Far from Dusty

Ignore the gossip: the 1960s revival has two bright new stars, says Kate Mossman.

Two guys on a streetcar in 1940: "Say, have you heard about that horn player Louis Armstrong? He's so authentic! His mother was a prostitute, you know." A press release for the Beatles: "Abandoned child John Lennon seeks solace in music". My point is, of course, that it wouldn't have happened. The personal tragedies of our pop stars have only recently become a vital part of the PR machine. Television talent shows invented artists with tales to tell of woe and redemption - now every new act is mined for personal stories before a debut album. Even the British singer Rumer was sold to us on a scandal: at the age of 11 she learned she was the lovechild of her mother and their Pakistani cook. The music is no longer enough.

This spring comes the release of Through The Night, the debut album by the Salford soul singer Ren Harvieu, whose own story is already better known than her music - she broke her back during a game of rough-and-tumble and had to put her career on hold; until recently she walked with a stick. Harvieu has been compared to Dusty Springfield. Back in the day, fans of Dusty perhaps knew her favourite colour or the identity of her fantasy "dreamboat" - that was the kind of information managers gave out. They didn't know she was gay and from a dysfunctional family that used to throw food at each other - it probably wouldn't have helped sell tickets. It certainly would now.

Today the dissemination of music is a rapid and haphazard process, a flurry of YouTube links between friends. The better the gossip around an artist or song, the more likely you are to click. At the end of 2011, New York's diva-in-waiting, Lana Del Rey, generated enough online hype to sell out shows both sides of the Atlantic before she'd released a single. The gossip? Lana was not a "real" pop star. She was a fake!

Harvieu (real name) and Del Rey (named after an 1980s Ford car) are the latest embodiments of the 1960s soul revival: the former a vampish northern lass discovered through Myspace, the latter a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra" (no one sums up Lana better than Lana herself). Like Harvieu, Del Rey has a backstory - a former life as an indie singer named Lizzie Grant with blonde hair (before the red tint) and normal lips (before the collagen). Her first EP, financed by her father, tanked. How the blogs fizzed with indignation when people found out that Lana Del Rey had existed under another name! This was "fake DIY", they said - an artist posing as autonomous creative entity when she'd been manufactured by a major label. She revealed that, yes, she had been forced to change her name, lower her voice, dye her hair for the Man. . . and in doing so came across as a rather vulnerable and determined young artist after all.

Del Rey's viral hit "Video Games" and Harvieu's single "Through The Night" are songs as rich as chocolate, built on orchestral sweeps and goose-bump modulations. Their personas are fragile but stoic, like Marilyn or Jackie or any other 1960s heroines they recall. Harvieu's smoky voice is stronger than Del Rey's but her appeal is more conventional - a night-soaked, Roy Orbison drama. Del Rey's signature song is a different beast altogether - a sparse but sophisticated structure with a funereal chord progression. It recalls Véronique Sanson's 1972 tear-jerker "Amoreuse" (covered by Kiki Dee) but is lyrically modern - a hymn to relationship ennui delivered with the same honesty Lily Allen showed on "Not Fair", her song about bad sex: "Open up a beer/And you say get over here/And play a video game".

This "Hollywood sadcore" (her words again) is just one aspect of an act soon to be fully revealed on her forthcoming album, Born to Die. "Off to the Races" flits between rich, rumbling soul, playground hip hop and a baby-doll chorus about a bad boy with a "cocaine heart". "Diet Mountain Dew" is a slow, spectral R&B ode to an intoxicating but trashy relationship; "National Anthem" is drowsy rap with a massed 1980s chorus. Hip hop permeates this record, but Del Rey pulls back enigmatically, sounding vulnerable rather than aggressive. "This Is What Makes Us Girls" could be a Katy Perry lyric were it not for that note of madness, the mention of a "degenerate beauty queen".

The song-writing is as strong as Lady Gaga's, possibly more so. Del Rey's voice is not. Her characters are limited and her live performances seem cold, placid or secretly terrified. But there is a sense of possibility here, of ideas crammed together, a reassuring level of artistic schizophrenia. It's crazy to suggest that a perfectly worked-up pop concept like this could ever be "authentic". Next time I send a link, it will simply contain the words "Listen to this song. It's good." Give me Lana Del Rey's fantasy dreamboat over the real story any day.

Kate Mossman is reviews editor for Word Magazine

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?