You can accuse me of search engine baiting, but there’s something fascinatingly parallel yet also contradictory about the recent rise of two young stars in two completely different arenas: New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin and kinda indie songstress Lana Del Rey. If you want to close this browser tab after reading that, I can’t blame you. Both have been written about exhaustively, so let me do my best to explain why I see these things coming together.
There should be no dispute over the fact that in both pro basketball and pop music, there’s an emphasis on precocious talent. This reached a place in the NBA where the league itself felt it had to enforce some kind of age limit to prevent athletes from jumping straight from high school to the pros. Never mind the fact that the many of the most successful athletes of this last generation and a half came directly from high school (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). Even Tyson Chandler, who came from the draft class that’s seen as largely responsible for NBA commissioner David Stern’s age limit, has grown into his early promise. What Eddy Curry’s grown into, that’s another story.
Pop, likewise, has long placed laurels on musicians from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber when acting their age meant acting their shoe size. You can throw it all the way back to Mozart. Basketball’s youth movement is a considerably more recent phenomenon (Moses Malone made the high school to pros jump in 1974 for the ABA’s Utah Stars), but in both pop music and sports, this emphasis on youth comes along with a whole host of judgments about whether these young stars are ready for what comes along with growing up so fast.
Now, neither Lin nor Del Rey is stunningly young, precisely. Lin is 23, a second-year player who went undrafted when he graduated from Harvard. By way of comparison, Michael Beasley is the same age and a four-year vet. When LeBron James turned 23, he had been a professional basketball player for five years. Del Rey is 25, an age at which Britney Spears had already gone up the charts, fallen down, given birth and was readying a comeback. For an even more ridiculous perspective, The Beatles broke up when youngest member George Harrison was 26. Think about that one for a moment.
So neither Del Rey nor Lin are prodigies, yet both have seen an explosion of cultural currency over the last month, one for his heretofore apparently dormant skills and the other for her lack of seasoning as a performer and hand-wringing over how she got where she is. This is where our perceptions of these areas of human endeavor get interesting, though, because on the one hand, basketball thrives on numbers, on skills that are quantitatively measurable, whereas the kind of numbers musicians generate—sales, concert sellouts, Grammy awards—have relatively little to do with the music itself.
Or rather: the public at large admires million sellers and scoring champs while bloggers admire undiscovered artists and guys with a high Player Efficiency Rating or Win Shares per 48. Such measurements have little to do with Lin’s appeal, though, which has been chalked up to everything from his Chinese-American heritage to his Ivy League credentials. Lin was not a statistical diamond-in-the-rough just waiting for the right chance to show his stuff off; all that stuff about his heritage and his Harvard degree were good fodder when he broke into the league with the Golden State Warriors and had a New York Times profile written on him. But the Knicks were more or less ready to cut Lin until his incredible first three games as a starter, where he’s averaged 25.3 points and 8.3 assists. Up until the moment he became a phenomenon, Lin was being judged on potential; Golden State, Houston, and New York all thought enough of it to give him a roster slot. But now, he will be measured consistently on how he plays, based largely on numbers that will accrue night in and night out for the rest of his career. There can be debate about how important or accurate different stats are, but they’re definitely numbers.
All that gets a lot more nebulous in dealing with pop stardom. Someone has no doubt put a lot of money and effort into turning Elizabeth Grant into Lana Del Rey. Forget the controversies about plastic surgery or her rich father and just listen to her album, Born to Die—that kind of sound takes serious scratch. It will rack up millions of sales and downloads, just as her YouTube video for “Video Games” racked up millions of hits before she even signed her record deal. She’s got the stats. But when she graced the Saturday Night Live stage a few weeks ago, it became glaringly apparent that she’s not ready for at least one aspect of a music career: live performance.
If Lana Del Rey were a basketball player, she’d be a volume shooter. Someone like J.R. Smith who needs a lot of shots to score the heaps of points he can if he gets those shots. She’s just not well-rounded at this point in her career; give her the spot-up three off a drive and kick and she’ll knock it down. But make her put the ball on the floor and she might dribble it off her foot. Despite Lin’s numbers (including 38 points against the Lakers last night), there’s every reason to believe that he will regress to the mean over the long haul. But there’s also reason to believe he’ll be a very solid point guard for a long time. Maybe he’s like Aimee Mann, who got a rush of attention with ‘Til Tuesday, then got relegated to the bench until Paul Thomas Anderson threw her back into a starter’s role by putting her on the “Magnolia” soundtrack. Ten-plus years later, is she going to sell out arenas? No, but she’s putting in solid work by capably running the offense and creating opportunities.
What the phenomena of both Jeremy Lin and Lana Del Rey point to is how much more complicated our values are than simply elevating the successful and scorning the failed. We will root for perceived underdogs, even when they have a Harvard degree, and we will find fault with meteoric success when it suits us. We crave good stories, not just good results measured in numbers. Our comfort, our sense of who we are is bound inextricably not just to success and failure in our own lives and the lives of others. It is found in the twists and turns of plot or fate or whatever you choose to call the narrative sense we’re all trying to make of life. Ultimately, whether they succeed or fail, what Lin and Del Rey give is good narrative.