by Fred Shan
December 2008. A young woman sits on a stool on a small stage. She is supported by a lone guitarist and drummer, and she shifts in her seat anxiously. Hanging on the back wall is a banner that reads ‘The Living Room’. Lizzie, as she was then called, sports shoulder-length blonde hair. She is wearing basic makeup and a simple black top. The music starts and she begins to sing. Her voice drifts fleetingly between pitches and notes, never remaining in the same octave for more than a few seconds. Her country songs, like her image, are acoustic and unproduced. And it is perhaps for this reason that her 2008 EP Kill Kill failed to appeal. She soon disappeared away into the crowd of struggling musicians hoping to make it in New York City.
Fast forward to 2011 to the Bowery Ballroom in New York. The then new indie sensation Lana Del Rey sings standing on a large raised stage in front of a full band. Her auburn hair glistens under the spotlights. She wears a plain white sundress, accessorised with a tan belt and converse shoes – an Americana look that has become iconic. She exudes confidence in every step she takes and every gesture she makes. Her music has a certain vintage cinematic quality. Her lyrics allude to ‘60s showbiz glamour and the American Dream gone wrong. The audience, utterly enthralled by the whole experience, receives her performance with screaming applause.
A particularly bad performance by Del Rey at the Saturday Night Live show in 2012 prompted individuals to conduct a background check on the artist. The truth was soon revealed: Lizzy Grant was Lana Del Rey. What seemed to have been the rise of a fresh, new artist seemingly turned out to be a conscious rebranding of a previous failure. The story went something like this: instead of hailing from an impoverished background, Lizzy was sponsored by her multi-millionaire father to undergo a complete makeover. The record labels morphed the innocent Lizzy into a discombobulated construct of mindless nostalgia. The accusations became increasingly ad hominem – sources claimed that she had undergone plastic surgery to give her the luscious lips which have become an integral part of her look. This incessant musical witchhunt rages on for most of 2013 and even now a discussion of Del Rey immediately brings back this memory.
“The media industry elevates individuals to demi-gods, assembling around them cult-like groups of individuals.”
The Del Rey incident of 2012 demonstrates just how much Western society values authenticity. In a world plagued by economic, social, and cultural uncertainties people look out for role models whose lives offer example and guidance. Advancement in communications technology has brought the celebrity role model and their fans closer together than ever before. Seeking to capitalise on the public’s tendency to idolise, the media industry is constantly elevating certain individuals to the status of demi-gods, assembling around them cult-like groups of individuals.
Attempting to distinguish celebrities from one another, each individual celebrity is allocated certain traits – things that make this particular individual special. Some of these allocated traits manifest themselves in appearance; in Del Rey’s case, it is her ‘60s vintage look. This in turn segregates the celebrity from the constantly shifting fashion world happening around them. It is perhaps in this vein that Yves Sain Laurent once commented: “fashions fade, style is eternal”.
But in our quest for the Holy Grail of authenticity and individuality we assume that personal style is something tangible, as well as something that is particular to an individual. We think of style as originating from the interior, not the exterior. The public attacked Del Rey not because they didn’t like her style, but because they thought it was too constructed, too intended, too insincere. Yet is a celebrity’s style any less of a façade than their stage performance? Is personal style something that is fixed and cannot evolve? There is one artist for whom these questions are inescapable, an artist who has based his entire career on the constant switching of personae and styles: David Bowie.
David Bowie’s rise to global fame was inextricably linked to his creation of the Ziggy Stardust persona alongside his LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. At points during the album’s tour it did in fact seem that Bowie was Ziggy; and it became difficult to distinguish the two. Bowie became known and recognised as the Martian alien taking human form as a rock and roll singer. But, alas, Ziggy wasn’t real. He (or ‘it’? Who knows with Martians…) was no more than a stage persona created by Bowie, an interesting facet of himself that he mythologised into a cult musical figure. Ziggy was an image created consciously and carefully by Bowie, his wife and those around him. Before Ziggy came into existence, Bowie had experimented and failed at numerous other stage personas, reaching into genres such as folk, rock and roll, and even satirical children’s music. The adoption of the Ziggy persona seemed to be the product of a series of trial-and-error attempts at finding something that clicked with audiences.
Towards the end of the tour, Bowie felt overpowered by the entity he has created. One band member mentioned that all the feedback from the crowd and the press was going to Ziggy, not to David Robert Jones from Brixton. At the end of the tour, Bowie made the decision to ditch the Ziggy persona. Since then he has continued to create various personas corresponding to his experimentation with genres as diverse as mainstream pop and industrial rock. Yet Bowie’s most surreal career move post-Ziggy was not in experimental rock, but in 1977 when he appeared as a normal middle class family man singing a Christmas tune with Bing Crosby.
Though famous mostly for his music, Bowie is a talented performer. It was his theatrical training under actor Lindsay Kemp that provided him with the skills and inspirations for his musical identities – there seems, in Bowie’s eyes, to be little distinction between theatrical performances and music ones. Performances on his tours certainly require the combination of both. We would be mistaken in claiming that Ziggy or any other stage persona was a completely inauthentic fabrication. But equally we struggle to pin down what it is that is quintessentially ‘Bowie’ in all of his characters. What Bowie’s career does tell us, however, is that despite his unsubtle and erratic career changes his audience remains loyal to his music. In fact, it’s his very ability and willingness to constantly change that has helped secure him the lasting significance he holds within a music scene that has a terribly short attention span.
What differs between Lana Del Rey and Bowie is that Del Rey lives in a world in which the cult of personality has become an established (and impactful) norm. Sadly this obsession with the person of the musician has turned our attention away from what’s really important – the music. True enjoyment of music surely comes not from the artist’s outfit or jewelry, but from the relationship a listener forms with the song. Music allows the listener to immerse themselves in certain ideas and emotions. The role of the artist is to create music that allows this immersion to take place. The appearance or character of the artist serves no other purpose than to facilitate the listener’s relationship with the music.
“Bowie has lasted in a music scene that has a terribly short attention span.”
At the same time, much of our interest in authenticity stems from the media industry’s exploitations of the music market. In a popular music scene dominated by thousands of singer-songwriters all writing about the same themes (love, parties, drugs), authenticity is like a hidden gem – a key to success. Authenticity sells. Papers and magazines alike scour through up-and-coming artists in search of something unique, sadly often in the way an artist presents themselves aesthetically. Unsatisfied with merely discovering individual talents, the media goes into an artist’s past, looking for something that would contradict their present image. In the end, conflict sells better than praise. But an artist’s past has little direct significance in relation to their present and future. In the same way that one finds little in common between David Bowie’s Laughing Gnome album and his work with Nine Inch Nails, it matters little that Del Rey had an unsuccessful previous career as Lizzy Grant.
It is saddening to see that people attacking Del Rey were not so much after her music, but her physical appearance. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Del Rey is a construct created by her record label. Rather, what is important is that she is selling-out large concert venues and seeing her record sales soar. A significant number of people enjoy her music.
Authenticity and eternal style are static terms. They are words thrown around by traditionalists who are afraid of change and of losing hold of a fast-paced music world. Adhering to the same genre or style in music, and refusing to change even if it is plainly failing, is not a demonstration of personality, but stupidity. Artists like Bowie who enjoy prolonged success do so because of their willingness to adapt in order to survive. Whether you like her music or not, Lizzy Grant has succeeded as Lana Del Rey. People relate to the themes of her music, they enjoy the nostalgia of ‘60s America. As to who she ‘really’ is behind the façade, it’s frankly not our business to know.