Monday, January 16, 2012

Melancholy popular music: Lana Del Rey and her antecedents

A week and a half ago I stumbled on a phenomenon that pretty much every music insider has been over and over again lately: Lana Del Rey, whose image and story will grace the cover of Billboard magazine's upcoming issue (21 Jan 2012), and who performed on Saturday Night Live this past weekend.

I stumbled on Del Rey's single Video Games ten days ago, when a DJ queued it up on the radio station I had playing on a drive north from Santa Cruz. I'd just gotten off the freeway in Oakland, I was nearly home.

The song first went viral as a YouTube video (embedded below) before its strong release as a single in October. That first time I heard it, in the car, I was blown away by the plaintive melancholy of the artist's vocals set against the swells and ebbs of a partly-synthesized wall of sound, all in the service of some serious romantic longing -- for a fellow she had? had and lost? had and feared losing? never really had at all? (I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a lyrics person, so, yes, I was listening to the words). In any case, I couldn't get the song out of my head. When I got home I found it on YouTube and watched, more than a few times.

I'm not convinced that Video Games is about a whole lot more than adolescent mood swing (Del Rey is 25 years old, FWIW). But even though my adolescence is long past (chronologically speaking, anyway), the song is just cryptic enough to encourage even an actively curious listener. Meanwhile the music insists one put aside curiosity and just ... listen.

The Billboard cover story (or maybe that's just an on-line story about the cover story? dunno) is all about stuff that doesn't move me much: authenticity, the artist's identity, what recordings she released when and where, the label that signed her, how well or poorly she performs live, blah blah blah.

Bottom line, the song pulled me right in when I heard it. As Kathy Iandoli, a contributor to the Village Voice blogs, wrote last month, "The comment-board fights and blog posts don't detract from the fact that she can actually sing."

(And neither, I would add, am I put off by her much-criticized and, honestly, well-below-expectations performance on SNL the night before last. I saw the performance on video the morning after. Del Rey was clearly nervous as all get out, but ... so what? She can still sing, even if not in a live television performance on the eve of an album debut, her first.)

Listening to Video Games has me thinking about melancholy popular music in general. One song that's more-or-less recent and falls into this melancholy category, as I categorize anyway, is Lost in My Mind, written and performed by The Head and the Heart.

It's another song whose topic and meaning is a bit opaque. It moves from a clearly melancholic mood at the start to something almost rolicking at the finish, but it stays grounded in a mournful emotional key (I love the burning piano at the end of the video).

Thinking about songs I would categorize with these two, the ones that come to mind are mostly from way-back-when, but share a quality with both Video Games and Lost in My Mind: they sound sad, no doubt of that ... but they also express deep and muscular passion. They're not depressed. Depressed is something different, and not what I mean by melancholy music in the sense I find compelling.

I'm thinking of songs from yesteryear like Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny, performed with Fairport Convention, 1969); Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young, 1970); Everything I Own (Bread, 1972); Angel from Mongomery (John Prine, performed by Bonnie Rait, 1974); Sara (Bob Dylan, 1976); Fast Car (Tracy Chapman, 1988); She Talks to Angels (The Black Crowes, 1990); Guess I'm Doing Fine (Beck, 2002). The list could be endless, of course, but each of these qualifies for my iPod's "Melancholia" playlist.

One of the first songs of this type to which I was drawn was Crystal Blue Persuasion, performed by Tommy James and the Shondells. I must have been nine or ten when I first heard it on the radio. Ah, bubble gum... From the same band, an even better example of passion wrapped in mournful sound is Crimson and Clover:

When I listened to Crimson and Clover the other day on YouTube it was hard to stay in a teary mood. Why, you ask? Well, look at the ad Google decided to serve alongside it:

Is it Christianity? Or is it a porn site? I didn't click to find out....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Taking the coast road north from Santa Cruz
Take a sad song
Are you a lyrics person?


  1. attracts crowdsourced comments about what a singer's lyrics 'really' mean - or in some cases, what they at least mean to the commentators. The comments these on the whole tend to be fairly clueful.

    The page on that site for Lana Del Ray's "Video Games":

  2. "comments these" => "comments there"

  3. Oh my gosh, Steve - I thought I might have been the oldest person on earth who loved this song, good to know there's at least one person older than me that got sucked in! Lindy

  4. @Aron -- thanks for the link ... I have to say, though, I think that the song benefits from its ambiguity, and if I were LDR's agent I'd advise her to let it be rather than overshare.

    @Granny Lindy -- Not that much older, thank you very much ( ;-) ) .... ~Gramps

  5. To the writer of this article/blog : I thought you might be interested in adding to your "melancholia" playlist "The end of the world" by Skeeter Davis (that you probably already know but just in case...) and "Holland Road" of Mumford & Sons. They are a British band and absolutely love this song of theirs, and you can also check their albums because they have several "melancholic" songs.

    Anyway, I've been getting into Lana's world more and more lately, and to me, her music really is one of a kind.