A day after all the reviews of recent pop flashpoint Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die began to trickle in—few positive, many negative, all exceedingly verbose—it became quickly apparent that not only did everyone have an opinion about Lana Del Ray, but they also had a personal investment in whether or not she succeeded. Maybe they worried about what her success would say about the importance of authenticity in pop music, or maybe they wondered what it would say about the powers of internet backlash if she failed, or maybe they just appreciated all the free discussion material that the controversy surrounding her gave their publication, but all seemed to have something at stake with Lana Del Rey. And so did I—but my reasons for carefully tracking her career were purely selfish.
I had Lana Del Rey on my fantasy team.
That sentence might seem a little strange to you, and rightly so. Pop music fantasy leagues are significantly less popular than they are for pro sports like football or baseball—in fact, I’m not entirely sure the concept even exists anywhere outside of me and my group of equally pop-nerdy friends—so let me briefly explain. Our league consists of nine team owners, each of whom draft 15 pop artists at the beginning of the year to be on our teams, with proven hitmakers like Rihanna and Lil Wayne getting drafted early on and less proven quantities like Breathe Carolina and Ingrid Michaelson going much later. Artists score points for charting singles on the Hot 100, scoring more points the higher those songs peak on the chart—one point for peaking at #100, two for #99, and so on, with bonuses for an artist topping one of the genre charts (Pop, Rock, Dance, R&B) or scoring a #1 album.
I drafted Lana Del Ray in the 14th round, with the 124th pick overall. Most of the other league members expressed skepticism at my selection—at that point, Lana was still mostly an internet-only phenomenon, had not received much (if any) radio play and had certainly never charted a single on the Hot 100. But I was convinced that I had gotten a real steal with Lana. The controversy over her persona had started to spill over to the mainstream media, and I knew that that would only increase with her already-hype-generating upcoming performance on Saturday Night Live. What’s more, I had faith in “Video Games,” a song that showed up on a surprising number of people’s year-end lists and which really seemed to connect with a lot of different audiences. I thought she could end up as this year’s Amy Winehouse or Adele (2008 version, not 2011)—an unconventional pop talent breaking through on a song whose obvious quality overshadowed its crossover unlikeliness.
The early returns with Lana were promising. A few weeks ago, she finally released “Video Games” for download, and despite the fact that the song was nearly a half-year old already, it began to climb the iTunes charts, getting as high as the 60s and selling enough all told that the song actually debuted on the Hot 100, the week before her SNL performance, at #91. I figured that she was on her way—Adele’s 2008 boom was almost the direct result of her introductory gig on SNL, and it seemed logical to me that Lana was on the same path. She’d sing “Video Games,” anybody who was curious about all the LDR hubbub without actually knowing anything about her music would realize what a great song it was, and the song would be sent shooting into the iTunes top 20 (or higher!) and eventually force radio to pay attention as well. Who knows where she’d go from there?
Needless to say, this was not how events ended up unfolding. The SNL performance caught the amount of attention I figured it would, but rather than the “New Pop Star Emerges on Scene With Breakout Live TV Performance” headlines I was expecting, the copy read more like “Misguided Pop Youth Becomes Cautionary ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ Tale.” Everyone in America decided that her SNL performance was an enormous bust—it wasn’t really that bad, but it certainly wasn’t all that great—and before long, Lana had become a walking punchline for the likes of Grantland’s Bill Simmons, less a pop star or even a human being than a symbol of why she wouldn’t listen to The Internet too much.
At first, the bad publicity seemed like it might prove that whole No Such Thing As for Lana, as “Video Games” rose as high as the 40s on iTunes after the SNL fallout. But the song quickly fell out of the iTunes charts altogether, and disappeared soon thereafter from Billboard as well. With Lana’s Born to Die album—her last chance to reverse the trajectory of her story, if the album was undeniably great (it wasn’t)—now released, and neither “Video Games” nor any other song from it appearing anywhere on the charts, it appears the ten points “Games” scored me for its #91 chart placement may be all I get out of Lana Del Rey this season. (For contrast, Lady Gaga scored 889 points last season.) Turns out my friends were right—drafting Lana, even with the 124th pick, was a stretch.
But I maintain that it didn’t have to be like this. All Lana had to do—and I will believe this to my dying day—was give a competent performance of “Video Games” on SNL. It didn’t have to be great, it didn’t even have to be buzzy, it just had to be decent—decent enough for people to ignore Lana Del Rey the person and just listen to the damn song. The quality of “Video Games” would’ve carried her and withstood any other extraneous Internet Bullshit that was thrust upon her—and you’ll notice that even in many of the most virulent anti-Born to Die reviews, the writers will still make the exception that “Video Games” was a pretty good song. Even if she was never heard from after, “Video Games” would’ve at least given her one legitimate pop hit, justifying my late draft selection on its own. All she had to do was be unmemorable.
But no, she couldn’t manage that—instead, she was awkward, sloppy, unready. The performance hopelessly overshadowed the song, and the run of “Video Games” (and by extension, Lana) was over before it began. So thanks a lot, Lana—not only did you prove so many of the internet haters right, you cost me bragging rights over my friends in my stupid fantasy league. Of all the other lessons the Lana Del Rey experience has taught us over these last few months, perhaps none is more important than this—when drafting in the late rounds of your fantasy league, just go with the low-risk, low-reward veterans that you at least know you’ll be able to get some level of production out of. Those high-upside rookies always end up breaking your heart.