She tanked on "Saturday Night Live," so what? Cast your attention spans back to "SNL" disasters from Ke$ha (one of the all-time worst performances in 2010), Kanye West (whose "singing" debut bombed in 2008), Coldplay (Chris Martin's awkward attempt to fill a small space with big music in 2008), Ashlee Simpson (caught lip-syncing in 2004), on back to Sinead vs. the Pope in '92. It's a show of one-note comedy, so an off-key performance hasn't exactly slowed down any musicians' careers.
But that'll be my only defense of Ms. LDR. Because "Born to Die" is definitely not ready for primetime.
The early singles, such as "Video Games" (which landed on a lot of best-of-2011 lists, including mine) and "Blue Jeans," hinted at real promise, possibly even a depth that would surface above the manufactured sheen of her persona. But Del Rey comes pre-loaded with a commercial history that supports the title of this album, which is not her debut. Born Elizabeth Grant and previously billed as Lizzy Grant, her first album in 2010 was available a very short time before the label yanked it. Now rechristened with a name chosen by her management and a new Petula Clark-at-half-speed sound, she's basically this year's Justin Bieber -- we're talking about her because her homemade YouTube spot (for "Video Games") went viral and landed her a major-label deal.
Only the storm of hype is likely to help "Born to Die" fare any better. The album showcases a series of multiple personalities, swinging between the extremes of the Del Rey we hoped we'd love (the deep-voiced, strangely sultry chanteuse of "Video Games") and a chirpy, squeaky, high-voiced Baby Spice occasionally springing forth and surprising listeners with her sheer ordinariness. Early in the record, the pendulum swings are heady and the delirium is still intoxicating; her ability to sling pure kitsch ("Off to the Races") followed by a naked romantic plea ("Blue Jeans"), all with the same deadpan straight face, makes her actually worthy of her own descriptor as a "gangster Nancy Sinatra."
The details of her prefab persona, however, including her own admission that she's lowered her voice in order to be taken more seriously, have saturated her pre-release media blitz. It's clear she could have used more time to shake off Lizzy and break in Lana. After the front-loaded singles, the bulk of "Born of Die" is a long soundtrack of Del Rey in a musical thrift shop, trying on various shades of 1960s soft soul. Dusty Springfield, she ain't. Fiona Apple, maybe (and there's a kindred spirit who knows something about performance meltdowns). The wink we thought we caught in the early material is later a somnambulant half-closed eyelid, sleep-walking through funereal tempos in search of a hook, any hook, and nodding off before success. Only "Million Dollar Man" clears the bank, with Del Rey begging her man and assuring him she'd follow him "down, down, down." Which might, alas, be her precise trajectory.