King’s Dough, Fool’s Gold

Earlier this year I was ditched for Lana Del Rey.  It was at the crucial point of a new friendship, you know, when you’re just becoming friends with someone and you’ve made your first set of concrete plans together?  Not casual plans like “There’s this thing (e.g. show, party, bar gathering) happening, you should come by.”  No, we’d made real plans to go to a scheduled event together.  That’s when I got ditched . . .  mere hours before we were to meet up.  Worst of all, my new “friend” told me why she was cancelling: to see Lana Del Rey perform at a record store.

“Who the hell is Lana Del Rey?” I wondered.  “And what’s the deal with this white chick going to see her?”  I thought that maybe there was a new Selena on the rise that I’d missed.  In 1995 Selena had been poised to cross over from Tejano to mainstream pop music until a deranged fan club president killed her.  Perhaps after nearly twenty years someone had finally come along to take up Selena’s torch (song).  It was time to do a little research.

Back in February when my would-be friend ditched me, the Lana Del Rey hype was riding a wave that I nearly missed.  Surrounded by smelly old books and twenties/thirties Brazilian popular music (dissertation), I was disconnected from contemporary pop culture.  With the tunnel vision of someone who has researched and analyzed Carmen Miranda for over five years, I wondered if I could find a connection between Del Rey and the subject of my monograph, Carmen Miranda: Ripe for Imitation (forthcoming).

Only time will tell if Lana Del Rey continues to grip the public imagination the way Carmen has since she scored her first Brazilian hit in 1930, “Taí.”  One thing is certain, though, when it comes to Del Rey, it seems everyone wants to critique, celebrate, or sometimes do both.  Such is the world we live in where anyone with an opinion has a platform to speak.  Expertise is thrown out in the democratizing world of bloggers and tweeters and yelpers (oh, my!).  The result is that everyone is a “curator” or a “critic” and opinion trumps real knowledge.  It is in this maelstrom that Lana Del Rey has been subjected to what Pitchfork writer Lindsay Zoladz (1/30/2012) has referred to as a sexist “back story scrutiny” that typically involves examining a woman’s “authenticity.”  Carmen Miranda experienced a similar scrutiny—but more on that later.

One of the first things I learned about Lana Del Rey is that she is no Selena.  She’s not even Latina.  Elizabeth Grant, as she was born, attended a Connecticut boarding school and later adopted the stage name “Lana Del Rey.”  Zoladz makes an excellent point that questions of authenticity are frequently gendered.  Nonetheless, within the web of sexist driven critiques, Del Rey cannot escape the matter of cultural appropriation in creating her star persona.  By adopting a Spanish name Elizabeth Grant lends herself a credibility that relies on certain stereotypes: namely that Latin/a/o Americans possess an inherent musicality and rhythm.  Additionally, as an imagined Latina Del Rey amplifies her sex appeal, another quality attributed to Latinas.  Within the realm of show business, relying on such tropes to increase discernible desirability is hardly new.  What’s new to our century is the medium for the message.

In less than twenty years technology has dramatically transformed how popular culture is circulated such that an Elizabeth Grant can post a YouTube video of herself as Lana Del Rey and “go viral.”  Now a kind of common, communicable disease (think HPV), celebrity status is within anyone’s grasp.  Yet stardom is also so fleeting that the idea of a Lana Del Rey fan club—and the time it takes to organize one—with its own president has become downright quaint. 

What has endured since Carmen Miranda became Brazil’s Queen of Samba is the performer as pop culture purveyor of imagined identities.  Though she had been born in Portugal, RCA Victor wanted to sell Carmen as an “authentic” singer of Brazilian music and so went to some effort to conceal her origins.  Early in her career Carmen “slipped” in an interview and revealed her birthplace.  Producers scrambled to get her back in the studio and record the samba “Eu gosto da minha terra” [I Love My Homeland].  Without benefit of the Internet, no public outcry emerged to challenge Carmen’s right to love her homeland, Brazil. 

Adept at street slang and Afro-Brazilian musical styles, Carmen “looked” Brazilian and quickly rose from radio performer to film star. The thirties transnational music industry that sought to align looks with a singer’s sound took its cue from Hollywood.  In the twenties, the US motion picture industry was at the forefront of manufacturing and circulating stars with distinctive personae.  Hollywood practice to generate marketable images certainly shaped the music industry’s efforts to commodify its own stars’ images.  When it comes to commercial pop music nearly a hundred years later, a performer’s look is often at least as important as the sound, especially when it comes to women performers.

The success of Carmen Miranda’s Brazilian star image eventually took her across the Equator.  In 1939 the “lady in the tutti-frutti hat” was introduced to US audiences performing on Broadway and in film.  Throughout the forties until her death in 1955, the European born, phenotypically white Carmen Miranda came to signify “Latina” for US audiences.  Viewed in this light, Lana Del Rey with her lush long hair and full pouty lips is no more or no less Latina than Carmen Miranda.  These two performers show us how powerfully an iconic image can both sell music and convey complex meanings about ethnicity, nationality, and authenticity. 

In 2011, the same year Lana Del Rey went viral, the US Postal Service issued its Latin Music Legends postage stamps.  Among the featured performers were Selena (1971-1995) and Carmen Miranda (1909-1955)—stars predating YouTube who have become as old fashioned as mailing a letter.  Nonetheless, postage stamp icon status suggests their enduring potency as signifiers of Latin music and Latin-ness in the US, albeit not without complexities. 

Will Lana Del Rey disappear as quickly as she appeared?  Will she come to signify “Latina” on account of her name?  I suspect this country’s changing demographics and access to information mean that some audiences will be on the look out for fool’s gold when it comes to glittering YouTube wonders.  All the same, Lana Del Rey’s celebrity status via the supposed democratic YouTube medium reminds us how powerfully an image can shape a pop star’s trajectory.  When she began making Hollywood films, Carmen Miranda looked like the Brazilian Bombshell studios and audiences wanted her to be.  With her homegrown success enveloped in controversy, Lana Del Rey demonstrates that the thorny issue of authenticity is hardly resolved.

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