The entertainment news cycle tends to be so bizarre that even its most seemingly random revelations don’t often come as much of surprise. Jay-Z is ripping off Marina Abramovic in the presence of… Marina Abramovic? Yeah, well, he’s into art these days. Michel Houellebecq is starring in a film about his disappearance during a book tour a few years back? Hey, he’s always been pretty “meta.” And yet, every once in a while, there comes a bit of news strange enough to leave even the most jaded cultural commentator baffled. Like, say, the emergence of Lana Del Rey’s Lady Gaga diss track.
I’ve been processing this story for approximately 24 hours now, trying to get at what — if anything — it means that, back in (according to most guesses) 2009, Lana Del Rey was allegedly angry enough about Lady Gaga’s success to record a song-length diatribe against her. Obviously, this is a fairly unimportant thing to spend so much time pondering — we’re still not even 100% sure it isn’t a sham — but if “So Legit” has been consuming your thoughts, too, then let’s sit down and puzzle through it together, in the format best suited to our mutually addle-brained state: the bulleted list.
- What was happening for Gaga and LDR in 2009? Since The Fame Monster didn’t come out until November of that year, Gaga was most likely still riding the success of 2008’s The Fame, which cleared the double-platinum bar towards the end of 2009. Del Rey, meanwhile, had put out an EP called Kill Kill just a few months after The Fame‘s release… and, well, the fact that, to this day, only serious LDR fans could name that three-song debut tells you pretty much all you need to know about how much press it generated. Del Rey’s next effort, the atrociously titled and equally unsuccessful Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant, would follow in January 2010 — and her breakthrough single, “Video Games,” was still a couple years off. The woman still known at the time as Lizzy Grant spent 2009 “singing her own songs to little acclaim in Williamsburg watering holes and small Lower East Side venues” — inevitably the same places that so famously nurtured Gaga just a few years earlier.
- Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey aren’t actually so different from each other. In “So Legit,” it’s the image Gaga has created for herself that LDR seems most interested in attacking. “You were the freak king of the piercing shop,” the song begins, later contrasting Gaga’s early “punk rock” ethos with her jewel-draped post-Fame look. At another moment, Del Rey goes in on her rival’s voice and androgyny: “You’re looking like a man, you’re talking like a baby.” This suggests why Del Rey might have felt such scorn for the woman she addresses as “Stefani.” Not only did their professional circles overlap — to the extent that LDR claims Gaga called her “the queen of the downtown scene” — but they were trying to launch very similar careers, each hoping to sell underground aesthetics back to the pop mainstream.
- Is Lady Gaga partially responsible for the creation of Lana Del Rey? Now this, to me, is where it gets really interesting. “So Legit” helps to prove that LDR is savvier about image than her detractors tend to claim; the fact that she’s capable of deconstructing Lady Gaga’s schtick implies a certain amount of agency in her own transformation from Lizzy Grant into Lana Del Rey. Recorded before she had completed that metamorphosis (some would argue that it will never quite be complete), the song both displays the knowledge that a salable image is essential to success and identifies the aspects of Gaga that Del Rey would define herself against. If Lady Gaga was masculine, for example, Lana Del Rey would take femininity to an extreme.
- And yet, the result is still that signature Lana Del Rey awkwardness. Best represented by that infamous Saturday Night Live pirouette, it’s mild inappropriateness — not smooth gangster-Nancy-Sinatra moves — that have come to define LDR in the popular consciousness. This is what New York‘s Nitsuh Abebe is getting at when he describes her music as “touchingly, delightfully campy.” In “So Legit,” we see that campy awkwardness happening on many levels. There’s a fascinating moment of outsider self-awareness, in which Del Rey guesses that Gaga sought to outshine her because “perhaps you thought I was a little bit even uncool.” There’s a disappointment about the Brooklyn music scene that would read as naïve to anyone who’s spent more than a week in the borough (“What happened to Brooklyn, what happened to New York? / What happened to my scene, what happened to punk rock, rock?”). And then there’s the fact that Lizzy Grant took Stefani Germanotta’s success so personally that she sat down with her guitar and wrote a song about it. Now that is touchingly campy — to the extent that, come to think of it, this pre-“Video Games” track may well be the best single-song guide we have to solving the never-ending mystery that is Lana Del Rey.
And now that we’ve sorted through all these various and conflicting observations (go ahead and unburden yourself in the comments if you have further thoughts), we’re finally free to put our brains to better use.