Review Summary: I was wrong
Ladies and Gentlemen, don't give me that filthy look; refrain, if you will, from sneeringly chortling at my unabashed defense and adoration of Lana Del Rey's exquisite little EP. Hearing 'Born to Die' for the first time, I had all the same qualms and misgivings you did. The cloying anachronistic evocations of an era long since past; the tedious drone of her voice; the problematic lyrics; the perceived nepotism involved in her recording contract (although tellingly I- and I suspect you- didn't give a *** about her male counterpart James Black's similarly privileged circumstances). Yet listening to the singles of her album in the context of her EP invigorated the songs, gave them immediacy somehow. I'm not sure of all the factors that resulted in my sudden and drastic about-face, my conversion to a believer and acolyte, but now a convert I am; to the extent that I believe, and will argue (though perhaps not entirely cogently), that the four pop gems that comprise this EP are some of the best pop tracks I've heard bar none.
Commentators frequently compare Lana Del Rey to contemporary pop sensation forebears (a la Lady Gaga, Adele et al.), but I think her essential ethos is more comparable to the kind evidenced on Jenny Hval's 'Viscera' or, more recently, Jessie Ware's 'Devotion'. While more overtly 'poppy' than those two, Lana shares a similar sort of ethic of deconstruction. Hence the uneasy synthesis of the afore-mentioned evocations of the 1950's and 60's with the jarringly modern elements of sampling, more obvious references to sexuality- which in turn combat archaic and grandiose string arrangements. Hence, too, 'Video Games'; at once a poignant (and marvelous) pop song and a knowing pastiche of pop tropes that touches on Belinda Carlisle's 'Heaven is a Place on Earth', the endlessly stated promise that 'everything I do is for you', the ubiquitous tragic and unfulfilled romance. And then there's 'Off to the Races', which alludes to the central relationship of Nabakov's incendiary 'Lolita' and its manipulative power imbalance; the lyric 'you are my one true love', so often interpreted at face value, cannot be understood as entirely sincere. This is the genius of Rey's deconstruction; there is a detached distance from herself as musician and the songs she creates. So the allusions to the 50's and the generic lyrics have a function beyond mere kitsch; rather, they form a lens through which Lana can indict pop and it's treatment of the 'female' and deconstruct pop tropes while simultaneously reveling in them.
Please, rest assured: I'm not trying to impart some didactic message here about how Lana Del Rey's music has been misconstrued or deliver a sermon about double standards of pop or accuse anyone of misogyny if they don't like her or whatever. What I am saying is that there is very, very clever pop on display here. And tenuous analysis aside, the songs on here are all glorious, delightful pop constructions that rouse and move. ***, they're pretty much perfect; the only notable flaw here is the track-listing. The EP would have been better served to place the propulsive 'Off to the Races' somewhere in the middle, where it would've enlivened proceedings no end. As it is as a closing track, it generates momentum that is ultimately squandered and would perhaps be needed to perk the middle section up symmetrically. And yet this is a minor quibble that ultimately doesn't detract from the songs themselves, and what a collection of songs they are. Four of the greatest pop songs of recent memory, effervescent and beautiful and nothing less.
If you had told me after my first listen of 'Born to Die' that I would end up waxing lyrical about the singles off it in a few months time, I would've spluttered and denied (and no doubt imparted a few choice words- like perhaps 'menace!', or 'scourge!', or even 'imbecile!'). And yet here I am defending her, absolutely arrested by their beguile and charm. Now- if anyone needs me i'll be spinning 'Video Games' at a pants-***tingly loud volume and singing along roaringly:
“HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH WITH YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU”