Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
Lana Del Rey, aka Lizzy Grant, may have been the most talked-about music story in 2011. That is, outside another infamous young singer who fired up debate over ethics and music earlier in the year. And yes, I’m talking about Rebecca Black.
The two don’t often get put in the same sentence, but in my mind there is a real and serious connection going on between the two. While Rebecca Black mostly just gave a lot of people a lot to laugh about, I took her role in our culture pretty seriously back in August when I wrote an article insisting that were we in some way partially responsible for her. After all, we are the ones who have the consumed cultural products that have somehow encouraged Rebecca Black, her parents, and the Ark Music Factory to believe she could succeed.
In some ways, I could understand the outcry over Black though. After all, “Friday” is absolutely hysterical. But Lana Del Rey? Did people have good reasons to be offended by the fact that Lana Del Rey wasn’t as “indie” as they had thought? If it wasn’t for Rebecca Black, would people have given any thought to the fact that Lana Del Rey wasn’t the singer’s real name and that she may or may not have gotten lip surgery and that she may or may not have been “engineered” by producers and agents to trick hipsters?
It’s as if, all of a sudden, we have become hyper-aware of how the music we listen to was made — as if we have become concerned that it had been made by underpaid workers in an assembly line in a Chinese factory. Don’t get me wrong: I think this new sense of awareness is something we should be thanking the “Friday” and Ark Music Factory incident for. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves either — it’s not like Lana Del Rey is any different than most other artists out there, whether they consider themselves “indie” or “mainstream.”
Marketing, branding, image, and production are not just afterthoughts in our musical culture — they are the bread and butter and they always have been. What would “Like a Rolling Stone” have been outside of the hippie movement? What would “Smells Like Teen Spirit” be without the 90s grunge movement it was part of? A band or artist doesn’t need to be signed to Interscope Records to care about stuff like what kind of clothes they wear, how long their beards are, and where their political/spiritual beliefs fall. That is why you won’t read many music reviews that talk a lot about music theory or technical performance skills.
The simple truth is that songs cannot simply be removed from their cultural context as if they are some kind of organism on a Petri dish in a science lab. Nor should we want them to be.