Pop Music, Social Development, and Neurology; A Scientific Exploration of Lana Del Rey’s Rise and Fall (and Rise)


For those of you who do not know who Lana Del Rey is or simply feel that they may not have the appropriate knowledge of her history in relation to this piece, we have created an additional write-up which we believe should sufficiently fill in any gaps and provide context.  That introduction can be reached through linking HERE.

It’s actually quite lengthy, in it’s own right, so if you do feel that you already have enough of a grasp on the subject and/or that it should not affect your ability to absorb the following content, we encourage to simply continue reading.  Thank you.


On March 10, Lana Del Rey gave a free concert at Easy Street Records in Seattle. The motives were clear. After a disastrous SNL performance, she would perform several brief, low-pressure sets to hone her delivery. And, with a large stable of consultants and voice coaches, Del Rey would advance to the arena circuit by next year. I anticipated swift progress. I was wrong.

Though she relaxed by her third song (“Video Games”), the first two were cringe-inducing. Frantically shifting from sultry jazz, to operatic, to fun and flirtatious, to worn and wounded, the vocalist entrapped herself in impossible and inappropriate gambits. There is nothing wrong, of course, with daring and creativity. The pop star pantheon can only be reached by consistent experimentation with the timbre, pitch, and strength of your instruments. The greats, however, did it with aplomb.

Buddy Holly could be playful with his voice because his narrow range would never push him off course. Josie Cotton, a singer of Del Rey’s talent, could shift quickly from sexy to sweet because she was in control. Del Rey, clearly, is not. Hearing her perform is the equivalent of watching the third scene of a superhero movie. The protagonist has discovered his talents but has not yet mastered them – and, for Spiderman and Lana Del Rey, end up wrapping themselves in their own web.

Clearly, Del Rey has the pipes. Provided that she is persistent and disciplined, she’ll surely elevate to pop icon status. Still, this progression is hardly inevitable. First, she’ll have to ignore the critics entirely (good and bad). They miss the forest through the trees; appropriately criticizing her performance while overlooking her impressive raw ability.

Second, and much more challenging, she’ll have to reconcile her personality conflict. One minute she was overemphasizing a lyric mentioning drugs and sex for cheap applause, the next she was a perky Mouseketeer assuring her audience that she “loved” them. Del Rey’s erratic performances are not rooted in clumsiness or nervousness or lack of practice. It is much more a fundamental. She is unsure of her identity as a performer and, if her songs are any indication, unsure of her identity as a person. To address this tension and achieve stardom, she’ll have to reconcile either her identity conflict or develop a coherent stage persona. For reasons of personal health, the former is recommended. To merely gain fame, the latter will suffice.

This should not be read as a criticism of Lana Del Rey as an individual. My remarks are more sociological. It is unrealistic to expect a twenty-five year old – particularly one from a two-parent, middle class background – to achieve the maturity that we foolishly expect of today’s pop stars. It is no accident that the pop pantheon is filled with performers and writers in their late-20s.

Stephen Sondheim was in his late-20s when he composed the lyrics for West Side Story. Jerry Capehart was in his late-20s when he co-wrote “Summertime Blues” with Eddie Cochran. Norman Petty was in his late-20s when he co-wrote “Oh Boy!”, “Not Fade Away”, “Peggie Sue”, “Rave On”, “I’m Gonna Love You Too” with Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Chuck Berry was in his late-20s when he wrote “Maybelline” and “Johnny B. Good”. Eddie Holland Jr. was in his mid- to late-20s when he composed the lyrics for the biggest Motown hits, including “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Mark James was in his late-20s when he wrote “Suspicious Minds” for Elvis. Tony Asher was in his late-20s when he composed the majority of the lyrics for the Beach BoysPet Sounds. The Beatles were in their late-20s when they revolutionized Pop Music. The Paine brothers were in their late-20s when they wrote “He Could be the One”, “Rockin’ Love”, and “Johnny, Are you Queer” for Josie Cotton. A pattern has clearly emerged.

More than Pop Music ephemera, these were – with the unfortunate exception of Josie Cotton – critically-acclaimed hits that continue to be touted as “classics”. This is no small feat. Appealing to an audience of 14-19 year olds – as all Pop Music must – while impressing more cultured commentators, is a nearly impossible achievement. How can the chasm be breached? The answer: with a thoughtful, mature, and sincere song that speaks directly to the teenage experience without condescension or excessive sophistication.

A teenager could never achieve this balance. Emotions are too raw and aspirations too confused. Perspective is fundamentally absent. It’s the rough equivalent of writing an oceanography textbook based on your experience with and during a Tsunami.

Someone in his early-20s – and mid-20s if he attended college – is equally inept. Balancing the freedoms and responsibilities of “early-adulthood” is a bewildering experience. We tend to cling to extremes – indulging every passion or setting a rigid routine – or allow ourselves to be pulled in countless directions. While we may have a “perspective” on youth, it will be a flawed one. The hedonist will indulge or champion the more coarse, shallow, and vile aspirations of youth. The puritan will harangue youthful indiscretion and advance a litany of prohibitions. The chameleon will say too much, too little, or offer contradictions and enigmas.

Finally, once someone passes 30, youth becomes too distant. Either they caricature youth or ignore it entirely and write music too mature, philosophical, or intellectual for their teenage audience.

Thus, it is only a small window, roughly age twenty-six to thirty, where a song-writer (or novelist or photographer or painter) can reflect on youth from a mature and thoughtful, but not too distant, vantage point.

This analysis appears to validate contemporary brain science.  According to leading neuroscientists, the frontal lobe – involved in executive functions receiving dopamine projections associated with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation – does not mature until our mid-20s; just in time to compose critically-acclaimed Pop Music.

I believe, however, that neuroscience adheres to a fundamentally flawed assumption.  While they insist that neural evolution directs social development, the exact opposite is also true.  While neuroscientists – even those who study the “plasticity” of the brain in response to experience (Kolb, et al) – treat “childhood” and “adulthood” as fixed conditions, they are, in fact, unusually malleable social constructs.  Just a few centuries ago, when adulthood began at thirteen, individuals were forced to balance responsibility and freedom at a much younger age.  In this era, I would hypothesize, the frontal lobe solidified much earlier than it does today.  In contemporary cultures where adulthood begins in the teenage years, I would expect the same findings.  On the other hand, in Brooklyn, Capitol Hill (Seattle), Portland, and numerous other hipster havens, I imagine that the average frontal lobe does not solidify until the early-30s.

The distinctions between male and female brain development demands a similar reevaluation.  Women continue to marry earlier than men and, given their smaller window to produce healthy babies, are forced to ruminate on family-rearing at an earlier age.  In other words, they begin to balance responsibilities and freedom before men.  According to my theory, it is unsurprising that their frontal lobes would mature earlier.  [I do not wish to ignore the innate hormonal differences between males and females.  Contemporary neuroscientists are probably correct that hormonal distribution affects brain development.  I simply believe that hormones are part of the story, rather than the whole story].

The field of neuroscience has made impressive advances in recent decades and deserves much of the acclaim it has achieved.  However, when Supreme Court decisions on juvenile delinquency are informed by – what I believe are – flawed theories of frontal lobe development, it is time to reconsider the field’s influence.  For too long, neuroscience has been insulated.  With the Western world’s fetishisation of the natural sciences – often at the expense of social sciences – neuroscientists feel little compulsion to initiate inter-disciplinary ventures outside of the hard sciences – and when they do, are driven my imperialist rather than collaborative motives.  This is a critical mistake.  Without corroboration from sociologists and anthropologists, neuroscience will wallow and society’s unchecked deference to their theories will become dangerous.

At 15, Terry Hall dropped out of high school and became a bricklayer.  By his early-20s, I suspect, his frontal lobe was fully developed.  Hall co-wrote “Our Lips are Sealed” for the Go-Go’s in 1980.  He was only 21Adele was three when her father abandoned her twenty-one year old mother.  She too was forced to assume adult responsibilities at an early age.  By 21, she was a pop-icon and darling of the high-brow critics.

Perhaps, to her great fortune, Lana Del Rey did not face such adversity as a youth.  She remains a confused, insecure, thoughtless, restless, and impulsive twenty-five year old.  The intense scrutiny and vitriol of the blogosphere will threaten to derail her artistic progress and personal maturation.  Let’s hope they fail.

A. Jogger

A. Jogger currently resides in Seattle, Wa. He enjoys making implications that the editor of this site is stubbornly idealistic regarding concepts of "selling out" and that he blindly rejects whatever he doesn't feel to be "high art" in favor of crass and unnecessarily emotional commentary. Although he likely has never read anything posted on this site, he bases these assumptions off of personal interactions, which is, admittedly, probably a more solid place to draw his conclusions from. He has also been known to jog around town in short shorts and refuses to wear his shoes in coffee shops. He did not write this bio.

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