I think I first heard of Lana Del Rey because of her widely-panned first appearance on SNL in 2012. She was a creature of YouTube, an artist who sprouted seemingly out of nowhere, as if from the skull of Athena. Critics saw a dilettante who was, ironically enough, “not ready for primetime.” I did not give her another thought for a while.
But eventually I heard “Born to Die” or “West Coast” somewhere and got hooked, using Spotify to dive into the elaborately manicured world that Del Rey had created. For some reason this fantasia of 1950s film noir, SoCal gothic, and hip-hop badness proved irresistible to me. Even if it was plainly obvious that Del Rey—born Elizabeth Grant—was creating a character, indulging in all manner of hoary American tropes, from Elvis to Springsteen to Scarface to “The Leader of the Pack,” it didn’t matter. Somehow it all worked.
I wrote about LDR back in 2015, in an analysis of her albums Born to Die, Paradise, and Ultraviolence that may or may not hold up today. I think most of it does; she still plays with gender in a way that darts from abjectly submissive sex-kitten to assertive, cold-blooded bad bitch. It’s all part of the obsessively curated LDR aesthetic, which employs both flame-haired femininity and American iconography in a variety of poses, varyingly sullen, seductive, and austere. Perhaps most shocking of all: the album cover of her latest effort, Lust for Life, shows her smiling, of all things, with flowers in her hair.
A lot has happened since I last wrote, to say the least. There was Del Rey’s Honeymoon, a dirge-like effort (even by her standards) that felt flat and uninteresting to most of her fans and critics. Yet she came back with Lust for Life, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.
Along the way, I realized that I was not the only one who liked her music, which I had thought was just a campy, guilty pleasure. Several of my friends were fans, and it appears that she is actually a popular musician, which seems surprising and bizarre to me. I’ve heard only a few of her songs ever played on radio or in bars and restaurants (most likely “Summertime Sadness” and “West Coast”), but in an age of Spotify, mainstream popularity does not necessarily hinge entirely on mainstream radio. In any case, I did not see how her Velvet-Underground-and-Nico-by-way-of-2Pac style would translate to a mass audience.
The question that remains for me is: how much of this is just clever brand management, akin to Madonna or Lady Gaga, and how much is her true identity? In some ways, it doesn’t matter—every big star from Bob Dylan to Missy Elliot has created a persona that may or may not track with their own inner self, in the same way a novelist writes a story that might be loosely based on their own life but departs from it in enough innumerable, significant ways that it is legitimately not their own life. MIA was not a terrorist; Johnny Cash was not a prisoner; Springsteen wasn’t really a poor boy from New Jersey. But they spun stories and images that people found captivating and meaningful.
Still, I wonder if the Lana Del Rey persona is purely a contrivance. She writes or co-writes the songs, and presumably this is her vision—at least to a greater extent than the Monkees or Spice Girls or other prefab groups were. Yet one of the things that is appealing about her is that her aesthetic has been so masterfully controlled, everything from fonts to colors to fashion to demeanor. Whether it’s Born to Die or “Summer Bummer,” she has an expert team of people advising her about how to stick with a certain moody, retro atmosphere—whether that’s sound production, an album cover, interviews, promo shoots, or live performance. (She even made headlines in 2017 for supposedly putting a “hex” on Donald Trump, deftly reconfirming her image as a “dream witch,” as ToM contributor Shalon Van Tine put it). It’s truly impressive that she and her team, whoever they are, have been able to dictate how she is portrayed to the public, with a resolutely consistent set of themes and archetypes.
If anything, Lust for Life casts doubt on the idea that Lana Del Rey is just a pastiche of various mid-to-late twentieth century pop culture clichés. She seems extraordinarily committed to staying in this aesthetic, as her most recent album continues the marriage of morose torch songs with hip-hop and trip-hop sonics. Del Rey is all-in, ride-or-die.
I asked a few years ago if she would stick with this image or reinvent herself, a la Madonna, and it appears that she has no intention of doing so. Bob Dylan remade himself many times, as any student of pop music history knows. U2 started out as earnest Christians and then cannily remolded their image as Eurotrash hipsters in the 1990s, before reverting back to type. We can accept artists changing their image as both a creative and business decision. But LDR is sticking with the doomy noir persona that she has created, something that feels both highly contemporary and “of the moment” and yet distinctly out of step with the times.
Pitchfork probably put it best back in 2014:
She’s an utterly distinctive figure in popular music—not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely.
Maybe her loneliness is a fake, an elaborate con, but maybe it is true too—in the way that a lie can be true. It oozes out of every lyric of “Blue Jeans,” “Sad Girl,” or “God Bless America,” in Del Rey’s casually indifferent, jaded, but deeply emotional intonation. For what it’s worth, the new album notably departs from the relentless big-pimp cynicism and gangster fatalism of the past ones. The songs have more to do with love, lust, and desire than before, without the whiff of deliberately crass materialism and naked ambition in songs like “National Anthem” from her first album (“Do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?” “Money is the reason we exist”).
Songs such as “13 Beaches” and “Get Free” convey a kind of sadness and yearning that telegraphs as more real, more likely coming from a real person than a cartoonish character. This, of course, calls the whole LDR project into question. Was it all just a big joke, or was this who she really was all along? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the whole point.
But her performance at Atlanta’s Philips Arena gave a radically different angle of view on the phenomenon known as Lana. Hundreds of young women came to the show with garlands of flowers in their hair, presumably in reference to her iconic “Born to Die” video. Men and women were both screaming “I love you, Lana!” in an almost Beatlesque fashion of hysteria. People sang along word by word to “Video Games” and “When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing,” as if they had been raised on these songs and heard them a million times. Like it was “This Land Is Your Land” or “Hey Jude.” I have never seen an artist have an audience eating out their hand the way Del Rey did, except for Bruce Springsteen at the Meadowlands. For whatever reason, her admixture of bravado, desire, and despair meant as much to the crowd who turned out in Atlanta as Springsteen meant to another generation.
As fellow New Jersey stalwarts Titus Andronicus once said, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!”
Perhaps she just exists at intriguing intersection of trends—the overwhelming hegemony of hip-hop in pop music, and a yearning for something nostalgic, from the past. As she says at the outset of Lust for Life:
Look at you kids with your vintage music
Comin’ through satellites while cruisin’
You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future
Signals crossing can get confusin’
And at the end of the album, she makes it even clearer:
I’m crossing the threshold
From the ordinary world
To the reveal of my heart
That will for certain
Take the dead out of the sea
And the darkness from the arts
This is my commitment
My modern manifesto
I’m doin’ it for all of us
Who never got the chance
If that is not a reflection on millennials’ generational frustration and thwarted dreams, I don’t know what is. Lana Del Rey’s love of minor chords, lush atmospherics, nostalgia, and despair has touched some kind of nerve in the America of the Obama and Trump years. It remains to be seen whether she can keep up the act and turn out compelling work, but she has already shown a gift—akin to Dylan or Beck—for mixing up pop culture tropes and symbolism in a unique way. If nothing else, her work will remain a weird and telling artifact of the time that we’ve lived through.
As Del Rey asks in one of the standout tracks from her new album, apropos for 2017, “Is it the end of America? No, it’s only the beginning…”