Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence

Pretty When She Cries: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ultraviolence’ at 10

Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence used rock to kickstart a new career direction that culminated in autobiographical work without spoiling the mystery of her persona.

Lana Del Rey
Polydor / Interscope
13 June 2014

Lana Del Rey’s role as the whispery goddess of pop culture didn’t stop her from having a rock moment. The success of this endeavor on 2014’s Ultraviolence proves her versatility, as the towering electric guitars of “Cruel World” and the shimmering licks of the title track don’t drown her feathery vocals. Instead, they become vessels for it, continuing to justify Del Rey’s central argument as a pop star: that behind her delicate facade is an inner self that is anything but fragile. 

Del Rey’s control of the languid rock ballad “Brooklyn Baby” shows her ability to use her vocals to ground a song that would work well in another genre. “Brooklyn” starts with a light guitar riff that contrasts the heavy power chords on the rest of the album, and the drums anchoring the chorus imply a dark side to the relationship between the two artists. Del Rey says, “My boyfriend’s in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed,” a characterization that reflects her penchant to remain a wallflower alongside a tortured artist. This archetype lives throughout her discography. 

In “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” she writes about a romantic partner who blames the news for his lousy poetry. Lana Del Rey’s attachment to these sad characters begs the question: is it worth investigating a muse that only brings grief? Del Rey acknowledges the self-defeating nature of her journey. Because her muse is sadness, the happiness it provides will always be tainted. 

The resolution of “Brooklyn Baby” comes halfway through the song, before Del Rey reckons with the naysayers who criticize her relationship with an older man, but after the slow-moving chorus evokes the hazy bar her character performs in. This derelict scene, paired with the album’s brash rock sound, serves as a red herring that disguises the fulfillment Del Rey finds here. Before the second chorus of “Brooklyn Baby”, the instrumentation dies out as Del Rey’s effervescent vocal persists, echoing with reverb, and she declares she has achieved freedom. 

This transcendent moment demonstrates the strength of Lana Del Rey’s unique voice, which sounds wistful but firm. Although “Brooklyn Baby” is the fourth track on Ultraviolence, it marks the denouement of its narrative. Throughout the rest of the record, Del Rey wrestles with her newfound freedom, using imagery that portrays wealthy excess and the struggle of a starving artist for the same purpose. In “Money, Power, Glory”, Del Rey announces, “Hallelujah, I wanna take them for all that they’ve got,” anointing her pursuit of success. However, the religious allusion adds humor to her proclamation, as she parodies the single-minded nature with which Americans pursue their economic goals while hinting at her similar ones.

The title of Del Rey’s debut album, Born to Die, embodies this theme. A riff on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, it captures the tragedy at the center of Del Rey’s character: someone doomed to pursue a dream coupled with vice. Another bit of irony in the title is the obviousness of substituting “Run” for “Die”. When Del Rey, shrouded in mystery, alludes to tragedy so frankly in a title, she calls her own bluff. 

At the time of Ultraviolence‘s release, she was the only one in on the joke. Although Born to Die succeeded commercially, spawning the top ten single, “Summertime Sadness”, the increased scrutiny that comes with success pushed Del Rey “into her own weird world… until the people who were meant to get it got it,” Billboard said, referencing the follow-ups to Born to Die: Ultraviolence, Honeymoon, and Lust for Life, which didn’t have radio singles of the same magnitude as Die. To Pitchfork, Del Rey said, “You can’t put out records if 90 percent of the reviews in places like the Times are going to be negative.”

This off-center approach culminated in Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey’s fifth album, in which her persona serves as a vessel for the grief for a version of America she once romanticized. In “Venice Bitch”, she says, “You’re beautiful, and I’m insane / We’re American made.” The calmness of Lana Del Rey’s delivery contrasts the assertion of her insanity, prompting the listener to doubt the beauty of her romantic partner as well. By imbuing the characterization of a relationship with irony, Del Rey flips the script of traditional gender roles: her insanity comes across as thoughtful, and a man’s inner life is secondary to his beauty. Linking this couple with America itself transforms “American-made” from a source of pride to a condemnation. On Rockwell!, Del Rey charts the cultural shift that gave this phrase a negative connotation. 

Ultraviolence began this journey after Del Rey realized pop music could not communicate her message. The genre is a too-obvious vessel for her argument, which warns against the dangers of instant gratification and consumer culture. Pop music, which works on a one-size-fits-all basis, would have trouble conveying its own flaws. Del Rey’s avoidance of pop made her position clear: someone whose obsessions would require restraint to communicate.

In 2024, Lana Del Rey headlined Coachella, a crowning achievement for any musician, including the likes of Beyonce and Harry Styles. Del Rey’s performance showed her ability to succeed in a mainstream environment without jeopardizing her eclectic nature. She wore a light blue dress resembling the cover of Born to Die, evoking the resurrection of recognizable songs from her catalog, even though most of her output has avoided the Top 40. Del Rey performed her breakout hit “Video Games” as a duet with Billie Eilish, which signaled a passing of the torch from one female singer who lives on the dark side of pop to another. Performed with a measured vocal inflection, Del Rey showcased the immortality of the song’s haunting melody. 

In its chorus, Del Rey says, “They say that the world was built for two / Only worth living if somebody is loving you.” This plea for love is different from others in pop because it goes beyond the narrator’s longing and signifies something permanent about the world that raises the stakes of forgoing one’s destiny. The song’s recurring scene, where Del Rey watches a romantic partner play video games, portrays love with a built-in insurmountable distance. The use of a mundane detail to capture this gulf makes it relatable: anyone could have a romantic partner who treats them as secondary to a hobby. The persistence of love in spite of this distance implies its strength and establishes Del Rey as someone constantly on the periphery. 

Lana Del Rey possesses an unusual amount of power through her success, which she must downplay to keep selling her product because her image relies on femininity. The Ultraviolence track “The Other Woman”, a cover of a song popularized by jazz singer Nina Simone, show’s Del Rey’s awareness of her point of view and the mission of Ultraviolence. By giving a laconic 1950s jazz song a morbid rock makeover, Del Rey shrugs at her own transformation, taking it for granted as another aspect of her chameleonic image. 

Lyrically, “The Other Woman” song reflects a tendency to fall for unattainable men, as Del Rey concludes the other woman will spend her life alone. At this moment, the track’s climax, with horns reminiscent of its original version, supports Del Rey’s fluttery vocals. Del Rey modernizes an immortal story by bringing a song penned in the 1950s to the 21st century. Her vantage point makes the case that, in terms of gender roles, little has changed in the last 70 years. She says, “And when her old man comes to call, he finds her waiting like a lonesome queen.” 

In a 2020 statement posted to her Instagram, Lana Del Rey addressed the accusation that she “glamorizes abuse” and pointed to other female stars who have written about similar topics without backlash. However, Del Rey’s use of women of color as examples of stars who benefitted from a double standard exposes a blind spot in her perspective, in which she fails to see that women of color face a different set of obstacles that recontextualizes the type of subject matter Del Rey equates with her work. 

Del Rey also made some valid points in this statement, claiming she is “a glamorous person singing about the realities of…emotionally abusive relationships”, which points to the misinterpretation of the message of Ultraviolence

On the title track, Del Rey says, “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.” This comparison doesn’t excuse the behavior of an abusive partner. Instead, without outrightly condemning it, the lyric portrays the emotional stranglehold an abusive partner can maintain on someone. Revealing that love holds together a toxic relationship doesn’t advocate for the preservation of that relationship; it shows how an abuser weaponizes something positive to permit their behavior. 

A straightforward protest or condemnation of abuse would defeat the purpose of Del Rey’s work, which thrives on subtly. Activism, while important for spreading awareness of a cause, exists because previous generations engaged with oppression on their own terms. Defeating oppression using its own language while ceding some ground to that oppression allows for new discourse to emerge. Del Rey’s work may not use this new discourse, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as enabling oppression because it doesn’t sound like the current mode of activism. Anyone who condemns Ultraviolence on feminist grounds undermines the pillars of their ability to make that criticism. Del Rey said, “There has to be a place in feminism for women… like me… the kind of women who say no but men hear yes.” 

Lana Del Rey throws away the electric guitars for delicate strings three-fourths through the album. The contrasting sound of “Old Money” conveys the message of Ultraviolence by portraying someone cutting through the noise to voice their unadorned pain. “Old Money” glorifies wealth, as Del Rey describes what she associates with a romantic interest: “Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine.” These images reaffirm the contradiction that Del Rey wants traditionally feminine things with a drive seen as masculine. Critics bristle at her ambition because it jeopardizes the patriarchal order in which power is a male quality. This association sets up the Catch-22 that makes equality difficult: if success itself is seen as male, how can a woman achieve it without inviting criticism for disrupting the established order? 

Bonus track “Florida Kilos” comes the closest to pop as any track on Ultraviolence, with an airy chorus backed by light percussion and a summery guitar riff that announces the song’s “work hard, play hard” sentiment. Beyond its breezy facade lies a vice: “You snort it like a champ, let the winner in.” The song displays Del Rey’s ability to make debauchery seem glamorous, like a protest against the upper echelons of society. 

On “Fingertips”, from 2023’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd?, Del Rey addressed the hardships of stardom, saying, “I had to sing for the prince in two hours, sat in the shower, gave myself two seconds to cry.” Del Rey’s image has always juggled glamour and its drawbacks, and “Fingertips” emphasizes dichotomy, jumping on the 21st-century trend of mining the inner workings of the business of celebrity for material. Because Del Rey thrives by glorifying celebrities of previous decades, such as the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash on “Bartender,” using the downsides of celebrity as entertainment threatens to tarnish her brand. Norman Fucking Rockwell! insulates her from this risk and allows her to use autobiography on Ocean Blvd without breaking her link with a pristine past. 

In response to a review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey said, “I don’t have a persona. Never needed one, never will.” This statement is ironic coming from someone who uses a stage name: there is an inherent amount of theater in everything she does. For whatever bits of autobiography may exist in her pre-Ocean Blvd songs, Lana Del Rey uses a persona to contextualize them in culture. Before Ocean Blvd, Del Rey evaluated the state of the American Dream; autobiography was a pillar of that enterprise, not the end goal. In a Rolling Stone interview, Del Rey said, “I read a book in college that talked about burning every bridge except for the one that led to your greatest desire… My greatest desire is to sing.” 

Del Rey’s craft isn’t lyrics; it’s the vessel for those lyrics. Her voice is heavenly, yet she sings about tragedy. She thrives in a space where beauty is skin deep yet is milked for all it’s worth. “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” she asks on “Young and Beautiful”, a song written for Baz Lerheman’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack in 2013. By taking her beauty for granted, the song’s narrator distinguishes it as physical and fleeting. 

Like Jay Gatsby, who ensured his doom by trying to recreate the past, Lana Del Rey presents herself as an idol on the verge of falling from her pedestal. Maintaining her position isn’t easy. On the Ultraviolence opener “Cruel World”, she characterizes her love interest as a Bible-touting, gun-owning tough guy, but by the end of the song, she takes possession of his treasured objects. Del Rey is a self-aware siren who mourns her destiny: to cause the downfall of her lovers. However, her knowledge of this task elicits the same appeal as any siren. Del Rey is tragic and trapped; her skill is to make that seem enticing. 

The follow-up to Ultraviolence would be its fraternal twin, 2015’s Honeymoon. While Ultraviolence used rock music to investigate the frustration beneath Del Rey’s wistful facade, Honeymoon used orchestral strings to reevaluate her persona. The album’s dream-like quality signifies Del Rey’s survival of the self-excavation of Ultraviolence. Instead of defeating her, it catapulted her into an era where she summoned a calm that made listeners question the validity of the previous album’s harsh sound: Was it all for show?  

In a profile of Lana Del Rey in the November 2023 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the author concluded, “She does not mind the shadows… it is my struggle alone to see.” Del Rey’s persona may be vague or, as she once said, not a persona at all. Regardless, its ambiguity allows the listener to conduct an inquisition into their own life. Hyperspecificity combined with her tendency to reference iconic celebrities would have diluted Del Rey’s appeal. Journalistic detail distracts from aspiration. In this sense, Del Rey is a textbook celebrity: a blank canvas on which people can project their own emotions. 

However, Del Rey’s appeal relies on some unusual pillars: a self-perpetuating sense of mystery that confronts anyone who tries to penetrate it with the idea that their quest is futile. But, for the inquiry to begin at all, some level of persona must exist. In the era of social media, even non-celebrities create personas for their followers to consume. 

Everything Del Rey does is a bit. In an interview with Vogue conducted after the release of Born to Die in 2012, when asked about her next record, Del Rey said, “What would I say? I feel like everything I want to say, I’ve said already.” 

With hindsight, listeners know Lana Del Rey became one of the following decade’s most prolific songwriters, which pulls back the curtain of this cryptic interview comment. Del Rey isn’t dodging the question; she’s labeling it as preposterous and portraying herself as helpless like one of the best-selling albums of 2012 spilled out of her without a thought. Similarly, in 2019, after nearly a decade of cultivating a rich persona, she countered analysis of that persona with the claim she doesn’t have one. This is Del Rey’s bit: to be elusive, to prompt a culture to turn the questions it asks on itself. 

In its final form, Del Rey’s persona, or lack thereof, is entrusted to the public. If you want to ruin the illusion for yourself, that is on you. That option now exists because Del Rey’s work is done; she has succeeded in prompting the culture that enabled her success to examine itself. 

Lana Del Rey majored in philosophy at Fordham University, where she was taught that “Philosophy is the study of questions, not answers.” Humans, by nature, seek answers to the questions of our existence. “What is the meaning of life? What is outside the universe?” These are defeatist inquiries Del Rey must have encountered in her studies, which also included courses on metaphysics. But humans are also wired to accept that asking questions is enough. The ability to ask the right questions can get us through life and sustain a celebrity enterprise. Writers poke holes in these enterprises and ruin the fun for ourselves, but pop stars get the glory.