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The Art of Artifice, from Lana Del Rey to Davy Jones

Lana Del Rey, the pouty-lipped chanteuse of teen pop’s arty strain, has been the object of chat-room squabbling that would no doubt have tickled Davy Jones, the fan fave of The Monkees, those injection-molded models of career engineering in popular music. Jones, who died of a heart attack at age 66 this week, spent his professional life as a target of ridicule by rock critics and advocates of authenticity in the rock world. Like Del Rey, Jones was endowed with adolescent good looks, a prettiness that made his musical ability suspect. During the brief hey-heyday of the Monkees, my sister, a devoted Tiger Beat reader, and our older brother, an Esquire type, fought over Jones with the kind of fervor we tend to associate with other conflicts of the ’60s, such as the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement. Jones obviously had no talent because he couldn’t play the guitar, my brother argued. Well, singing takes talent, my sister would say, “and I like him.” Juvenile and reductive, the debate lives on, almost verbatim, in the comments under Del Rey’s videos on YouTube.

I avoided taking sides then, because both my sister and my brother were considerably bigger than me. With no threat of retaliation, I’ll admit now to some appreciation for Davy Jones—and the adolescent heartthrobs to follow him, including Del Rey. The projection of charm—in Jones’s case, the appearance of comfort in one’s skin under the outrageously artificial conditions of the Monkees TV show—takes a kind of talent. Besides, Jones could sing—in a warm little voice untainted by affect. Fronting an utterly and unapologetically phony band, Jones put not a hint of phoniness into his singing.  (Del Rey, who was born Elizabeth Grant and adopted her stage name for its Latin tinge of the exotic, projects a lack of affect that comes across as a projection; still, her own little voice is appealing, and her original songs are tunefully arch.) 

Well before the Monkees, Jones had proved that he could hold his own as a juvenile performer, putting across show tunes as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production of Oliver. There is film footage of Jones performing the role in one of the staged-for-TV excerpts from musicals that Ed Sullivan used to present on his variety show, occasions that nurtured Middle America’s taste for Broadway in the postwar years. On the evening that Jones appeared with the Oliver cast, Ed Sullivan also presented the television debut of a pop band that Jones would come to emulate: The Beatles.