In the summer of 2011, Lana Del Rey arrived as if from nowhere, attracting publicity with her gravelly yet girlish voice, pitched somewhere between Tom Waits and Kate Bush; her haunting, dreamlike songs; and her prom queen meets femme fatale persona, all long, red hair and pouting lips.
Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to a middle-class family in 1986, she grew up in the village of Lake Placid, set among the Adirondacks mountain range. After studying philosophy, she launched herself as a singer-songwriter in New York. The erstwhile Lizzie Grant experimented with different aliases before choosing the name Lana Del Rey, and was eventually signed by Interscope. Lurid tales of past lives as an alcoholic teen and trailer park refugee, and a slew of demo tapes emerged.
But her live performances were erratic – on television, she seemed beset by nerves – and as a result, was swiftly denounced by hipster blogs as a manufactured novelty. When Lana described herself as ‘Lolita lost in the hood’ and ‘the gangsta Nancy Sinatra’, she was lampooned – though those comparisons could have come from the pen of any music journalist. Exactly a year after the release of her best-selling album, Born to Die, Lana Del Rey remains a puzzling misfit – too pretty for indie, and too artful for pop.
On the cover, shot by Nicole Nodland, Lana stands in front of an old car, wearing a high-necked, transparent white blouse. Her hypnotic stare is set against a soft blue, cloudy sky. Another portrait from the same session is inside, alongside a few postcards from single covers and video shoots. Born to Die is produced by Emile Haynie, who won a Grammy in 2010 for his work on Eminem’s Recovery. He brings a hip hop sensibility to Lana’s dramatic soundscapes.
The title track begins with an orchestral flourish. Co-written by Lana and the English songwriter, Justin Parker, ‘Born to Die’ has all the melodrama of a Douglas Sirk movie. ‘Don’t make me sad, don’t make me cry,’ she tells her lover. ‘Sometimes love is not enough/And the road gets tough, I don’t know why…’ A sense of finality pervades Born to Die: Lana’s struggle to reconcile the passing of time, and the persistence of love. ‘Choose your last words, this is the last time,’ she warns, ‘Cause you and I, we were born to die.’ It was Lana’s second single and first big-budget video. Filmed in France, directed by Yoann Lemoine, the clip features Lana and model Bradley Soileau as young lovers on a last journey. In separate scenes, Lana wears a crown and sits beside a tiger, in the Palace of Fontainebleau.
‘Off to the Races’, co-written with Tim Larcombe, displays Lana’s knack for storytelling. ‘My old man is a bad man, but/I can’t deny the way he holds my hand,’ she admits. ‘He doesn’t mind that I have a Las Vegas past/He doesn’t mind that I have an L.A. crass way about me/He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart.’ She sings in two registers: using her laconic drawl to set the scene, then switching to a higher pitch for the frantically poppy chorus. This contrast suggests an old soul in a young body, or a more introspective Britney Spears.
‘Blue Jeans’, co-written with Haynie as a B-side, became Lana’s third single. Here she compares her lover to James Dean, and purrs, ‘You fit me better than my favourite sweater.’ Her promise to ‘love you till the end of time’ goes unheard; ‘When you walked out that door a piece of me died’. Once again, Lana collaborated with Lemoine and Solieau on a sensuous video filmed in a swimming pool, equating falling in love with drowning. Musically, ‘Blue Jeans’ is reminiscent of ‘Wicked Game’, Chris Isaak’s 1989 hit, which also featured in the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
‘Video Games’, like the previous three tracks, was originally part of Lana’s first EP. After garnering huge buzz through social media, it was relaunched in October 2011 as the lead single from Born to Die. In many ways, it has become Lana’s signature tune. In 2012, she and co-writer Justin Parker won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song. The lyrics are simple, poetic and sad – a frustrated young woman, lamenting her lover’s addiction to playing video games – and it seems to reflect a stark truth about modern times. ‘Heaven is a place on earth with you,’ she coos, invoking Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 ballad. When that romantic phrase fails to catch his attention, she pleads, ‘I heard you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?’
The accompanying video, a montage of archival, ‘found footage’, was compiled by Lana herself, and marks the transition from small-town innocence (‘Swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car/Whistling my name’) to tawdry glamour (‘Swinging in the old bars/Singing with the old stars/Living for the fame.’) Ultimately, blind love intoxicates her (‘He holds me in his big arms/Drunk and I am seeing stars/This is my idea of fun.’)
‘Diet Mountain Dew’ begins with a breathy refrain: ‘You’re no good for me/But baby I want you.’ The title includes one of many references to branded products – usually alcoholic – on Born to Die. She revisits the road trip theme, trilling ‘Let’s take Jesus off the dashboard/Got enough on his mind.’ Hip hop beats punctuate this bumpy ride, along with the eerie stylings of guitarist Jeff Bhasker. Love and ambition make uneasy bedfellows. ‘Do you think we’ll be in love forever?’ Lana asks at the end of each verse. Wandering itself is addictive, she reflects: ‘Maybe I like this rollercoaster/Maybe it gets me high.’ This time, the destination is New York, where her music ignited.
‘National Anthem’, the fourth single, is an ironic ode to excess. ‘Money is the anthem of success,’ Lana deadpans, ‘So put on mascara and your party dress.’ Her lyrics are both childlike and knowing. A chorus evokes the American dream: ‘Red, white, blue is in the sky/Summer’s in the air and baby, heaven’s in your eyes.’ If this verges on bombastic, there’s also a sense of loss. ‘Excessive buying, overdose and dying,’ she chants, ‘On our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage.’ An eight-minute video, directed by Anthony Mandler, begins with Lana re-enacting Marilyn Monroe’s ethereal rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’. She then takes the part of that other Camelot heroine, Jackie Kennedy, while the president is played by rapper A$AP Rocky.
‘Dark Paradise’, co-written with Rick Nowels, could have been lifted off the soundtrack of one of the Twilight movies, and wallows in the joys and pain of young love. ‘And there’s no remedy for memory,’ Lana sings, ‘Your face is like a melody, it won’t leave my head.’
Co-written with Justin Parker, ‘Radio’ begins on a transcendent note: ‘Their heavy words can’t bring me down,’ Lana sings. ‘Boy, I’ve been raised from the dead.’ The gliding melody is close to perfect pop, but the profane chorus, constantly repeated, undermines its surface optimism. ‘Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/Like a fuckin’ dream I’m living in,’ Lana proclaims. Her all-American girl shtick has an unsettling edge, exposing the star machine’s inherent artifice. ‘Lick me up and take me like a vitamin/’Cause my body’s sweet like sugar venom,’ she promises, pleading coyly, ‘Baby love me ‘cause I’m playing on the radio.’
In ‘Carmen’, another collaboration with Justin Parker, Lana essays the ‘femme fatale’, named after the tragic, rebel heroine of Bizet’s opera (‘The boys, the girls, they all like Carmen’), alongside a litany of with her own past escapades (‘Lyin’ to herself ‘cause the liquor’s top-shelf’). Lana understands the risk of self-deception, and commodification (‘She says you don’t want to get this way/Street-walk at night and a star by day…’) Nonetheless, she continues to play the game with sardonic resignation: ‘Put your red dress on, put your lipstick on,’ she commands herself, alluding to the starlet’s universal dilemma; ‘Sing your song, song, now the camera’s on/And you’re alive again…’
‘You said I was the most exotic flower,’ Lana laments, in ‘Million Dollar Man’ (co-written with Chris Braide). She returns to the gamblers’ milieu of ‘Off to the Races’, and tells her tale in lounge singer mode; but the tone is overwhelmingly elegiac. Romance is stripped bare, and what’s left is spectral: ‘You look like a million dollar man/So why is my heart broke?’
‘Summertime Sadness’, co-written with Rick Nowels, is Born to Die’s fifth, and final single. Some may dismiss Lana’s introspection as maudlin, but here she expresses a strongly felt, if contradictory emotion: sadness amid joy, and vice versa. ‘I got my red dress on tonight/Dancin’ in the dark, in the pale moonlight.’ Once again, Lana invokes a backdrop of fiery sexuality. ‘Oh my God, I feel it in the air,’ she gasps, with an aside, ‘Nothing scares me anymore.’ The video is directed by Spencer Susser and Kyle Newman, whose wife, actress Jaime King, plays the love object/best friend. The red dress is worn by King, while Lana dons virginal white.
‘Remember how we used to party up all night/Sneakin’ out and lookin’ for a taste of real life’, Lana confides in the closing track, ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’. Co-written with Tim Larcombe, the song is peppered with observations from her small-town adolescence (‘There she was, my new best friend/High heels in her hands, swayin’ in the wind…’) Larry Gold’s lush, quasi-cinematic strings arrangement envelops this short story in song, epitomising what the NME has described as Lana Del Rey’s ‘pretty girl psychosis’. ‘The prettiest in-crowd that you have ever seen/Ribbons in our hair and our eyes gleamed mean,’ Lana sings, dubbing her circle ‘A freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens’. As they face down heartache, Lana warns, ‘Don’t cry about him,’ adding fatalistically, ’It’s all going to happen…’
But the song’s naïve hedonism is tempered with a sense of loss, as Lana recalls: ‘They were the only friends I ever had’. Here the break is from sisterhood, not romantic love, but all the more devastating because their innocence can never be recaptured. ‘I got sent away and was wavin’ on a train platform’, Lana says, ‘Cryin’ ‘cause I know I’m never comin’ back.’ Here she freeze-frames herself in a classic parting shot, drawing on her stay in boarding school.
The deluxe edition of Born to Die features three bonus tracks. ‘Without You’, co-written with Sacha Skarbek, begins with a dissection of wealth: ‘Everything I want, I have/Money, notoriety and Rivieras/I even think that I found God/In the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras.’ The chorus is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, and though Lana seems to embody a nostalgic Americana, many of her musical collaborators – and her audience – are European.
‘Lolita’, co-written with Liam Howe, addresses another man-made, female archetype; the all-American nymphette of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel. It has the aggression of a cheerleader chant, and yet Lana has left the high school clique behind: ‘No more skipping rope, skipping heartbeats with the boys downtown/Just you and me feeling the heat, even when the sun goes down.’ Despite all the babytalk, Lana fulfils her own desires. ‘I want my cake and I want to eat it too,’ she sings defiantly. ‘I want to have fun and be in love with you.’ She has freed herself from the tyranny of cool: ‘I know that I’m a mess/With my long hair, suntan, short dress, bare feet/ I don’t care what they say about me…’
With its Middle Eastern beats, ‘Lolita’ has a delirious, sinister feel, and a sense of imminent destruction. The final track, ‘Lucky Ones’ (another Rick Nowels collaboration), gives us a fairy-tale ending: ‘Every now and then the stars align/Boy and girl meet by the great design/Could it be that you and me are the lucky ones?’ Lana’s vocals are at their most angelic, but there are portents of trouble ahead. ‘You’re a careless con and a crazy liar,’ she tells her lover, adding, ‘But baby, nobody can compare to the way you get down.’ From suburbia to the badlands, Lana’s journey is cyclical.
Despite its pessimistic title, Born to Die seems set for longevity, and the harshness of its initial reception has given way to grudging acceptance by even the toughest critics. Since its release, Lana Del Rey has won a BRIT Award as Best International Breakthrough Artist, and fronted an H&M clothing range. With a quiet tenacity, Lana has held onto the spotlight. She has been feted by the fashion world, and made a guest appearance on ‘Dayglo Reflection,’ on soul veteran Bobby Womack’s comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe.
In November 2012, Lana released a strikingly dark EP, Paradise, to tie in with a reissue of Born to Die. This eight-track collection includes a cover of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (complete with a David Lynch-inspired video), and the lead single, ‘Ride’.