The Unknowable Pop Star

We all burn, burn, burn with the desire for fame. But what would we do once we had it?

Most pop stars play the game. They know the rules, and they stick to them, mostly. There’s some bending, but only enough to make them stand out just enough to carve their own spot in the ocean of our cultural attention span. When the compromises they must make in order to follow these rules become too much, they self-destruct, like Britney Spears did, only to refuse to give up and return to the game. If they don’t follow the rules, they are forgotten.

But what if you write your own rules? Though not exactly a pop star, Lana Del Rey might as well be, capturing the poptimist sphere and taking up a huge space that no one else was filling. On her new album, Del Rey appears to be taking on the concept of fame with more depth than she has in the past. Though it has been a component of her lyrics since the beginning, the small amount of Honeymoon that we’ve been witness to so far speaks to the contradictions of the modern pop star that Del Rey seems particularly suited to comment on and shake up.

The album art, pictured above, shows Del Rey sitting in a StarLine Tours vehicle, looking like a tourist on the lookout through Hollywood for celebrities. Notably, she looks bored (though she usually does). The music video for “High By The Beach” depicts Del Rey in an expansive summer home shooting down a helicopter of paparazzi with a giant weapon. If you call her “Honeymoon Hotline”, at 1-800-268-7886, you can listen to Del Rey’s new songs or lectures about “today’s stars”. Fame hangs heavy on the tongue of Honeymoon.

Del Rey’s aesthetic and moody, ironic nostalgia has created an amount of attention that she perhaps never imagined when she was just Elizabeth Grant. She fills arenas around the world, as if she were Taylor Swift, and inspires a kind of intense devotion rarely seen outside of One Directioners. My personal theory is that the character of Lana Del Rey revels in this, as the peak expression of the commentary she has always been attempting to make, but that the real Elizabeth Grant grows weary. The way for her to bring those things together is to create an album, coming out little more than a year after her previous one, that takes aim at the attention lavished upon her, begging for more but tearing it down. She is an artist of constant contradictions, a careful balance so that it never falls into kitsch or groan-inducing irony.

We also know nothing about who she is. The image of Lana Del Rey is very deliberate, and we know next to nothing about Elizabeth Grant, other than what biographical information we can glean about her past, simple facts or tidbits. This is part of her genius, as it allows us to project whatever we want onto her persona. It doesn’t matter whether any of it is genuine, or if we believe what she says. She has an extreme personality, an addictive charisma that is fascinating to watch, a real person and yet, not. She is telling a story, and the narrative is endlessly compelling.


We also know nothing about who Carly Rae Jepsen is. When Lana Del Rey does give an interview, you pore over every word to figure out who exactly is talking with each answer. When Jepsen gives an interview, it is utterly shocking how achingly boring she is. She is incredibly normal, genuinely sweet, and perfectly palatable. This could explain why she is having more trouble capturing the modern pop world’s attention in a significant way. “Call Me Maybe” was downloaded millions of times, but the excellent album it comes from, Kiss, sold less than 300,000 copies. To simplify, Jepsen is writing her own rules just as much as Del Rey, but in the opposite manner. She is the honest-to-goodness pop star who toils for years supervising the immaculate and meticulous crafting of an album’s worth of songs that are pop perfection on her third record, Emotion, with outstanding production, pointedly simple lyrics and soaringly sweet melodies. It is one of the year’s best albums, period. But it will not sell very well, and its singles have performed disappointingly.

Jepsen doesn’t seem to dislike fame, or have a very complicated relationship with it – there is simply less of an interest in Jepsen. Her songs are catchy earworms, ‘80s throwbacks that innovate and excel better than anything on Swift’s 1989, but her lack of a particularly interesting personality stops it there. We know just as little about who she actually is as we know about Del Rey, but the difference is that she is not playing a character. She is playing herself, a natural performance that is an active rejection of what a pop star is supposed to do in 2015. She denies us the ability to project anything onto her, instead failing to even try at writing a narrative for herself. The sincerity is jarring. Her only interest appears to be delivering the best musical project she possibly can, even if that means being too boring of a persona to truly get everyone’s eyes to pay attention to her. She zeroes in on and sings, sugary sweet, about the bombast and whirlwind of emotion and the painful aching of love and heartbreak, and she does so unabashedly.

Del Rey creates an entirely new character and does it better than all the rest by committing wholly to the game in a way like no other, while Jepsen struggles to have a portion of the same effect on the zeitgeist because she pours herself into her work rather than her persona. Her songs are not self-centred, but deliberately without a recognizable narrator, nurturing the universality of desire. We spend no time decoding who she might be singing about. We spend no time thinking about her social media exploits or Twitter beefs. She is the alternative to the self-important pop elite, and though she becomes invisible in her unknowability, she becomes all the more memorable in her burning desire.


Jake Pitre is a journalist living in Ottawa. His writing can also be found at Movie Mezzanine, Sound On Sight and elsewhere. He doesn't think filmmaking can get any better than the "Everytime" sequence in Spring Breakers and he listens exclusively to Lana Del Rey.