L'affaire Lana Del Rey
Despite your best efforts to keep up with the latest goings-on in the wide, wonderful world of music, the scandale surrounding last weekend's musical guest on Saturday Night Live may have escaped your attention. I was blissfully unaware of it until The Wife and The Daughter insisted that I check it out for myself on the DVR. And, dear reader and listener, if I had to go through with this, so do you.
To catch you up, a 25-year old chanteuse from Brooklyn named Lana Del Rey (née Elizabeth Grant) made two appearances on SNL. Here is indisputable video evidence. Hmm...after reviewing it under that cute black hood they use, would the referee in Sunday's Giants-Packers game have ruled a fumble this time?
Now, let's leave aside some of the juicer elements of this story, other than the release of NBC news anchor Brian Williams's supposedly confidential email to his friend at the gossipy website Gawker, in which Williams disses Ms. Del Ray and questions the judgment of SNL's producers. Let's instead approach this from a strictly musical standpoint.
When I switch my listening gears from classical to pop and rock, as I'm very fond of doing, I know that I have sometimes to reset my musical expectations. The pop/rock composers and performers are much less likely than their classical counterparts to have studied and practiced hours a day over many years. Indeed, there's a good chance that the pop/rockers are largely self-taught in both performance and composition, or that their training came through the oral tradition rather than through formal lessons and the academy. And yes, very good music can come from those without the serious training we rightly expect from any classical musician.
But that doesn't excuse the pop/rockers from a lack of practice, effort or pride in their craft. If I get the sense that their singing is weak and unsupported, their playing willfully incompetent, or their compositional ideas half-baked, I lose confidence in them and tune out. On the other hand, if I hear performers who sound like they give a damn, who polish their material to the best of their ability, who have something to say and possess the innate musicianship to say it compellingly, I'm all theirs. Of course, some pop/rockers rival even the most ingenious classical composers for the complexity of their work. Listen, for instance, to Sufjan Stevens's "The Age of Adz" or Of Montreal's "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?" to be amazed by the incredible care and effort the artists put into every detail. Some pop/rock singers cultivate their voices every bit as much as their operatic counterparts -- and write their own material, too. Check out tUnE-yArDs (Merrill Garbus) on "W H O K I L L", or My Brightest Diamond (Shara Worden) on "All Things Will Unwind". And some bands play the loudest, most elemental music imaginable with amazing skill, nuance and and outright virtuosity. Check out The Black Keys's new album "El Camino".
These are some of the musicians I had in mind, and on whose behalf I was offended, when I suffered through Lana Del Rey's Saturday Night Live number. There may have been a spark of talent and the beginning of a style here. But as of last Saturday she had done little or nothing with them. Her performance wasn't just seemingly mindless of such niceties as pitch, vocal quality or stage manner -- it was actually mindless of them. I don't know the young lady, and don't know whether she's gotten this far on ambition or by being enabled by others. But she embarrassed herself in front of a national audience, and not by her fault alone. From her record label (her debut CD comes out next month), to her management, to SNL's musical talent scouts, a lot of people should be very ashamed of themselves.