Authenticity is used to create indie’s borders, while elite tastemakers serve as border patrol.
Lana Del Rey has been hyped and hated, trafficked and attacked. But if this week’s debut of “China Doll,” an Interscope record deal, and an Odd Future remix tell us anything, it’s that she’s here to stay—for now. From the more unflattering origin stories, we’re told the artist Lizzie Grant modeled herself after Britney Spears until her managers thought her fit to ascend the Best Coast throne. They orchestrated a Mad Men makeover, injected her lips with collagen, and renamed her Lana Del Rey.
The controversy over Del Rey isn’t about her music. It's that she’s “inauthentic,” apparently the worst thing an indie music star can be. Hipster RunOff ran a feature titled “Lana Del Rey EXPOSED: B4 she was alt, she was a failed mnstrm artist without fake lips,” asking, “will she fool the Indiesphere?” The Los Angeles Times flipped Lana’s self-promotional press portrayal as the “gangster Nancy Sinatra” to “ersatz femme fetale.”
But for indie music, “authentic” designates anything but genuineness—it’s just a fetishized form of cool. When artists are labeled authentic by indie tastemakers, it means they've internalized a standard image of indie success and have re-invented themselves accordingly. We congratulate them for saying and doing on their own what they (or Pitchfork) wanted them to say and do all along. Is this so different than Del Rey saying and doing what she is “told” to do?
The critiques against Del Rey come from the same indie music tastemakers that celebrated Best Coast’s Crazy for You without voicing any concern that all 13 tracks of the album feature Bethany Cosentino pining, whining, and worrying over a man. I don’t mean to suggest that we knock down Cosentino’s door for writing my favorite album of last summer, but maybe it’s time that we as critics pull back our focus on individual performers and start questioning the industry.
Amy Klein, former member of the band Titus Andronicus, wrote a scathing explanation of what she terms the “Problem with Lana Del Rey.” Del Rey “has conquered America with plastic surgery, video games, a regression to nostalgia, and an appeal to the sex drive of every male music critic on the planet,” she writes. She calls the singer a “mirror” who reflects her fans’ own depraved, nostalgic longing for a better time when women were objects whose only desire was to be wanted by men, a take that leaves out the role of the music industry and its professionals in producing and distributing marketable images of femininity.
The role of Del Rey’s managers in creating her aesthetic provides an opportunity to critique the industry she (and Klein) are part of. Making Del Rey and her fans the center of criticism instead of her managers, the industry, or the indie genre serves only to strategically protect the actual decisionmakers, and ultimately, the indie brand.
Pitchfork’s Nitush Abebe captures the tension in a column about the controversy, writing that “different genres have totally different rules about the ways in which artists are supposed to be imaginative. And everything I've heard from Del Rey seems caught between them.” That’s exactly why authenticity matters so much to the indie world: it defines the genre as not pop, a separate genre with separate listeners—just as it did for folk, punk, and many others. Authenticity is used to create indie’s borders, while elite tastemakers serve as border patrol, blacklighting IDs before welcoming some and turning others away. Del Rey makes the fatal mistake of appealing to pop listeners, who have to be excluded to maintain indie’s integrity. It’s a fate that befalls musicians who start out with indie cred as well: get too popular, and tastemakers deem you a sellout no longer worthy of their attention.
Klein’s criticisms echo these brand-protecting impulses; by focusing her attention on Del Rey and her fans, she avoids hurling stones at her own glass house. When she writes that “it doesn’t matter if Lana Del Rey is entirely sarcastic,” she denies the possibility and significance of Del Rey self-awareness or distance from her persona. She favors preserving the purity of a tradition of Indie she herself helped shape. Klein has never written a critique of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears, or other members of the pop pinup canon, because they never tried to be indie. The singular rage Del Rey provokes is a result of her threat to indie as a genre, and Klein has a personal stake in the genre’s integrity.
Of course, the indie world’s dirty little secret—and its greatest fear—is that even while claiming innocence, indie reproduces many of the evils of pop. What happens to Lana Del Rey and all those scapegoated, formerly-known-as-indie artists? Cut off like gangrenous appendages, they turn into phantom limbs and haunt the body of indie forever.