It seems that in the last few years—2012 in particular—we’ve seen a surge of powerful female vocalists emerge on the music scene. In the pop, rock, and indie worlds women like Adele and Florence Welch have risen from the bubblegum masses to create new expectations of individuality and original talent for female artists. In the case of Lana Del Rey, this role has been filled, reinvented, and mastered over the course of the last year.
The New York native began writing songs when she was 18, after a four-year stint in juvenile rehab. It was a struggle for her at first—up until 2010 she recorded EPs and singles under several different names while living in a trailer park outside NYC, her music career in the background, her main focus on community service work with the homeless. Del Rey’s first album was met with little response, and it wasn’t until 2011 when she released the music video to her single “Video Games” on YouTube that things finally seemed to take off. Del Rey began collecting Best New Artists awards around the world, and her second album Born To Die, released in early 2012, was one of the bestselling records of the year. Since then she has embarked on a world tour, been featured in an ad campaign for H&M, been the exclusive inspiration for a Mulberry bag, and released another EP, Paradise, last Nov.
While Del Rey certainly had to overcome some challenges, there is nothing particularly unique about her struggle that sets her apart from other artists who have become successful in their music careers. Like many musicians, it took time, perseverance, and luck for her to make herself known to the world. There isn’t anything entirely innovative about the music she makes either—she sings about sex, love, money, death, and other big themes—and while her voice is unique, legitimate, and always full of feeling, the same can be said of many other chart-topping musicians. However, there is something different about Del Rey, and the world seems to love her for it. There is truth in her character and her music, and honesty that listeners can appreciate, whether they recognize it consciously or not. Del Rey’s music may come from a tortured place, but she doesn’t use her dark side as a presumptuous mask or an excuse for complicated angst. Instead she tells her story as it is, in a manner that comes across as true. When she sings about sex it isn’t in a materialistic way, which is common in popular hip-hop songs, nor does she reminisce past lovers in a sickeningly sentimental sense. Instead she sings of lust, of choices and control: “I’m in his favorite sundress/ Watching me get undressed/ Take that body downtown/ I say, “You the bestest.”/ Lean in for a big kiss/ Put his favorite perfume on/ Go play a video game.” There is no false poetry, no strategically placed coating upon Del Rey’s music organized to match any set of standards. She limits her style and always keeps things simple and a little weird. Her music video for “Ride” from Paradise, is a 10 minute mini-film that begins and ends with a monologue, and features Del Rey’s romances with various older men, many of whom seem to be part of a motorcycle gang.
Del Rey’s originality has created a sense of controversy around her music. While her records have done well and she has risen as a popular figure in the music world, many have written her off as a hipster-icon, a shallow fabrication of the indie scene. In late 2011, Del Rey told Rolling Stone she doesn’t consider herself an indie musician, “I would have loved to be part of the indie community. But I wasn’t… I never met that indie popular indie, whoever the fuck that is. Who IS indie? First of all, I can’t really get my head around what indie music is. Because if you’ve heard of it, it’s sort of pop music, right? Because it’s, like, popular?” The fact that she cannot be placed in the pop vs. indie debate confirms Del Rey’s individuality, and it is her genuine eccentricity that has allowed her to stand out and be loved, or hated, by those who are exposed to her music. At one point in the “Ride” monologue she says “I was always an unusual girl, my mother told me that I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing me due north, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide as wavering as the ocean.…with a fire for every experience and an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about…”
Del Rey’s musical themes extend beyond lust, and whether she is singing about love or money or something else she maintains a sort of lazy edginess. In some tracks, such as “Born To Die,” her voice is thick and theatrical, and at other times she moves in a more street-wise direction, towards New York City grit, as in “Diet Mountain Dew.” At all times, though, she consistently keeps to her character. There is a strong sense of nationalistic nostalgia in her music—a yearning for golden age America. Del Rey has referred to herself as “self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra” and while the description seems to fit, she is not a mere one-woman rat-pack cover act. Her voice is rich in a sultry way and she plays with both current and classic subject matter, referencing the old stars in the midst of her own chaos. She sings in “Body Electric”: “Whitman is my daddy, Monaco’s my mother,/ Diamonds are my bestest friend./ Heaven is my baby, suicide’s her father,/ Opulence is the end.”
There is a dark originality to Del Rey. She has the complicated romanticism of an emotionally destructive relationship, a Frank and Ava complex. At times she comes across as a borderline obsessive ex-girlfriend, and at others a sacrificial and tragic lover, making Born To Die and Paradise the soundtracks to an epic love story gone wrong.
Of the music idols that have garnered praise in the last little while, Del Rey has her own place. Where Adele may be the direction to look when recovering from a breakup, and Florence might encourage empowerment, Del Rey is a voice of a conflicted youth who admits human weakness, accepts impulse, and encourages self-expression. Whether she continues making music or extends her artistic direction elsewhere, we can look to Del Rey’s work for combined homage to the past fused with current perspective in a unique voice, and for an honest creative reflection of her own twisted and fascinating personality. She appeals to us at the end of the “Ride” video and asks “Who are you? Are you in touch with all your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you’re free to experience them? I Have. I Am Fucking Crazy. But I Am Free.”