Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey ditched the cloak of American nostalgia and is navigating her own space.
“It’s already difficult to remember Lana Del Rey, but let’s try.” This is the opening sentence from a scathing 2012 New York Times review. Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, also known as Lana Del Rey, became an instant internet success after posting her 2011 single “Video Games” from her debut album Born to Die. The singer-songwriter established a meticulously crafted aesthetic based around iconic American nostalgia. Critics were divided, and some accused the star of a manufactured image. In 2017 Del Rey received a Grammy nomination for her fifth studio album, Lust for Life. It’s been six years since her debut, but has Lana Del Rey transformed herself?
In our digitized environment, it becomes easier to pave your own way in the music industry. Several artists find success without being signed to a record label (see Chance the Rapper or CupcakKe). The internet allows creatives to come to the forefront of the cultural landscape on their own terms. The internet accelerates the climb to fame, but what the audience and critics value above all is authenticity.
The trajectory of Lana Del Rey’s success has been remarkable. Before she became an internet sensation, she released an album on a small independent label while using a shortened version of her real name: Lizzy Grant. The persona presented on her earlier album cover shows a stark contrast with the artist we know now. While Lizzy Grant didn’t stand out from other hardworking singers trying to make their mark in the industry, Lana Del Rey transformed her image when she dubbed herself the Gangsta Nancy Sinatra. The nickname paid homage to 1960s showbiz glamour and complemented her mysterious, sultry voice.
Lana Del Rey’s viral video “Video Games,” which she directed and edited herself, featured a mosaic of nostalgic images. The grainy home-video content including old cartoons and skateboarders doing tricks. It made her an instant cult hit, and Del Rey signed a major deal with Interscope Records and released an EP featuring “Video Games” and the B side “Blue Jeans.” Appealing to the internet generation that grasped for nostalgia, Lana Del Rey presented herself as a postmodern pinup with a smoky voice, singing about tortured young love.
The initial praise Del Rey received soon turned into backlash. The media became fixated on her aesthetic and her personal background — anything but the actual music on her epic debut album. There was speculation that she (might have) had plastic surgery (collagen injections) and allowed her team of lawyers and managers to create a more unique image. Lana Del Rey was not a singer-songwriter struggling for gigs in the cutthroat industry but instead was backed by her millionaire father while working on her craft. Journalists and fans started to question her authenticity and wondered if she was marketed by the record label to fans of independent music. Many were skeptical of her rapid rise from unknown singer to internet phenomenon with a major label deal and modeling contract. Criticism grew after her awkward (nervous) performance on Saturday Night Live in 2012. The term “industry plant” popped up on blogs and forums. Complex writer Justin Charity states that it’s hard to define an industry plant, but that “any musician with a hazy or straight-up fabricated origin story…is to be regarded with such suspicion.” It all comes back to the search for authenticity and truth in the relationship between the audience and the artist. However, it often seems authenticity is an arduous task for an artist within the current oversaturated market.
After her controversial yet commercially successful debut, Del Rey soon stepped back from the media circus and let the music speak for itself — though in her 2015 music video for “High by the Beach” from her fourth album, Honeymoon, she did blast a paparazzi helicopter from her balcony. Her fifth studio album, Lust for Life, thrust her back into the spotlight after she received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album.
The album Lust for Life is a true departure from Del Rey’s earlier work. Her other albums had focused on toxic romance and the bleakness of living — think violence, drug use, aging and death. Back then, her music wasn’t focused on contemporary issues. In a 2014 interview with The Fader, she dismissed feminism and noted that it was “not an interesting concept.” Instead, she sang about her sugar daddy’s toxic love: “He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart” (see the song “Off to the Races” from her debut album Born to Die). That changed when Lust for Life came along. In 2017 she clarified in an interview that it wasn’t her angle to focus on empowerment: “I didn’t really have an angle — that’s the thing.”
Artists change — as we all do — and often that growth is reflected in their work. Looking back on Born to Die and critics who challenged her authenticity as a performer, Del Rey is quite firm: “No. I don’t care. I would say I am different.” Her growth as a performer and her transformed public persona were certainly noticeable. In 2014 she quipped that she slept with “a lot of guys” in the industry but it never did anything for her career; none of them “helped me get my record deals.” Her song “Futcked My Way Up To the Top” on her third studio album Ultraviolence is partly autobiographical and simultaneously commentary on the public’s perception of her persona. Three years later, she sang a different tune. In February 2017 the singer-songwriter put a hex on Donald Trump. She wrote a song inspired by the 2017 Women’s March on Washington: “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women in It” After the 2016 election, she told the magazine Pitchfork she made the conscious decision to halt the use of American flag motifs, which she’d relied on in performances and her videos. It was the ultimate departure from the iconic American nostalgia that had shaped her career.
Her bewitching song “13 Beaches” starts with the voice of actress Candace Hilligoss in the cult horror film Carnival of Souls. Hilligoss states: “I don’t belong in the world; that’s what it is. Something separates me from other people. Everywhere I turn, there’s something blocking my escape.” It reflects Lana Del Rey’s journey as an artist navigating her way in modern pop culture and trying to find her own (authentic) voice.
In “Change” Del Rey sings “Lately, I’ve been thinkin’ it’s just someone else’s job to care…. Who am I to wanna try? But change is a powerful thing. People are powerful beings.” Lana Del Rey is on her own creative journey, and it’s fascinating to watch.