This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The music website Pitchfork is celebrating its 25th birthday by doing something odd. It’s decided to go back and “rescore” the reviews that it got “wrong” — or, as the writer Freddie de Boer derisively put it, the publication has assigned “new hacks to give scores that better reflect the conventional wisdom”.
Pitchfork, says de Boer, has always been principally concerned with “what a cool person thinks”. The website was born in the early days of the internet as an edgy outsider, nipping at the heels of the stuffy old printed press. But “Cool” is, of necessity, a shifting target. The passage of time is all it takes to turn an impeccably a la mode opinion into an unfashionable embarrassment.
How disappointing for them, then, when it turned out del Rey was not in fact the helplessly surrendered girl she played in the song
Revisiting past criticism isn’t necessarily a hollow enterprise. In my other life as a book reviewer, I know there are times when my take hasn’t held up — when I was seduced by the mood of a novel and too forgiving of a weak plot, or my fervent agreement with a non-fic thesis caused me to go easy on lumpy prose, or I was simply in a bad mood when I sat down to write. Ultimately, I’m just a reader, and as fickle and flawed as any other.
But De Boer is right that Pitchfork is engaged less in self-reflection and more in naked cred hunting; and one of the most fascinatingly cynical bits of revisionism is in its reassessment of Lana del Rey’s debut album, bumped up from 5.5 on its 2012 release to 7.8 in 2021 (another annoying thing about Pitchfork, besides the hipsterism, is that it uses a faux-precise hundred point scale, as if anyone could improve on the clarity of the five star system).
In 2012, Del Rey was a bit suspect. She’d emerged the year before with “Video Games” — a lush, woozy ballad from the perspective of an ignored girlfriend. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” she swoons, while the boy in the song cracks open a beer and ignores her. It certainly didn’t hurt that del Rey looks very much like the fantasy girlfriend every alt-culture boy would love to be able to take for granted.
The song first appeared as a self-release, and she was treated as an indie proposition: when Pitchfork initially wrote up the song, it was with comparisons to lo-fi chanteuse Cat Power. And at the time, Pitchfork was only one of a whole ecosystem of taste-making blogs which laid claim to being the ones who had made del Rey.
Such sites exerted an outsize influence on the indie scene, which ran on small budgets and word-of-mouth: getting your MP3 hosted by an influential blogger could be a band’s ticket to the medium league. And the blogs, in turn, could flatter themselves that they mattered because they had been able to bring a previously unknown artist to the public.
How disappointing for them, then, when it turned out del Rey was not in fact the helplessly surrendered girl she played in the song. In the video, she appears pouting and submissive, singing from under a perfect Veronica Lake wave of hair, while the rest of the film is an artful summary of the song’s lyrical concerns: hazy Americana and Hollywood trash. It was exactly the right video — it was too exactly the right video. Could this really be a debut?
Soon, footage of a New York performer called Lizzie Grant began to circulate. She sounded like del Rey. She looked like del Rey (albeit with slightly less plump lips). She was del Rey, and she’d already recorded an album with a high-powered producer. When that was scrubbed from the internet, the commentary about del Rey only got more pointed.
By the time her first album came out (well, second, but first as del Rey), there was a full-on cottage industry of bloggers devoted to culture’s most important issue: just how fake was Lana del Rey?
Pretty fake, the bloggers decided. Fake name, fake lips (though she denied having fillers and said she was just pouty when she sang), fake image — fake, fake, fake. This is the criticism that underscores Pitchfork’s original mediocre score.
The problem for the bloggers was that they had believed themselves to be the ones doing the manufacturing
But who seriously thought any of this was real? Del Rey carried herself like an offcut from a David Lynch movie come to life. So the problem couldn’t be that she was manufactured. That much had always been obvious.
The problem for the bloggers was that they had believed themselves to be the ones doing the manufacturing — digital Svengalis, capable of making a sad-eyed girl into a star — and all along she’d been working to her own scheme. She hadn’t offended their artistic principles, although that was how they framed it. She’d offended their sense of ownership.
Del Rey released her latest studio album this year, and her lyrics remain obsessed with a certain version of America, halfway between capitalist horror show and ultimate pleasure garden — an America a lot like the one in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which she also references heavily.
The outrage of the blogs at her fakeness in 2011 was a little like Humbert’s horror in Lolita that Quilty got to 14-year-old Dolores Haze first: a sudden attack of morals to disguise the fact that the true horror is seeing yourself reflected back. All along, the biggest phony of them all was Pitchfork with its desperate need to be cool.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe