One moment in Lana Del Rey‘s career might sum up all that she represents: the longing for California legends, the knowledge that in this longing she is doomed, and the frivolousness of human attempts to express desires in words and art. In retrospect, this singular moment made the title of her major-label debut, released one year before, seem even more appropriate: Born to Die (2012).
While recording the follow-up to Born to Die, 2014’s Ultraviolence, Del Rey took a red-eye flight to New York to work with Lou Reed on a track for the upcoming album that would later reference him. (On that track, “Brooklyn Baby”, Del Rey sings, “Yeah my boyfriend’s in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed.”) However, when she touched down in New York, Del Rey found out that Lou Reed had died the night before. However, the timing of his death proves the emotional argument Del Rey has made throughout her career better than any collaboration with Reed could have.
Del Rey told this story in a Guardian profile that ran with the headline, “I wish I was dead already.” Lou Reed’s death and Del Rey’s expression of her desire for death both expound on the message of Born to Die. Referencing Springsteen’s Born to Run in the title (which isn’t the only Springsteen reference on the album), Del Rey set herself apart as a new generation of Americana on Born to Die. While the previous generation was born to achieve greatness, she was born to lust after it, but never achieve it. However, the headline, “I wish I was dead already”, did something besides represent Del Rey’s explorations of human mortality and the mortality of the American Dream. It also worked as clickbait that encapsulated everything the internet had hated about Del Rey leading up to the release of Born to Die.
Heavy criticism of Del Rey started not long after the release of her viral single “Video Games”, and its homemade music video. Society viewed the most compelling thing about her persona as the most beguiling: she had shot into the pop stratosphere, displaying charisma and singularity of vision, but exhibited ambivalence to her status as a pop star. Fans cherish this aspect of her persona, which revealed something essential about her: she views herself as a writer first who longs for “a writer’s community and respect”. However, the internet culture that established a fast-track to success didn’t appreciate her ambivalence towards fame.
Lana Del Rey emerged in the era of the empowerment ballad: songs that fit neatly on pop radio and provided a convenient feminist narrative for the masses but failed to challenge preexisting ideas of femininity and remained complicit in the many patriarchal structures that did exist. Del Rey, however, implicitly aware of the remaining patriarchal structures of society, chafed against the performative activism of the early 2010s.
An early criticism of Del Rey’s breakout single “Video Games” was that it was “anti-feminist”. Del Rey has addressed this criticism many times. In 2017, she admitted that she didn’t sing “empowering things”. However, her ambivalence captured a gray area of patriarchal oppression. The narrator of “Video Games” self-consciously inhabits a masculine space and wallows in its deference towards her because of the man she loves. Pop culture consumers who called themselves feminists in 2012 weren’t ready for this narrative because it presented an uncomfortable reality. Not all people confronted with patriarchal oppression or emotionally unavailable partners will choose to stand up and say, “You’re gonna hear me roar.”
Activism, or at least dismantling the patriarchy through storytelling, is not always as simple as creating an anthem to chant at a rally. “Video Games” captures a uniquely patriarchal tragedy because its protagonist, recognizing an injustice, stays with the person who prolongs it. Feminism shouldn’t mean attempting to control the emotional response of people who don’t react to patriarchal oppression in a mainstream way. Del Rey’s chronicling of this affair is her way of loosening the patriarchy’s grip on her – whether or not she chooses to stay. “I just wrote a hit album,” she said. “Can’t I take an hour to watch him play World of Warcraft?”
While blogs lambasted Del Rey’s feminism as not performative enough, critics condemned her persona, embodied in the moniker “Lana Del Rey”, as “not authentic”, or, too performative. These critics cited the fact that all traces of Elizabeth Grant, Lana Del Rey’s real name, under which she had already released an album, had been scrubbed from the internet. Del Rey’s accounts of estrangement from her father and living on the edge of poverty before fame failed to dispel this narrative, and her botched SNL performance added fuel to it: “She’s not a real talent!” However, the qualities that made her persona seem manufactured at first have, over time, illuminated what a visionary she is.
Lana Del Rey exists through her references. She wrote, “Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother/Jesus is my bestest friend,” on the Born to Die bonus track, “Body Electric”, encapsulating her existence in America’s “messy subconscious”. After all, Lana Del Rey isn’t a real person. In an interview, Elizabeth Grant revealed her continued references aren’t intentional. “I’m a bit of a muso,” she said. “So, most of this stuff I just have on my mind.” In that case, was the invention of Lana Del Rey unintentional?
In 2019, in response to Ann Powers’ review of her fifth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! for NPR, Del Rey tweeted, “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” Did this statement reveal that Lana Del Rey was actually a persona society conjured up to make sense of Elizabeth Grant’s cultural observations? Or, was this statement a savvy PR move meant to navigate a time in which opinions on persona itself are constantly changing?
As the discourse around persona in pop culture has evolved, Lana Del Rey has evolved with it. Many pop-culture scholars assert no matter what, a pop star’s public presence will always involve some amount of performance. We will never “really know them”. However, as Lana Del Rey becomes more confessional, the persona around her only gains more grandiosity. Even in its apparent expiration, Del Rey’s persona tells the best story, as if it were born to die.
Born to Die mapped out the trajectory of the persona that Lana Del Rey would inhabit over the next decade. Norman Fucking Rockwell!, an album about grieving American fantasies, dismantled this persona. Del Rey experienced an inevitable loss of self on this album because her persona is inextricably linked to Americana.
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