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Dominic Chan/Wenn/Newscom

Song & dance

Music | From a high-profile makeover to awkward obscenities, Lana Del Rey's Born to Die is an exercise in inauthenticity

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

There's a Brady Bunch episode in which Greg Brady is hired to sing and play the guitar on a TV show. The catch? He has to wear a matador suit and assume the stage name "Johnny Bravo"-and, as he later discovers, perform only songs associated with the previous Johnny Bravo.

When he asks why he was hired if the show's producers had no interest in his songs, he's told, "You fit the suit!"

Meet Lana Del Rey, the newest Johnny Bravo.

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Born Elizabeth Grant, Del Rey may be the first pop star whose media makeover, rather than something to be hidden or downplayed, has been used as an integral part of her marketing.

And what a makeover it's been. Besides her name, she has also changed her hair color (from blonde to brunette), her lips (thanks, apparently, to collagen), and her vocal register of choice (from higher to lower). Even her dropping of the "f-bomb" in interviews reads awkwardly, as if someone at her PR company had market tested its effects and concluded it might help sales of her just-released debut album, Born to Die (Interscope).

Is the album any good? The question is, in a sense, moot since what it really is-what it has practically proclaimed itself to be-is an indication of what major labels think a majority of music buyers will be most willing to pay for.

As such it's certainly instructive. That clichés abound is no surprise, although including "Feet, don't fail me now," "take a walk on the wild side," and "lost but now I am found" in the title track alone feels like overkill even by pop's lowest-common-denominator standards. Similarly predictable is the album's emphasis on pouty, lovelorn sentiments set to overcast, electronics-heavy instrumentation, a combination that splits the aesthetic difference between Madonna and Lady Gaga with surgical precision.

Then there's the f-word again (in its two-syllable, participial form), popping up for no good reason in the refrain of one of the album's otherwise catchiest songs, "Radio." When Scout Finch says "Pass the damn ham" in To Kill a Mockingbird, she's cute-because, not yet 10, she's swearing out of ignorance. At 25, Del Rey should both know better and have a bigger vocabulary.

If there's a silver lining to what's essentially a dreary and hollow CD, it's that there's apparently no use of Autotune on any of Del Rey's vocals. Given Born to Die's many other layers of artifice, however, one stratum of authenticity hardly seems reason to celebrate.

Authentic Etta

Other than the fact that she also underwent a name change and enjoyed what will probably turn out to be the best sales of her career in 2012, the late Etta James -a bastion of authenticity if ever there was one-had little in common with Lana Del Rey.

Sales of James' music surged following her death in January, five days before her 74th birthday, from leukemia. As might be expected, the biggest sellers were best-of compilations. What deserved to benefit more than it did from her much-publicized demise was her last album of new recordings, The Dreamer (Verve Forecast).

Released last November, the 11-song collection bore no traces of her decline. Besides solid, no-frills renditions of songs originally popularized by Otis Redding, King Floyd, and Dorothy Moore, it also included a cover of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."

It gave James fans reason to hope, for an all-too-brief moment, she'd someday excavate the latent R&B potential of an entire album's worth of heavy-metal hits.

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