We’ve always been asking the wrong questions about Lana Del Rey, pop’s most enigmatic multi-platinum star.
Look up Lana Del Rey’s name on Google, and you’ll discover that the algorithm is just as puzzled as the rest of us by the woman born as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.
Here are a few of the first results for Lana Del Rey using Google’s “people also ask” function, which gives the search engine’s answers on what are apparently the Internet’s most popular questions for a certain topic.
When did Lana Del Rey die? She hasn’t yet, as far as we can tell, although Wikipedia helpfully informs us that “Elizabeth Woolridge Grant (born June 21, 1985), known professionally as Lana Del Rey, is an American singer and songwriter.”
How much is Lana Del Rey’s net worth? $14 million.
Who writes Lana Del Rey’s songs? Del Rey herself, mostly.
Not to suggest that some random Google function is going to provide the full story, but it’s a decent start to unpacking Lana Del Rey’s long, strange path to where she is now.
Del Rey recently unveiled the video for her new song, “Venice Bitch,” the second single off the forthcoming album Norman Fucking Rockwell, out early next year.
Produced by Del Rey alongside Jack Antonoff, “Venice Bitch” is a nine-minute psychedelic ballad that only she could make, from its Parental Advisory sticker title to its haunting, summer-drenched sound. “Venice Bitch” may be her longest and most experimental song to date, but it also features plenty of familiar Lana tropes: faded signifiers of Americana nostalgia like Hallmark and Norman Rockwell, the West Coast, getting high, sad American queens with a dangerous taste for older men and diamonds.
At this point, Lana Del Rey is a universe onto herself, and quite a successful one. Not even Jack Antonoff can alter it much, as he has with his heavy-handed, ’80s-inspired touch on albums by Lana’s fellow pop auteurs like Taylor Swift’s 1989, Lorde’s Melodrama and St. Vincent’s Masseduction. When Norman Fucking Rockwell comes out next year, it will likely debut in the top couple of spots on the Billboard albums chart that week, as have Lana’s past four albums, even Born to Die, her controversial major-label debut in 2012.
At first, Lana Del Rey seemed like she’d slip away before she’d even gotten the chance to introduce herself. “It’s already difficult to remember Lana Del Rey, but let’s try,” opened Jon Caramanica’s review of Born to Die for The New York Times, which like many reviews of the album at the time focused mostly on the cycles of Internet backlash that greeted her arrival. Unlike negative reviews by such outlets as Pitchfork, though, this was a full-on takedown in one of the most mainstream print publications imaginable.
As Caramanica lays out in his piece, the Internet latched onto “Video Games,” fell under Lana Del Rey’s spell, and quickly turned on her once details of her biography came out. Blogs breathlessly detailed the many ways in which Lana Del Rey was a fraud: it turns out Lizzy Grant had tried on a number of personas before she settled on Lana Del Rey, she’d seemingly inflated her lips and pitched down her voice, her father was, in fact, a Long Island Internet domain millionaire, and her album deal with Interscope came suspiciously soon after the release of “Video Games.”
“Video Games” landed among Paste’s list of the best songs of 2011, but of course all this context had to get addressed.
A poorly-received performance on Saturday Night Live two weeks before the album’s release didn’t help matters. She looked visibly nervous, her pitch was all over the place, and as many critics pointed out, she just didn’t seem ready for her big mainstream moment.
Here, rather than an Internet phenomenon making her way up to the big leagues, she resembled the unremarkable Lizzy Grant of a past life, one who made her start singing at bars and toying with different personas like May Jailer and Sparkle Jump Rope Queen before settling on Lana Del Ray, and finally, Lana Del Rey. By that point, she and her team had most of that early material quietly scrubbed off the Internet, although dedicated fans have since leaked hundreds of songs from her extensive back catalog.
The “Blue Jeans” performance from that night is still up on her YouTube, although it looks like video of the more infamous “Video Games” performance has since been deleted.
Plenty of young artists deal with stumbles at the start of their careers, but more than usual, it seemed like the hype cycle on Lana Del Rey would come crashing down.
When it came to the album itself, though, Caramanica’s biggest beef was that none of the material on it justified all these reactions. “This is album as anticlimax, the period that ends the essay, not the beginning of a new paragraph,” he said at the time. “It is an island, this album, part of no movement.” His forecast on Lana’s young career wasn’t optimistic. “Her cultural stamp has already been affixed, her biography written in concrete. The only real option is to wash off that face paint, muss up that hair and try again in a few years,” he closed.
Born to Die stuck around the charts, for over 300 weeks as of 2018, in fact, and performed well enough that Interscope issued a re-release, with EP Paradise, later that year.
But to be fair, Born to Die didn’t make a particularly convincing case for Lana Del Rey becoming a major artist. Her choices around this time raised questions about whether she knew where she was headed after the initial burst of Internet attention. Leaked demos suggest that songs like “National Anthem” and “Diet Mountain Dew,” which made the cut, were leftovers from her pre-Lana period. And as with many debut efforts, the messages of Born to Die and Paradise, as well as accompanying music videos, often got lost between their numerous lyrical and aesthetic references. So far, the Lana Del Rey universe was a bit underdeveloped.
What does it mean for Del Rey to cast herself as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy opposite A$AP Rocky in the “National Anthem” video? Has anyone ever actually had a “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice”? Were these just cool signifiers, or did they add up to anything more?
Del Rey also made it hard for fans to defend her when it came to claims of cultural tourism and appropriation. There were clear, unmistakable cases of Del Rey overstepping her boundaries as a white artist, such as her wearing a Native American headdress in the video for “Ride,” as well as murkier issues with her work. Some criticized her use of hip-hop tropes like “gangster Nancy Sinatra” and “fresh to death” in the Born to Die era, and Tropico, the short film that accompanied the Paradise EP, was accused of appropriating the iconography of Latino street culture. Pop culture is Lana Del Rey’s raison d’être, but it took some time for her to figure out what she was doing with it.
Lana Del Rey also tends to write songs about women who are passive, spoiled, self-destructive and blind to, or even contemptuous of, their own privilege, and that characterization carried over to how many people understood the artist herself.
The think-piece showdown that surrounded Lana Del Rey at the start of 2012 was nothing, though, compared to what’d come just a few months later in April, with the premiere of Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO.
Dunham, as it’s been endlessly retold, grew up in New York to wealthy parents, and by the time she was in her mid-twenties, landed a deal to create and star in her own show for HBO, set in a milieu of similarly white, privileged young women whose artistic ambitions exceed their talent.
Girls matured into a confident, structurally daring, occasionally brilliant series, and Dunham was one of the first people with the foresight to spot rising star Adam Driver as a leading man. But even now, as she launches her next act with the forthcoming HBO series Camping, which doesn’t seem to have much in common with her own experience and she doesn’t appear in, she can’t seem to shake that early rep.
As was the case for Del Rey at the start of her career, key words like “think piece,” “millennial,” “nepotism” and “controversial” pop up every time Lena Dunham makes the news to this day, which often happens for very stupid and avoidable reasons, and which has launched an entire micro-genre known as the “Lena Dunham apology.” Coincedentally, one of Dunham’s latest mishaps involves ex-boyfriend and Del Rey producing partner Jack Antonoff, about whom she’s been oversharing as usual on social media.
Del Rey, meanwhile, has seen the focus mostly shift to her music, part of which has been strategic on her end. After closing out the Born to Die era, she made one of the biggest hits of her career with “Young and Beautiful,” a Paradise leftover which found new life as the centerpiece of the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby, and which represented a seamless union of artist, filmmaker and source material.
There’s always been a bit of Daisy Buchanan’ old-money languor embedded in Lana Del Rey’s persona, as well as Jay Gatsby’s mysterious backstory and doomed swagger, and the master trick of “Young and Beautiful” is that it works from both sides of that dynamic. Luhrmann, too, is a great match for Del Rey’s maximalist embrace of wealth porn and pop culture, both old and new. Lana must have found a kindred spirit in someone who shot his F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation on digital with a soundtrack executive produced by Jay Z.
With “Young and Beautiful,” Del Rey reached a point in the process that many modern American auteurs in the film sense also experience, one where they need to start shedding their early influences and coming into their own as artists.
This is often marked by a project that doubles down on those early trademarks, only to come before one that signals a major transformation. Paul Thomas Anderson loaded all of his Robert Altman cues into the shaggy, sentimental three-hour 1999 epic Magnolia, followed up by the transitional Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, and finally, in 2007 came the next act of his career with There Will Be Blood, which saw him leave behind the San Fernando Valley setting of his previous films. Everything in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography since Death Proof in 2007 has since taken on a different light, as he’s exchanged the B-movie pastiches of his youth for more of a historical revisionist take on his usual hyper-articulate, ultra-violent revenge tales.
Before Del Rey could reach Ultraviolence, her 2014 follow-up to Born to Die, she first had to bury all those early tropes that made her so divisive at first into “Young and Beautiful.” She took her usual Americana obsession to the next level in taking on the Roaring Twenties era of The Great Gatsby. And while Lana Del Rey’s heroines have never had what you’d call healthy or stable relationships with the men that they obsess over, the one in “Young and Beautiful” is particularly spiritless even by her standards. “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful,” she asks in her usual monotone, already accepting the inevitable conclusion that awaits her.
“West Coast,” the lead single off Ultraviolence, re-introduces Del Rey as a femme fatale, and an artist in full control of her vision, even if she’s still the one in the arms of an older man in the video.
The success of Born to Die gave her carte blanche for her next project, and with that freedom, Del Rey threw out all the material she’d already recorded in order to work with The Black Keys lead Dan Auerbach, who ended up producing nearly every song on Ultraviolence.
Lizzy Grant had mostly eschewed guitars as she transformed herself into Lana Del Rey, but the more guitar-driven sound featured on Ultraviolence ended up being a much better fit than the hip-hop/pop noir of Born to Die for her new persona, and especially for her voice. The same muted, breathy alto that came off as being listless or unengaged in the debut took on more seductive qualities on Ultraviolence. Perhaps Del Rey’s biggest impact on the current pop landscape is her voice, which has inspired younger stars like Lorde and Selena Gomez to take on her quieter, more understated approach to singing, and from this point forward, that instrument becomes the star.
Del Rey followed up Ultraviolence with Honeymoon one year later, and lead single “High by the Beach” brings in trap drugs, while making strong use of her confident new approach. The song’s chorus goes, “All I wanna do is get high by the beach, get high, baby baby, bye bye,” and it’s delivered as a whisper that forces listeners to pay attention. “Lights, camera, action, I’ll do it on my own, don’t need your money to get me what I want,” goes the bridge, and you believe her. By the time she takes out a gun and shoots down a photographer taking pictures on a helicopter at the end of the video, it’s already too late. All she wants is her privacy, and the peace of mind to enjoy her nice things.
One thing that’s gone unaddressed throughout Lana Del Rey’s career, though, is how she feels about the people who have such nice things. Lana’s heroines are clearly unmoved by all the wealth and privilege they’ve accumulated, and those things never seem to make them happy, but she doesn’t necessarily judge these women for wanting them in the first place. In that respect, perhaps Lana’s closest contemporary isn’t another musician, but rather Sofia Coppola. Like Lana Del Rey, Coppola has been accused of being an agent of nepotism and racial obliviousness, and for better or worse, this is the perspective that most sharply defines her work, from her perfectly langourous depiction of suburban youth in The Virgin Suicides to The Beguiled, which perhaps went a bit too insular with its depiction of the fading antebellum South. Both artists, nevertheless, make a strong case for the value of female interiority in a world that asks women to share so much of themselves.
There are many collaborators of 2017’s Lust for Life, perhaps Del Rey’s most assured album to date. The Weekend, A$AP Rocky, Playboy Carti, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, each with their own individual sounds and artistic sensibilities, all make appearances on the album, and yet it’s Del Rey who’s clearly the defining force behind its vision. No one else could release a song called “Summer Bummer” (feat. A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti), and have it seem entirely on brand.
With “Venice Bitch” now out, and Norman Fucking Rockwell coming soon, we’ve got a pretty good sense of what to expect from the next chapter of Lana Del Rey’s story. And yet, there’s plenty left unanswered about her project as a whole.
Who is Lana Del Rey, truly? What does she want? What is she thinking?
At least when it comes to the music, these are the parts she’s keeping to herself.