Lana del Rey is the original sad girl and the poster child for 2014 tumblr. But, despite her overarching aesthetic, her image has changed and evolved over the years, and has undergone a lot of criticism and scrutiny.
Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, Lana del Rey was raised in Lake Placid, New York. She attended Catholic school but started drinking heavily as a teenager, so her parents sent her to the Kent School, a boarding school in Connecticut. Grant was interested in the mystic aspects of Catholicism but was never extremely religious herself. While at Kent, she read Lolita, and had a speculated relationship with her teacher Gene Campbell which would later (quite controversially) influence much of her music. After high school, Grant moved to Long Island for a few years and learned to play guitar from her uncle. She eventually enrolled in Fordham University, where she studied philosophy. In 2005, Grant created an EP called Sirens which was never officially released, but was eventually leaked in 2012. In her early career, she sang under the name of Lizzy Grant doing open mic and night club gigs in New York City. During her senior year at Fordham, she entered a song writing competition and, though she didn’t win, it resulted in Van Wilson recruiting Grant to sign with 5 Points, an indie record label owned by David Nichtern. Grant also created a demo with Van Wilson, earning $10,000 in total from 5 Points which allowed her to move to a New Jersey trailer park (she was allegedly couch surfing up to this point). Her early life, especially her experiences with alcohol and Catholic school, reading Lolita, her relationship with Gene Campbell, learning philosophy at Fordham, and living in the trailer park, informed and influenced most of her music and the creation of the persona that is Lana del Rey.
Lana promoting Born to Die in 2012, image provided by commons.wikimedia.org
5 points scouted Lizzy Grant for her unusual sound and potential. She was “playing plunky little acoustic guitar” with “straight blonde hair, a very cute young woman” but with an intelligent, “dark” side. Throughout her career, especially in the early years, controversy has surrounded whether or not Grant’s well-off parents supported her creative endeavors, implying that her time in the trailer park and couch surfing was for aesthetic not out of necessity. There have also been consistent rumors that her millionaire father bankrolled Lizzy Grant’s early career, but she has always denied them. With her EP, Kill Kill, released with 5 Points in 2008, Lizzy Grant was named one of iTunes emerging artists of the year. However, with the 2010 release of her debut album Lana del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant, Grant wanted a change. She partnered with a new management team, bought out 5 Points, and bought back the rights to her debut album. She changed the spelling of Ray to Rey and began specifically curating her image to eventually become the artist known as Lana del Rey today. Very early on in Grant’s career, she knew that she wanted to “create this thing, Lana del Rey.” From the beginning, she wanted her music to sound “famous” and like “a sad party,” which she has stuck with for her entire career. After releasing her debut album, Lana del Rey went back to couch surfing in New York, crashing with her managers and boyfriends while writing and uploading songs on YouTube.
In 2012, Lana del Rey released “Video Games” on YouTube. The music video, which she uploaded and directed herself, consists of clips of skateboarders, cartoons, old movies, footage of Paz de La Huerta falling while intoxicated, and clips of Lana singing which she filmed herself using a webcam. “Video Games” was a pivotal moment in Lana del Rey’s career, launching the beginning of the “newly perfected Lana del Rey” aesthetic and sound. The song eventually became the lead single for Lana’s second studio album, Born to Die, which was released in 2012 with Interscope Records. Born to Die, sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and has been certified platinum. The album oozes sex, drugs, and money of old Hollywood. While its lyrics and melodies are memorable, it was not well-received by critics who claimed “its pop signifiers feel stale and ill-fitting” and the whole album was “awkward and out of date.” The bad reviews were compounded by Lana’s infamous SNL performance in November of 2012. She was criticized for shaky vocals and detached and nervous demeanor, and critics questioned her new persona. However, little did critics know that Lana del Rey was changing mainstream pop from catchy radio songs to darker, more expressive music.
Lana del Rey on “Burning Desire” music video set, image provided by commons.wikimedia.org
Despite the harsh criticism, Lana del Rey released Ultraviolence in 2014, which debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified platinum. In between the release of Born to Die and Ultraviolence, Lana del Rey released her short film called Tropico. The film centers around three tracks from Born to Die Paradise Edition, and was directed by Anthony Mandler. It stars Lana del Rey alongside model Shaun Ross, and pulls together Lana’s favorite themes of Old Hollywood and Americana. However, since its release, Tropico has faced severe backlash for romanticizing stripping and for cultural appropriation. Following Tropico, Lana del Rey produced Ultraviolence alongside Dan Auerbach of Black Keys. The tracks mostly consists of single takes and cheap microphones which gives the album a classic, Lana del Rey, Old Hollywood feel. Critics were much more receptive to Ultraviolence commenting on how the album is made up of “slow, atmospheric songs filled with theatrical melancholy and a parade of women in trouble who mourn for men who treat them badly yet somehow remain irresistible.” Ultraviolence was the “perfect vehicle” for Lana del Rey’s vision as it “sounds tragic and beautiful.” As Lana del Rey’s persona grew, criticism and skepticism turned into praise and acclamation. Her lyricism and production improved as she perfected what it meant to be Lana del Rey.
Then, in 2015, Lana del Rey released Honeymoon, an album which she says is a tribute to Los Angeles. Honeymoon is considered her most artistic, creative, and dark album to date. Critics claimed that the album felt like it “belongs to a larger canon of Southern California Gothic albums” as Lana del Rey sings about love as if she is mourning and about romance as if it’s an addiction. Two years later, in 2017, she released Lust for Life. While still dark, there are more upbeat songs on the album than on Honeymoon. Lust for Life is most notably Lana’s first album to include any guest artists, including the Weeknd, ASAP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Stevie Nicks, and Sean Ono Lennon. In 2019, Lana del Rey released Norman F*****g Rockwell which essentially personifies the fantasy of the American Dream, as the album is both glamorous and absurd. Norman F*****g Rockwell cemented Lana del Rey as one of the greatest living songwriters and a revolutionary in the music world. She changed the way of pop music by creating a deeply emotional brand around a fictional persona. Her music offers “women a soapbox from which they could furnish their personal truths” while still being alluring and powerful. Lana del Rey is iconic because her persona is full of paradox: real yet fake, powerful yet helpless, femme fatal yet hopeless romantic, ostentatious yet shy, melancholy yet hopeful. These repeated contradictions makes her music interesting, a mirror of how complicated life can be, and keeps fans wanting more. And to top it all off Lana del Rey presents herself as if she just walked off the set for a 1950s romantic drama.
Lana del Rey performing live at the Grammy Museum in 2019, image provided by commons.wikimedia.org
In 2021, Lana del Rey released Chemtrails over the Country Club which carries “a roaming spirit of folk and Americana without losing the romantic melodrama of her best work.” In the same year, she also released Blue Banisters which was repeatedly leaked throughout 2020 and 2021. While Blue Bannisters had a more free and unguarded style, it maintained the same folk-esque feel of Chemtrails over the Country Club. The most prominent difference between the two albums is that Blue Bannisters takes place in the present, and it’s her first album to do so. Lana del Rey comments on the current political and cultural state of the United States and even her own personal life experiences. This is a stark shift from her previous work which romanticizes Old Hollywood and Americana while avoiding any discussion of herself or current events.
Lana del Rey released her highly anticipated ninth studio album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, on March 24th of 2023. The album follows the tone set by Blue Bannisters. Lana del Rey goes back to her own personal roots, singing about her family and revisiting the themes of her earlier works but from a different perspective. From Born to Die to Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, Lana del Rey has not only transformed the music industry but has also grown and changed as an artist.
Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd album cover, image provided by lanadelrey.com
Despite her controversial persona, Lana del Rey has maintained her iconic, trendsetting status. She has made her mark on the music industry by intentionally creating a uniquely mysterious, Old Hollywood, sad girl aesthetic for herself. Lana del Rey’s character is an artful paradox of honesty and deception. And even though her music is alluring and addictive, it is also known for glamorizing abuse, predatory relationships, and drug use. With that being said, her latest music is more refined, creative, and real and discusses the controversial themes she loves to sing about with more maturity and grace.
Listen to Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd here: