Lana Del Rey is a study in opposition. Simultaneously manufactured and authentic, out of time and very much present. When she appeared on the scene in 2011 with her YouTube breakouts “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games”, the internet seemed split down the middle on what to make of her. Who was this mysterious crooning woman and where did she come from? Her perfectly-honed, old-world glam persona wasn’t like anything else at the time: the top artists of the year were Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Adele in her “Rolling in the Deep” phase (special shout-out to the #2 song of the year: “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO. What were we doing in 2011?). Lana maintained her persona, despite the internet quickly uncovering her true identity as Elizabeth Grant from New York City—even going so far as to claim she never had plastic surgery (a brazen lie). She was an alluring and exasperating figure, and her image overshadowed her music. Not that we’re in an especially kind environment now, but in 2011 it was perfectly acceptable to rip female artists to shreds without a care in the world. We did it as a pastime. And Lana’s refusal to be cowed by criticism was both frustrating and—in hindsight—exactly what the world needed.
There’s a lot about early Lana that I can’t defend. Her romanticization of Lolita, her obsession with death, calling men “daddy”, her response to feminism at the time…..it’s all pretty troubling. But underneath that candy-apple exterior was a crafty woman who knew how to sell. Her Lizzy Grant album flopped, and Lana Del Rey was soaring. It’s hard to tell how much of her own image she truly believed in at the time. But what is clear is the strength of her musical taste; who was assumed (by me) to be a one-album wonder has become an enduring figure in alternative-pop. Her first album Born to Die has emerged in time as one of my favourite albums of the decade, especially The Paradise Edition which adds such certified bops as “Ride”, “Gods & Monsters”, and her cover of “Blue Velvet”. Born to Die is one of the last albums I bought a physical copy of, and the CD is a permanent presence in my car.
Since Born to Die, Lana has put out Ultraviolence, Honeymoon, and Lust for Life—none of which tapped her full potential. Ultraviolence was hampered by The Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach’s production, and didn’t sound enough like Lana (except for the haunting “Old Money” and the radio single “West Coast”). Honeymoon was a return to form, moving from the New York/Hamptons setting into what Pitchfork calls “Southern California Gothic”, but was mostly slept on. Lust for Life continued the wistful California vibes, and by this point Lana was no longer pretending to be a world-weary figure of Americana, she had become it: “If there’s anything about Del Rey that’s obvious by now, it’s that she means it—all of it. Every word, every sigh, every violin swell, the Whitman quotes and JFK fantasies and soft ice cream.” So, joke’s on all of us who thought it was just a shtick.
With the release of her latest album, Lana’s fixation on America has never been more blatant. It’s called Norman Fucking Rockwell, after all; the figurehead of wholesome “good old days” Americana blasphemed. By her own admission, she no longer performs in front of the American flag (a staple in her earlier imagery) because it now feels “inappropriate”. Every album feels like we’re getting closer and closer to her core, to the purest expression of her. NFR is Lana at her most mature, her most “grown woman” status. “I ain’t no candle in the wind” she sings on “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”, a far cry from “Heaven is my baby, suicide’s her father”. Rather than dropping her Born to Die romanticism, she has grown into it, filling out the shape of it with real feeling: “Venice Bitch” has her signature appeal to soft, summery Americana with lines like “Ice cream, ice queen / I dream of jeans and leather” but she also punctuates the gentle breathiness with “It’s me, your little Venice bitch” and the song is over nine minutes long. With lines like “Nothing gold can stay”, it’s tempting to call NFR an elegy for the America of Lana’s dreams, and maybe in a certain light it is. It’s an easy interpretation, anyway. But this shifting view of the culture could also simply be attributed to becoming an adult, and losing the rose-coloured glasses of youth. It’s not exactly Lana turning her back on her former fixation, but rather reckoning with it, and remolding it into something resembling her own truth.
You can find all of Lana Del Rey’s albums in the VPL catalogue! And keep an eye out for upcoming movies—you can often find her contributing to soundtracks like The Great Gatsby, Maleficent, Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, and the new Charlie’s Angels.