"Gangsta Nancy Sinatra" Beats The Rap
For many years, the ultimate music business pejorative was to declare any artist “a hype.” The combination of a major-label push, modest results and critical disdain was worse for many artists than being a nonentity. Most are long forgotten relics of another era that you haven’t heard of—and that’s the point—although Boomkat, whose “The Wreckoning” blew up at top 40, then blew out in the course of a month or so a decade ago, comes to mind.
Between the attention that preceded her “Saturday Night Live” appearance in January 2012 and the backlash that followed, Lana Del Rey was almost definingly a hype. And yet, her album Born to Die entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2, has now sold 705,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and been certified gold. She followed the single “Video Games” with three other songs that were also hits everywhere else in the world, including “Summertime Sadness.” At press time, the Cedric Gervais remix of the later track is top 40’s second-fastest-growing song, cracking the top 20 at mainstream top 40 with a gain of more than 1,600 spins.
I was always rankled by the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” label that was tagged to Del Rey. Any musical connection between the two hinged on one Sinatra song ("Some Velvet Morning") and, besides, if being gangsta is a good thing, then Sinatra is far more of a badass. But I felt sorry for Del Rey during the piling on that followed “SNL,” so I’m glad that the gangsta has beaten the rap.
For starters, the current success of “Summertime Sadness” happily confirms the limited power of the music blogosphere. The “SNL” appearance wasn’t an Ashlee Simpson-type embarrassment for most people; it was a nonevent. In the days that followed, I spoke to label people who were glad that Del Rey wasn’t their artist, but also to people who saw the appearance as being in keeping with the languid spirit of the music. It would have been like expecting Josh Groban to give the same TV appearance as Bruno Mars.
Some other reasons Del Rey turned out to be born to live:
There’s an audience for the atmospheric: In Europe, the ethereal pop of “Born to Die” had always been part of the hit music landscape. In America, it resurfaces at odd intervals, from 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” to Enigma to Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” to Norah Jones to Coldplay, but audiences are always happy for a good after-dinner record when it comes along. And those are often the records that can go gold without a radio hit or sell albums as album sales decline.
An artist who sold without radio made a record for radio: By the time it reached the air waves here, “Summertime Sadness” was already a proven radio hit. Sia had already shown that an ethereal pop artist could adjust slightly and become a radio hitmaker. And in the summer of Zedd, the combination of credible dance track and quality lyric is a potent one. And arguably, the path for “Summertime Sadness” was already created by Everything’s “Missing,” down to a similarly themed lyric.
In dance, nobody can hear your cred: If Del Rey’s stature at radio had been really damaged, instead of a nonentity, “Summertime Sadness” could have come out as “Cedric Gervais featuring Lana Del Rey” and all would have been forgiven. So far, the rules of artist image seem to have been waived for those who provide hooks for a hot rapper or DJ. Look for the new track from “Deadmau5 vs. Celine Dion & the DeFranco Family” to drop soon.
Labels don’t let go of major investments easily: Del Rey’s initial buzz ignited interest from multiple labels at the outset, and she likely wasn’t a cheap signing. I can’t speak for Interscope, which has long been better than most labels at knowing when to cut bait on a project, but throwing away a major signing is a big decision, and Del Rey had too much of a worldwide story to consider that option. And it's been an exceptionally good summer for Interscope overall, with this week's top four songs.
The “summer” trick worked: Using the word itself in a song isn’t enough to get you a hit anymore, now that everybody else has tried the same thing. But even a downbeat lyric about summer combined with an artist that radio was aware of, and an uptempo song that fit with what it was already playing, turned out to be a potent combination.