Issy Marcantonio reflects upon Lana Del Rey’s music career
Lana Del Rey was introduced to the pop landscape in 2011 with ‘Video Games’, a song that would be named Song of the Decade at the Q Awards in 2019. 2011 was the year of Jessie J’s ‘Price Tag’. Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, and Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, in other words, a pop-scape defined by high production and in your face kitschy hooks. Lana brought some new, or rather something old. Swooping string arrangements, old Hollywood style glamour and sadness, cinematic in scope, relying on the ability to tell a story rather than explode a singular line over the blare of synths galore.
‘Video Games’ was followed the release of her first album Born to Die in 2012, an album that added hip-hop into Del Rey’s universe of lo-fi melodrama. The album didn’t feature the same vulnerability that Del Rey had unearthed with ‘Video Games’, with lyrics such as “Baby, love me cause I’m playing on the radio/ How do you like me now?” and “Money is the reason we exist/ Everybody knows that it’s a fact/ kiss kiss”. The lyrics may have pointed to Del Rey being sucked into the big-budget pop-machine, but there was still the static of her deeply personal and dark perspective behind tracks such as ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’: both of which still have starring roles in Del Rey’s discography.
Lana brought some new, or rather something old. Swooping string arrangements, old Hollywood style glamour… cinematic in scope
The blatant artificial and coquettish Del Rey that fronted Born to Die was slated across many a think-piece which possessed overt sexist overtures. But two years, and one admittedly bad SNL performance later, she transformed herself into a force to be reckoned with on her second offering, Ultraviolence. The palette for Ultraviolence was extremely bleak, telling stories of drunken recklessness with a siren-like allure. Singles such as ‘West Coast’ and ‘Shades of Cool’ showcased Lana’s soprano range against a stripped-down, but still grand in scale accompaniment of slow synths and violins. This was the album that gave Lana her cult-like following, she took her vulnerabilities and made them glamourous and mainstream.
But Ultraviolence didn’t make for a very compelling festival setlist. As seen in her 2014 Glastonbury set, Del Rey was decked out in a psychedelic tie-dye dress, adding the only pop of excitement to an otherwise downplayed and nonchalant performance. This led to another transformation, perhaps an even darker one, on her third album Honeymoon. It’s an album that is appropriately concerned with love, but this love is an addictive one. It’s embracing rock-bottom. The baroque-pop style, isolated guitars, and distant piano chords coalesce to create a sultry frame for a sedated Del Rey. ‘High by the Beach’ and ‘God Knows I Tried’ lives in the space between dreaming and reality, filled with melancholy. This album synthesised what the zeitgeist thinks Lana Del Rey is. She knew exactly what she was doing.
Lust For Life marked another turning point in the Del Rey discography with tracks such as ‘Love’ and ‘Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind’, displaying a more utopian side of her. It was also the first album to feature collaborations, with the likes of pop and rock royalty, Stevie Nicks, and Sean Ono Lennon. This album was said to be for the fans, a gift for the disenfranchised youth who largely make up Del Rey’s audience. It provided some hope in a 2017 which had been seared with the rise of the far-right and political chaos. New-age folk with heavy pop influences that let a bit of light into Del Rey’s otherwise moody blues. The American Dream to which Del Rey has so lyrically clung to saturated this work at a time when the American Dream was becoming less and less achievable to the average citizen. Del Rey was yet to fall out of love with the flag.
She has created waves, succumbed to currents, and formed a riptide that pulls younger artists and listeners to her
However, she would fall. Her latest offering Norman F**king Rockwell demonstrates that and gives us one of the best opening lines of the decade – “Goddamn man child/ you fucked me so good I almost said ‘I love you’”. This is the record that witnesses Del Rey take on climate change, gun violence, and death and do so with remarkable wit and coolness. ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have’ and ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ are dives into the same murky pools that Del Rey has always explored, but there’s no longer any artifice there. This is personal, sombre, and existential in framing. It’s her own entirely.
Across the five records, Lana Del Rey has released this decade, she has consistently displayed her prowess as an artist. But being good at what you do by itself doesn’t necessarily equate to the artist of the decade status, that is derived from influence. The handprints of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Nina Simone and Nancy Sinatra are all over Del Rey’s discography. But hers are also printed on a whole range of younger artists. Without Lana Del Rey, there wouldn’t have been space for Billie Eilish or Lorde, artists who dwell in storytelling, genre-bending, and emotion. Lana Del Rey may not have been named as Artist of the Decade, but she certainly is one of them. She has created waves, succumbed to currents, and formed a riptide that pulls younger artists and listeners to her, and that is how you become a music titan.