creeps on stage, as if there's a chance we won't notice. So that she can feel comfortable in herself, you sense, she's dressed down in a white sweatshirt and blue jeans, with long curly black hair everywhere. She looks like my sister's mates did in 1992: mooching and insecure, listening to 'Under The Bridge' on repeat and wishing they were Julia Roberts in Dying Young. She moves poorly around the stage, awkward with tension, from one predetermined stage position to the next, and holds her mic close to her chest and under her lowered chin, like a 12-year-old. She switches hands on her mic stand several times in the space of seconds, and occasionally hunches over it, grappling for support. She puts one hand in a hip pocket, removes it, and mutters unintelligible stage patter between mic sounds of snuffled, breathy tittering.

The front rows scream regardless, but she's lost the outlying crowds already. Throughout the second half of 'Video Games' she climbs carefully up to the crowd and, unsure of what to do next, stands there like a marionette, making twinkly stars out of her hands as girls paw at her hair. She's sniggering awkwardly again, through the chorus now, as she poses for camera phones - brow to brow with sweaty teenagers, still singing, always smiling. This is the real Lana Del Rey, how I remember her, and the person who Lizzie Grant is as yet unable to relight in pop angles - to make transform. She is struggling, dark-headed, always smiling.

Of course, being a massive fan of terror and tragedy in a pop context, all this only adds to my fascination with a faltering myth, and tonight's bizarre exhibition. Like any child of the 80s, who for the first decade of their lives only knew America as some electric-blue perfection, the subversion of that lie will always be alluring, however constructed the delivery. I still get a kick out of a desaturated JFK descending the steps of jet planes at Idlewild airport, as is played in ghostly slo-mo on the screens behind Del Rey. The entire show is a little like going to the cinema for me - a neon magma flows, removing everything until you're warm again. And when I step out to go to the toilet I feel alien and exposed in the relative silence and the bright empty corridors, anxious to get back in and between the dreamy shadows below the overhanging balcony. Her new song, the unreleased 'Body Electric', blows me away. It's La Dolce Vita meets Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It's Maria Callas opening the veins that lead back to the heart Onassis broke when he spurned her for Jackie Kennedy. It's phantasmic, monochromatic, smooth as marble. Lana sings with purity, possessed and empty, and the string quartet fall around deathly notes.

And all the while the apparatus of pop spins away from her fingertips - the sound team, the stage engineers, the session musicians, the lights, the queues, the posters, the synergised drink promotions, the security staff, the ticket booths, the people. They throw into severe relief her isolation horror within the immensity of a business infrastructure, beyond the limits of which she'll only meet with rings of fandom. And what that does, by the end of this queer night, is inadvertently make somehow evident, somehow verisimilar, the Del Rey shtick: the madness of that waxed-Caddy conformity, that American nightmare which anchors her music. The nightmare that Suicide once rendered in dire shorthand. What Lydia Lunch could only recreate in exaggerated visions, in art - this psychopathic modern phenomenon - is suddenly real. Because Lana's a real popstar. And for all of Gaga's hard-honed shocks, her provocations are vanilla next to the something terrible that watches from the corners and behind Grant's inescapable reality. The show begins with a one minute countdown. On screens the digits are shown counting through 60 and down. The crowd shout ten to zero... a detonation, Lizzie Grant walks backwards into her fate.

Marina72
Sep 27, 2012 10:20am

What a brilliant review, thanks!

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Sep 27, 2012 10:21am

Amazing review.

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G
Sep 27, 2012 11:15am

I'm not a huge Del Rel fan but I find her oddly interesting. Anyway, that was a sublimely written review. Top notch stuff.

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Elvis
Sep 27, 2012 12:03pm

Bit overexaggerated. "The nightmare that Suicide once rendered in dire shorthand"; come on, this is LANA DEL RAY we're talking about here, but a fine piece of writing nonetheless.

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Sam
Sep 27, 2012 12:12pm

Not sure I got what you are getting at. That Lana is not the most exciting live performer? Or that she is terribly nervous on stage and does not engage the audience like many others? Given the 30 or so concerts she has given this summer, including 7 or 8 in UK, none of that is at all surprising. Given her laid-back, quiet style, what probably made the crowd at the iTunes festival seem even less enthused, was that the majority of them had just won the ticket by lottery and had no interest in Lana or her music. This of course would be in contrast to most other concerts, where one would pay to see a specific artist and hence would be more likely to be responsive to that artist's music and act.

What I found more disturbing was in midst of what should have been a straight-forward review of her performance, you threw in old unfounded accusations about her that insinuate her being a puppet, a creation of the music industry. Why? Is there any evidence? If nothing else, do you think that this major conspiracy by the world's biggest labels (parts of even bigger corporations) would use a performer as flawed as Lana to advance their nefarious agenda? I think it is time you got past these old hater theories, and judge her for what she is (not a good live performer), not for what you think she might be.

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Bob
Sep 27, 2012 12:16pm

Well written article. At first glance would seem to be one of the many "hater" bandwagon articles written about her. But it was well thought out. I am older than you and a big Lana fan and on the one hand your statement about over-thinking it may be in order but on the other hand your assessment of her stage performance rings somewhat true. I watched on ITunes and completely enjoyed her singing, interaction with fans etc. but was struck by how she has difficulty really performing her songs for and to her audience. There is that strange disconnect and between songs it is awkward. It is like this is her first concert. I thought after a full summer of successful shows she would be a little less nervous and take better command of the stage. The end was kind of sad. She needs to let her fans applaud and be receptive to the appreciation. An acknowledgment of her band, a few bows and thank you's would go a long way. I saw her at the El Rey in L.A. and was most struck by being around other fans and their response to being there live with her. I was near the front and felt out of place (being older) surrounded by young females and many gay men. (there was a young woman who kept shouting, "Do me Lana!" It was very annoying) But regardless of her performance Lana does have something besides a great voice and that is real star quality. She seems to have an effect on people wherever she goes. And yet she seems reluctantly famous. She seeks it out and is intimidated by it. I only wish her the best.

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J N
Sep 27, 2012 12:36pm

The points laid out are kind of weak & no one understands what you are trying to say. The thing about her performing live nervously will never change. Even she herself told us she's not comfortable on stage. I don't know why you felt the need to detail it here one by one. That's just who she is. It's transparent how you try to balance, add a comment about something you like about her but next you are bringing up criticism that is particularly irrelevant and lacks credibility.

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Victor
Sep 27, 2012 1:15pm

This article is absolute fucking bullshit.

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Victor
Sep 27, 2012 1:17pm

& her name is Lizzy Grant

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Lemmie
Sep 27, 2012 1:17pm

In "Off to the Races" - the lyric you quote as 'trapdoor mama' is 'Chateau Marmont', but other than that I think it is a fair take on Lana Del Rey. She does have dark subject matter and might not even be appropriate for young people to listen.

My only reservations with this article is when you refer to Lana Del Rey as an industry creation.

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Victor
Sep 27, 2012 1:19pm

Hahahaha omg I'm dying at how hard you are trying. I can't get over it!!!!!

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Conor
Sep 27, 2012 1:41pm

Just want to say these 'Calvert Report' articles are brilliant! I really enjoyed the Shrillex one too, and I don't even like Shrillex or Lana Del Rey, but that's exactly why the articles work so well - they help you understand why other people do like the acts.

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Conor
Sep 27, 2012 1:47pm

In reply to Conor:

And the Lady Gaga one too, I should add. Another great article. They give an overview of the audience just as much as the act, and allow the reader to form their own opinions.

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Andy
Sep 27, 2012 2:03pm

In reply to Lemmie:

Agree.

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E
Sep 27, 2012 2:17pm

In reply to Lemmie:

Agreed, the disconnect is strange: "You see, whoever made Lana Del Rey from Lizzie Grant, and who wrote these songs and devised this image, got the idea only after meeting the girl." The art reflects the woman because the woman created the art. It's not that complicated.

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Lana
Sep 27, 2012 2:56pm

You pressed ass basic bitch.

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Mark
Sep 27, 2012 5:03pm

Stunning review. Great writing

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Caroline Moyer
Sep 27, 2012 5:56pm

You analyzed her down to the grain. Very well done. Very very well done.

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aaron.
Sep 27, 2012 6:44pm

Decent writing... but it's all smoke and mirrors, diverting attention away from the fact that LDR is a shallow and empty construction. Methinks you swooned a little too much on your first meeting and went to this concert with the rose-tinted vintage specs on. LDR is balls. She's a carefully engineered money extraction machine. There is nothing counter-cultural or 'against the grain' in her music or personality; she is the epitome of the conformism inherent in pop-industry non-comformity. Oh and she can't even sing. Balls to the whole business.

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aaron.
Sep 27, 2012 7:32pm

Plus just look at that bloody face. I wouldn't even take her home if my place of residence was Fred West's place.

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Mars
Sep 27, 2012 8:28pm

Man, you Queitus guys need to lay off the absinth.

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John Doran
Sep 27, 2012 8:58pm

In reply to Mars:

Ah, absinthe, the drink that makes you want to kill yourself.

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pavel
Sep 27, 2012 9:30pm

reads like her music, lovely and somber. gets straight to the heart of why LDR is so good yet has attracted so much animus from so many.

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HAUS
Sep 27, 2012 10:01pm

Um you are far too old to care the much, please pop a xanax

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Sarah Palin
Sep 27, 2012 10:04pm

In reply to HAUS:

^^ LITERALLY.

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HAUS
Sep 27, 2012 10:04pm

In reply to aaron.:

did this make sense in your head?

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GucciPucci
Sep 27, 2012 10:06pm

In reply to Mark:

In what world, please get help.

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HOC
Sep 27, 2012 10:06pm

In reply to Caroline Moyer:

BE HONEST... do you have a foopa?

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EAT ME OUT
Sep 27, 2012 10:07pm

It's funny that you are so quick to overanalyze Lana as if it degrades the QUALITY of her music. Her music is still great, and you're still mad.

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popbee
Sep 27, 2012 11:02pm

Great writing. Although I like some of her music, I find her whole persona to be a cliché. I don't see strangeness at all. C'mon she changed to become a stepford-wife type of character. She is so clichéd and acceptable that she landed corporate campaigns like H&M and Jaguar, and posed naked on GQ. You write about her as if she were some kind of avant-garde proposition which she is not.

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lananymous
Sep 27, 2012 11:07pm

In reply to Bob:

so, you saw lana del rey at the el rey in l.a.? that's fun to say.

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Pierre
Sep 27, 2012 11:45pm

That last sentence is basically a reiteration of the theory that Lizzie/Lana is in fact a third season of Twin Peaks made corporeal.

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Louise
Sep 28, 2012 12:21am

In reply to Bob:

Enjoyed the review, also comments by @ Bob & @ Sam. To @Sam, I am four songs into the iTunes concert, and would say Lana aquits herself very nicely! But I have always been one to be moved by the music, not dancing or pyrotechics. @ Bob, having just discovered Lana after watching the TCM debut of the film, Wanda, and being an armchair fan enjoying online live performances captured by fans, the "star" Lana merges a passion for cinema, pop culture, videos, commercials in a poetic way which is satisfying.

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Sep 28, 2012 2:56am

Nice article,makes me want to rediscover her work as i tend to have reservations about these seemingly industry created phenomenons but she appears an enigmatic performer,
how much of that is genuine or just corporate record company spin to appeal to a certain "outsider" demographic is debatable,
most probably manufactured bullshit i suppose but we're all human and not tools of dark corporate forces and have feelings and emotions so i'll give her the benefit of that doubt,
good music is all that counts reguardless of its origin
probably regret writing this shit in a few days,scammed again

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tom lea
Sep 28, 2012 8:24am

Good to see people are still completely at odds with the idea of looking at pop music in interesting ways, or, indeed, giving it much credit at all - comments section covering itself in glory as usual here. Article was superb

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R
Sep 28, 2012 9:47am

In reply to Sam:

Did we read the same review?

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Lama Del Rey
Sep 28, 2012 12:33pm

"Spittin' in the old barns, walking with my four arms, livin' for the hay..."

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Lana Del Ray
Sep 28, 2012 12:42pm

Flappin' in the blue sea
check out pirate booty
livin' in the bay

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Lana Bel Ray
Sep 28, 2012 12:49pm

Dinging in the belfry
Chiming loud at half three
Striking at midday

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Panda Del Rey
Sep 28, 2012 1:34pm

Chewin’ in the zoo cage
Fuckin' once an ice age
Livin’ for bamboo

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Lana Del Whey
Sep 28, 2012 2:34pm

In reply to Panda Del Rey:

When you make cheese it separates
Why is there so much hate
Dairy is a beautiful thing

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Sep 28, 2012 8:39pm

jeepers! that was very very good. Insightful, i suppose. Well done. your brain works in a good, hard way.

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Sep 28, 2012 8:45pm

In reply to :

just been reviewing these post, post, painted into a corner, uber, zen hippo hippy hipper househound fools who over-analyse the brave singer and all the media blarbs before - if it works for you and gives ya the ol' goosepimples, let it roll! in today's world, if you choose to inspect the string, you can pull it out from beyond the walls of sleep and make of it what thou will. so what the fuck. leave it alone - this woman is brave and can sing. who cares about Lynchworld. he trespassed in music and fucked that up, but so what? he tried, anyway whifflee whiffle shuffle and disappear meekly. fucken americans.... mmm...nnn....bleeeppp....hiisss splutterr>>>>>

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Sep 28, 2012 8:46pm

In reply to :

just been reviewing these post, post, painted into a corner, uber, zen hippo hippy hipper househound fools who over-analyse the brave singer and all the media blarbs before - if it works for you and gives ya the ol' goosepimples, let it roll! in today's world, if you choose to inspect the string, you can pull it out from beyond the walls of sleep and make of it what thou will. so what the fuck. leave it alone - this woman is brave and can sing. who cares about Lynchworld. he trespassed in music and fucked that up, but so what? he tried, anyway whifflee whiffle shuffle and disappear meekly. fucken americans.... mmm...nnn....bleeeppp....hiisss splutterr>>>>>

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mel
Sep 29, 2012 7:26pm

a really interesting, well-written review - beyond if we agree with everything stated. i do, in great measure, except with the affirmation that lana was an industry creation. i think her name and marketing approach were advised by her managers, but her music is her own creation. i usually love experimental, noise and dissonance, but something about lizzy grant/lana del rey has really captivated me, i can't explain it...the ambiguous persona who seems to be a personification of the pop-cultured collective unconscious? her lyrics, which are contradictory and oscillating yet honest, both profound and superficial? she has tapped into something, or she wouldn't have mesmerized so many, as well as attracted so many passionate (negative and positive) reactions. we are all projecting something on to her, i think. the thing is, if you listen not only to her "born to die" album, but her first album (lana del rey AKA lizzy grant) and her old demos and unreleased songs (all fairly easy to fin online), you will get a broader impression of this multi-faceted, enigmatic artist. all in all, as an over-analyzer myself, what really matters is the music: just enjoy it, whatever it does for you - if it strikes a real emotional chord, that's it. to the people who say she can't sing, just listen with your eyes closed: you may not become a fan if there is no affinity for what she creates, but you cannot say she is not talented, and most-certainly not "empty" or shallow. in the end, i wish her the best and hope she manages to transcend the ambivalence of wanting to be famous and wanting to hide from the world and acheive a new happiness.

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Alex N
Sep 29, 2012 9:15pm

Cracking review.

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Sep 30, 2012 4:51am

an interesting (and revealing) interview with david nichtern, the guy who first signed lana to his indie label back in 2007 and who - interesting fact - is one of the foremost buddhist meditation teachers in America: http://www.mtvhive.com/2012/01/30/lana-del-rey-first-album-5-points-records-interview (this refutes those who think she was manufactured by the industry or created by some svengali)

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Evan
Sep 30, 2012 6:35pm

This review made me want to actually listen to her music... so I did.

Video Games sounds like a sophomore music major just discovered minor cords, for all the sophistication they convey. The vocals are nothing but stylized ramblings with almost zero sense of thematic structure or drama. This is 'artless' because of a poverty of ability - not design. I couldn't even get all the way through Born to Die before wanting to check the weather... A review like this sounds as if we're going to get some profound insight into the power of music with a single listen - ha.

Is the bar this low? Throw a pretty face up on the screen and produce some throw away B-sides from a David Lynch soundtrack and watch the intellectual masturbation begin. Mr Calvert, you've been manipulated and used; there is a reason 13 year old girls dig this non-threatening fluff.

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Lana del Reich
Oct 1, 2012 11:57am

In reply to Evan:

Minor chords are lazy,
Dense repeating phrases
Phasing is ok

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John Thomas
Oct 2, 2012 2:21am

In reply to Sam:

The iTunes Festival ticket allocation isn't a lottery spread over the whole 30 nights. You enter a lottery for specific nights. So 90% of the people there were fans who applied to be there, and the other 10% were liggers and industry wankers.

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Like, you know?
Oct 2, 2012 12:00pm

In reply to aaron.:

Probably the best comment I've ever read on this site.

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Like, you know?
Oct 2, 2012 12:05pm

I enjoyed the Skrillex and Lady Ga Ga pieces that you wrote, but I fail to see what this one is getting at. Feels like you're over intellectualising someone who makes rubbish music, can't really sing and constantly has a face like she's trying to squeeze out a troublesome turd. I remember seeing coverage of her on this very site a good few months back before I'd heard any of her music and thought that it could be good - after listening to her, I realised it was all hype and she is terrible.

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Annon
Nov 19, 2012 9:35pm

I believe that she has a beautiful mind and is also unstable. I'm a die hard fan because of the fact that I think that she might be influenced by the devil and that what makes me cry every time I hear her song. I love the way the depression swoops over me in agony I feel a sharp pain running through me and, makes me depressed as well. Her music is timeless because she uses hip hop and mixtures from the 60's. Takes you back to a simpler time but more difficult time.

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Joe
Jan 1, 2013 5:43pm

What kind of review is this? You sound like a psychopath!!

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Cesar Ramirez
2 days ago

Wow was hooked from moment I read the first word to the moment I finished the last. Now when I am asked why I can't get enough of her, I will show them this. Great job!

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