Since the 1950s, when America experienced a pop culture boom, mythology has evolved from Hollywood, which created a cultural fascination with fame that mirrors religious worship. Ordinary people strove for the American Dream, which, at its height, portrayed people living glamorously while enacting their greatest passions, losses, and joys on screen. Maybe the true magic of the cinema wasn’t the stories it told, but the lifestyle it enabled and projected across the country. Lana Del Rey emerged, inhabiting this celebrity atmosphere for its own sake. Hollywood had existed long enough that mythology of it for mythology’s sake had become possible.
Lana Del Rey sang at Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kanye West in 2014. The reason Beyoncé allegedly wouldn’t attend the wedding is the same reason Lana Del Rey was the perfect singer to christen “America’s Royal Wedding”. Beyoncé’s presence would have validated Kim’s position as an A-lister in Hollywood, which would have damaged Beyoncé’s brand. Del Rey’s persona exists in pursuit of the Hollywood stratosphere, but she exists in that sphere as an artist, while Kardashian exists in that space as a commercial entity. Through her music, Del Rey articulates the questions that the Kardashians surely contemplate with sadness and fear when the cameras are away: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?”
“Young and Beautiful”, written for The Great Gatsby (2013) soundtrack, was not featured on Born to Die but served as a capstone to the album cycle. Gatsby matched Del Rey’s nascent but omnipresent brand, asking many of the same questions as her narratives: Why chase wealth and prosperity when there will always be emptiness internally? Is the American Dream a fairytale, always sought after but never achieved? Throughout Born to Die, Lana Del Rey asks these questions.
The album, her major-label debut, came after she had already reached viral fame and widespread name recognition. On “Radio,” she gloats, “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/…Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio/How do you like me now?” But on other tracks, such as the deluxe track “Without You”, she admits, “They all think I have it all / …All my dreams and all the lights mean / Nothing without you.” On “National Anthem”, she continues to investigate the worth of a dream fulfilled: both hers and the American Dream. She chronicles her ascent to fame (“It’s a love story for the new age / For the sixth page”) alongside depictions of wealth and lavishness associated with the fulfillment of the American Dream (“Take me to the Hamptons, Bugatti Veyron / He loves to romance ’em, reckless abandon / Upper echelon”).
Born to Die‘s lyrical content sways between clichés that build Del Rey’s persona and clichés that mark songwriting weakness. (How many times will she wear a red dress and ask her lover to kiss her hard?) However, the lyrics reinforce that aside from whatever skill Del Rey may or may not have as a narrative songwriter, she makes up for it with a keen eye as a cultural savant. On Die, Del Rey creates a flawed persona that fits a gap in America’s subconscious while illuminating the landscape that made her emergence possible. On “National Anthem”, she sings the refrain, “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it it’s a fact, kiss kiss.” That’s classic Lana Del Rey: she delivers a deeply cynical truth about modern America with a wink and a smile because, for some reason, she loves it, and she knows the listener does too.
For The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber wrote that Born to Die is a “guilty pleasure” that “legitimately induces guilt”. This summation of the album works on several levels. First, it nods to why many called the album’s “anti-feminist”: Del Rey does not employ feminist empowerment but chronicles doomed love with emotionally unavailable men. Die also induces existential guilt about America itself: “Money is the reason we exist” is both an anthem for a weekend in the Hamptons, and an admittance that America’s treasures come from something transactional and temporary.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! answers these questions posed on Born to Die. On “Bartender”, Del Rey portrayed a Hollywood party in the tradition of the 1960s: “All the ladies of the canyon / Wearing black to their house parties / Crosby, Stills & Nash is playing…” Referencing Joni Mitchell and CNS in one sentence recalls Del Rey’s longing for an artistic community. On NFR, Del Rey revealed the real-life figures at the foundation of her persona.
Joni Mitchell’s reckoning with success on “For Free” emulates Del Rey’s exploration of the emptiness of the American Dream today. The song assessed Mitchell’s success at the beginning of her career and emphasized the melancholy that subsisted throughout Del Rey’s decade-long career when she covered it on 2020’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club: “I play for fortunes / And those velvet curtain calls… / But the one-man band by the quick lunch stand / He was playing real good for free.” It sounds like Del Rey realizes the success she chased while looking for artistic fulfillment may have led her away from it.
On Chemtrails, Del Rey contemplated her fame instead of the fame of her references. She had elevated to their level and could sing about herself as if she were one of them. That’s how she portrays her subjects, even herself: as something lofty and out of reach. She made an innocent night seem glamourous on “White Dress”: “When I was a waitress wearing a tight dress, handling the heat / I wasn’t famous, just listening to Kings of Leon to the beat.” Later, on “Dark But Just a Game”, she updates the listener on her feelings about her success: “Don’t even want what’s mine / Much less the fame.” However, precursors to that disillusionment existed on “White Dress”, when she was, “singing in the street / Down at the Men in Music Business Conference.” Patriarchal forces had hung over her like a shadow from the beginning. Watching her emotionally distant partner play video games was the least of her troubles.
The continuity of patriarchal oppression in both Lana Del Rey’s professional life and Elizabeth Grant’s personal life sums up her essence and vision: she is a sad songwriter penning tales about lost love while magnifying those tales into a referendum on the American Dream. In that sense, maybe Lana Del Rey has succeeded in her mission to ascend to the level of her unattainable references: the arch of her personal life mirrors the arch of America. By aligning her personal grief with the grief of a nation, Lana Del Rey crossed into the stratosphere she has always pursued.