For what was surely most of this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" crowd, New York chanteuse Lana Del Rey arrived seemingly out of nowhere. Her debut album, "Born to Die," won't be released until Jan. 31, and her first single, "Video Games," has sold about 20,000 copies, according to recent Nielsen SoundScan stats published in Billboard. Even for a show that's prided itself on adventurous music bookings, Del Rey was a virtual unknown to the world outside the music blogosphere.
Signed to Interscope Records, Del Rey (real name: Lizzy Grant) apparently is something of a divisive figure. Spend a few minutes researching her, and one will discover a novel's worth of material debating the merits of an artist who's officially released all of four songs. Outlets as diverse as National Public Radio and The Awl have dedicated 1,000-plus word essays on the subject of Del Rey, picking apart her open-mike past and wondering whether her YouTube-driven attention is little more than some creative major label marketing.
Watching Del Rey's performance of "Video Games" on Saturday night, however, it was hard not to wonder what all the pre-release fuss has been about. NPR went so far as to dub her controversial in a headline, yet if Del Rey's "Mad Men" look, old-school nightclub vibe and husky-voiced torch songs are controversial, the world, thankfully, has gone soft.
Dressed in an elegant evening grown that seemed more photogenic than mobile, Del Rey awkwardly shifted throughout the spare song, sounding and looking like an amateur Jessica Rabbit. Her voice is distinctive, no doubt, but Del Rey appeared to be trying to do too much with it, distractingly switching between highs and lows, moving between pouting and singing. Ultimately, she seemed more comfortable on the night's second number, "Blue Jeans," which carried a little more energy, even if it groaningly referenced James Dean.
With some modern production flourishes, the handy shorthand for Del Rey has been the "gangsta Nancy Sinatra," although that phrase packs more life than anything Del Rey showcased on "SNL." Regardless of the era Del Rey references, her retro-meets-modern shtick simply felt clumsy. Even the idea of treating video games as something to be off-handedly dismissed is outdated, more pandering than it is clever.
Yet sometimes brevity is more telling. Perhaps one of the most informed pieces of criticism came via the Twitter feed of DFA Records, the label cofounded by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. "Lana Del Rey plays Saturday Night Live next week," the label's Twitter posted Jan. 7. "LCD Soundsystem tried for 6 years to play Saturday Night Live. Isn't 'too soon' ok advice?"
Sometimes there's more truth than humor to "SNL's" not-yet-ready-for-prime-time branding. Take a look at the performance below: