FEATURE: Modern Heroines: Part Six: Lana Del Rey



Modern Heroines


PHOTO CREDIT: Lana Del Rey/Getty Images 

Part Six: Lana Del Rey


SOME might not consider an artist such as…

Lana Del Rey to be an icon-in-waiting, but I think, as she has grown and found her voice, there is a very long future ahead for her. I want to look at her albums and a few interviews, but now is a very purple patch for Del Rey – or to give her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Q Magazine just voted Video Games the best track of the decade – I shall come to that song in due course. She also appears on their cover, and there are plans for a new album next year. This would come only a year after the recent album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, which garnered her the best reviews of her career so far. Del Rey is an artist who captivated with Video Games, and there was huge expectation and pressure. Every album allures and stuns, because Lana Del Rey mixes the modern and the classical. In terms of her themes and lyrics, she is very open and talks about romance in a way we can all understand. It is the smokiness of her voice and her pictures of open highways and old-school heroines that means she always has one foot in the 1940s and 1950s. The album, Lana Del Rey, appeared in 2010 but I think her first big moment came in 2012. Born to Die is not her finest album, but it did bring to the world this very engaging, extraordinary and intriguing artist who many were trying to figure out.

Was there a divide between Elizabeth Grant and Lana Del Rey? How much of the music was true to who she was? Indeed, a lot of critics approached her second album with a slight air of trepidation and cynicism. Collaborating with producers such as Patrik Berger and Emile Haynie, Lana Del Rey lowered her voice and brought in a new image. Maybe the blonde artist who we saw on the cover of her debut was seen as a bit immature and slight. By adding a duskiness to her vocals and alerting her lyrical style, Born to Die is a hugely underrated album. Video Games is a tremendous song that sends shivers up the spine. One of the criticisms levied at Born to Die concerned the lyrics and their strength. Were they relatable and how much reality can we find? I love the fact there is a mixture of sadness and escapism on Video Games; there is a definite chill on Born to Die. Lana Del Rey was standing out from her peers and, perhaps, she was laying the foundations for what was to come. There are definite standouts on her sophomore album. Blue Jeans and National Anthem can stand alongside her very best work.  A lot of press sources wondered whether Lana Del Rey was genuine; some thought Video Games was advertising and, really, many did not know what to make of such an original proposition in 2012. I guess Lana Del Rey was a more reserved or less experienced live performer than she would be; that was another aspect that made people feel she was a marketing tool or some sort of concept. In fact, the music and vocals sound extraordinary on Born to Die. Maybe the lyrics book was not as deep as some of her peers, but that did not detract from some of the most beautiful and cinematic music of the time. In the U.K., Born to Die sold 50,000 copies on its first day of release; it went to number-one on the U.K. album chart and it was a huge commercial success.

Perhaps a lot of the secrecy concerning Lana Del Rey impacted the critical perception. I love the fact Del Rey was not a typical Pop artist or Indie outsider. She was her own artist and was not trying to slot in with what was popular or commercial – maybe that was seen as a bit odd and suspect. That clash of cinematic sounds and almost conversational vocals was a breath of fresh air; her work has strengthened since 2012 and Lana Del Rey remains this fascinating and dreamy artist. I will move on but, before I do, I want to bring in one of the positive reviews for Born to Die. The Telegraph had their say:

It would take a near miracle for 25-year-old singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey’s debut album to meet expectations. The New Yorker’s debut single, Video Games, inspired sky-high critical hopes. But while Born to Die doesn’t walk on water, its misty-eyed retro-pop makes for compelling listening. Musically, Del Rey – who co-writes each track – has hit upon a sort of 21st-century cracked soul. Grandiose strings and minor-key melodies collide with hip-hop rhythms and gurgling atmospherics, all conveying an epic sadness.

Del Rey’s vocals add star quality, flitting between a smoky, sultry purr and playful high-pitched tease, thriving on the drama of her own innate contradictions. She champions hedonism and sexual power one minute; craves the protection of a “screwed up and brilliant” lover the next.

Coupled with a film noir-ish attention to detail – the “red nail polish” and “Jesus on the dash” – and an obsession with faded post-war glamour, Born to Die often sounds like some great lost soundtrack to LA Confidential. Inevitably, 51 minutes of melodrama becomes draining. But it captures Del Rey’s mystique perfectly. Perhaps success will put a smile on her face”.

I will move on but, until then, I want to introduce a feature from The Guardian, where they try to figure out who Lana Del Rey/Lizzie Grant is; whether there is this sense of show and spectacle; how she exploded so soon:

Of course, Lana Del Rey and Lizzy Grant are the same person.

That revelation has made Grant/Del Rey one of the most controversial figures to emerge in US music for years. Some people feel victims of an immense confidence trick. When Video Games first went viral it became an underground sensation praised for its authentic feel. Del Rey's amazing voice crooned the haunting song against a backdrop of grainy out-takes of home movies and Hollywood scenes. It currently has a staggering 20 million views on YouTube. The follow-up, Blue Jeans, with a similar feel, netted 6 million views. Del Rey's few live gigs suddenly sold out. She won the Next Big Thing prize at the Q awards. She seemed set for the big time. But then questions were asked. A few critics began to wonder if, far from being some organic wunderkind, the transformation from Grant to Del Rey had been planned all along. Her stage name was chosen by her management. Rather than being an outsider struggling for recognition, Del Rey is in fact the daughter of a millionaire father who has backed her career. People were suspicious of the way Grant's failed album, and all her social media websites, appeared to have been scrubbed from the internet just before Del Rey appeared. There has been much speculation as to exactly when Del Rey teamed up with her current label Interscope and how much influence their savvy marketers might have put into her original emergence.

"There are a lot of things that don't seem organic about it," said Steven Horowitz, who wrote a cover story about Del Rey for Billboard magazine. "She's putting on a show. She's here to entertain us."

 PHOTO CREDIT: Twitter/@ThePopHub

After so much attention following Born to Die, a lot of artists might have capitulated or played it safe. Lana Del Rey learnt a lot and made some changes for 2014’s Ultraviolence. It is a more stripped-back album (compared to Born to Die) and, rather unsurprisingly, Lana Del Rey was not even planning on another album. Maybe she felt outlawed or pushed aside; the critical strain and constant questioning made her wonder whether a new album was a good idea. The gestation of Ultraviolence was quite slow, but the results were worth the wait. Dan Auerbach was a new addition in terms of production. There was some butting of heads and disagreement between the two but, when all was said and done, the two were vibing from the finished material. With a co-write credit on almost every song, Ultraviolence feels like a more assured and bolder record (than Born to Die). Inspired by the West Coast and New York, there is this expansive and broad feel. Although Auerbach was a last-minute addition, I think he helped bring something fresh from Lana Del Rey. The reviews were more positive for Ultraviolence. There was this acceptance that, persona or not, Lana Del Rey was here to stay, and she was a very real and relatable human. It is a remarkable album and I love the sheer visual drama and beauty one feels when listening.

With stronger and more nuanced vocals, a sharper and more focused pen and greater consistency, Ultraviolence was the beginning of the rise of Lana Del Rey. AllMusic were positive when reviewing the album:

Even the most pop-friendly moments here are steeped in patient, jazz-inflected moodiness, as with the sad-eyed longing of "Shades of Cool" or the unexpected tempo changes that connect the slinky verses of single "West Coast" to their syrupy, swaying choruses. Production from the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach might have something to do with the metered restraint that permeates the album, with songs like "Sad Girl" carrying some of the slow-burning touches of greasy blues-rock Auerbach is known for. A few puzzling moments break up the continuity of the album. The somewhat hooky elements of "Brooklyn Baby" can't quite rise above its disjointed song structure and cringeable lyrics that could be taken either as mockery of the hipster lifestyle or self-parody. "Money Power Glory" steps briefly out of the overall dreamscape of the album, sounding like a tossed-off outtake from the Born to Die sessions. Despite these mild missteps, Ultraviolence thrives for the most part in its density, meant clearly to be absorbed as an entire experience, with even its weaker pieces contributing to a mood that's consumptive, sexy, and as eerie as big-budget pop music gets. Del Rey's loudest detractors criticized her music as a hollow, cliché-ridden product designed by the music industry and lacking the type of substance that makes real pop stars pop. Ultraviolence asserts that as a songwriter, she has complete control of her craft, deciding on songs far less flashy or immediate but still uniquely captivating. As these songs shift her sound into more mature and nuanced places, it becomes clear that every deadpan affectation, lispy lyric, and overblown allusion to desperate living has been a knowing move in the creation of the strange, beguiling character -- and sonic experience -- we know as Lana Del Rey.

If Ultraviolence was a way of convincing people Lana Del Rey was here to stay and was a real (if very different) artist, then Honeymoon was that confirmation. She was established by 2015, and was starting to really step through the gears. Gone were a lot of the early nerves and loose ends. With long-time collaborators, Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies, there was less of the guitar-focused sound of Ultraviolence. Like all great artists, Lana Del Rey was not standing still and was constantly searching. There was a return to the Baroque Pop stylings of her earlier work; a blend of the truly grand and cinematic Trip-Hop. I think Honeymoon is her most eclectic and busy album to that point; a hugely immersive work that showed great attention to detail and thought. There are layers of sounds and so many interesting aspects; a rich album that unfolds the more you listen. In terms of her narrative, Ultraviolence looked more at individual characters, whereas Honeymoon is a return to a more singular character; her persona and voice. Honeymoon is almost a companion piece with Born to Die, in many ways. Whilst you could argue there was a slight sense of indifference in the vocals, I think it added a lot. Rather than overwhelm the songs with powerful vocals and too much force, instead we get this dreamy and gorgeous presentation that allows the music to breathe and float.

For those new to the sound Lana Del Rey was putting out, Honeymoon might have taken a while to sink in and make sense. Those who had followed her career from the start were seeing this artist evolve and strengthen. The reviews were getting more positive and many applauded Lana Del Rey’s sense of style, focus and passion. I want to bring in a review from The Guardian, where they discuss some interesting points:

What, one wonders, does David Lynch feel when he hears Lana Del Rey? Perhaps he’s flattered at the way she so skilfully personifies the precarious balance of danger and desire in his heroines? Or maybe he feels a little disturbed by her unflinching embodiment of this specific strain of his fictional characters: almost as if he’s being stalked by his own creation – which is, of course, a very Lynchian notion.

Honeymoon finds Del Rey reverting, after the more atomised, individual characters of last year’s Ultraviolence, to a composite persona closer to the dissolute subject of her Born to Die debut. Not only does her vocal delivery remain the same throughout, but also its protagonist’s “voice”; while the emotional impact of what might sometimes be traumatic developments seems somehow damped, as if experienced through a narcotised haze.

Happy or sad, angry or apologetic, dominant or submissive, it’s apparently all the same to Del Rey, who floats through these songs with a weird indifference. It lends a sort of Stepford devotion to the more earnestly romantic songs, like “Religion” and “Music To Watch Boys By”, while prickles of danger are raised by the darker emotions: all it takes, in the separation ode “The Blackest Day”, is an offhand mention of a gun to spark the suspicion that, despite the bland delivery, this is an obsession teetering on the edge of either suicide or homicide. But when, in “24”, she complains, “You’re hard to reach/You’re cold to touch”, it’s hard not to think of pot and kettle locked in a mutually unfeeling embrace”.

Before coming on to her 2017 gem, Lust for Life, I want to introduce an interview that Lana Del Rey gave in 2015. At the start of her career, she did talk to the press, but I think there was a lot of scepticism and negative energy that would have put her off. Having made her mark and silenced doubters, the tone of interviews was more curious and kinder. Speaking with The Current, Lana Del Rey was asked about the changes that came in on Honeymoon.

You're past your debut and your sophomore releases, you've worked with many different artists and you've toured. What made Honeymoon different?

I was glad to be past that second record. [laughs] It was fun. I worked with this guy that I love. He's been my producer for a really long time. His name is Rick Nowels. I got to go in [the studio] every day and see some things I had been working on or start something new. Early on I wanted to have [Honeymoon] to have a little bit of a noire feel so I loved the title track "Honeymoon." I guess it kind of loosened up a little bit as I went forward with songs like "Freak" and "Art Deco."



Rick Nowels has worked with everybody from Tupac to Madonna to Jamie xx. What's your connection to Rick and what does he bring to your music?

One of the reasons I like Rick so much is because a lot of producers, when they get into the studio with an artist, they want to challenge them or they want to break them down and build them back up again. I find that really unhelpful. Rick always says yes and he's really fluid. If I'm stuck with an idea lyrically and want to say, "Screw it!" and move on, he doesn't care. We move on to a new idea. He's very easy. He contributes a lot in terms of – I mean, he plays everything. All the keyboard parts, all the guitar. He's pretty amazing.

Each album of yours has a distinct narrative and you're able to adopt that narrative and thread it throughout the entire album. What was your intention with the narrative of Honeymoon?

I do love records that have a strong concept. The narrative for [Honeymoon], it was a tribute to Los Angeles and, because of the soundcaping — we had a lot of amazing strings — I think the mood was the narrative. It's a lot of descriptive pieces about driving at night or being in love, not being in love. Kind of the same old thing”.

Gaining momentum and greater critical respect, I remember awaiting Lust for Life eagerly in 2017. Lana Del Rey discussed the possibility of a follow-up to Honeymoon when she spoke with NME back in 2015. It is clear that those recording sessions were productive and, as we can hear from the finished Lust for Life, she was incorporating new styles and genres into her music.



It would have been easy and tempting for her to repeat the sound of Honeymoon; instead, there is a blend of Trap-Pop and New-Age Folk on Lust for Life. If earlier albums were defined by slightly dreamier vocals or a lack of complete confidence, one of the biggest standouts of Lust for Life is the vocals. Often employing Hip-Hop inflections and affectations, Lust for Life is a bright and sleek album but one with plenty of nostalgia, beautiful harmonies and swelling songs; scenes and visions that go on forever and take you somewhere wonderful. Great artists are always moving and looking to occupy fresh territory. You can hear the differences from Honeymoon to Lust for Life. I think Lana Del Rey’s brilliance and originality was cemented on Honeymoon. If anything, Lust for Life made sure of that and pushed her music further forward. As time has gone on, the reviews have got much bigger and positive. In this review from The Guardian, they highlight the contrasts and strengths of Lust for Life:

If this is an album about America, it is also an album about Americana, and other venerable source materials: the Coachella song is subtitled Woodstock in My Mind. Despite the rappers, the hip-hop content in Del Rey’s sound mostly gives way to canonical genres – the third departure.

Millennials might find a subscription to Uncut or Mojo useful here, as Del Rey drops retro bombs all over the place. “Don’t worry baby,” she croons on Love (Beach Boys). “My boyfriend’s back,” she notes on Lust for Life (the Angels), her strangely unsatisfying hook-up with the Weeknd, which borrows from Iggy Pop. It all gets a little ridiculous when Sean Ono Lennon consents to a Beatles pastiche called Tomorrow Never Came crammed with wide-ranging interpolations. “Lay lady lay,” Del Rey sings, “I would be your tiny dancer.” It’s a mark of Lana Del Rey’s persuasive skill that a good song emerges from under all that baggage. Girl meets boy. Boy fails to turn up when he said he would. Love goes wrong. Repeat till fade”.

Maybe one of the things lacking in the world of Lana Del Rey is a political opinion. It is always hard to express that in music, especially when you want to avoid controversy and trouble. I shall end with an interview where she was asked about politics and life in America under Donald Trump. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a bolder and wider-reaching album that looks to the modern-day and has a definite tension. There is also the same qualities we’d come to expect: the simplicity of post-War America and a sea of different sounds melting together harmoniously. In terms of themes and sounds, there is everything from doomed love and visions of a broken Californian dream; Desert Rock moments and some Folk edges. I think it is her most ambitious album to date and expands her palette once more. Many critics noted Rock references through the album – including Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and references to Joni Mitchell and the Eagles. The year is not yet done, but I would surprised if Norman Fucking Rockwell! was excluded from the ‘best of’ lists. If albums prior to Norman Fucking Rockwell! were not universally acclaimed – or received quite the respect they deserve -, then that has been rectified now. I think Lana Del Rey is a future icon, and she is one of the most striking artists of her day.  


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There was a lot of love for Norman Fucking Rockwell!. In their assessment, AllMusic had this to say:

A strong classic rock influence comes through on many songs, with the softly building pianos and acoustic guitars on tracks like "Mariners Apartment Complex" or the apocalyptic "The Greatest" sounding like the best of '70s FM radio reworked around Grant's smoldering, exhausted vocals. Even though Stevie Nicks' witchy mystique has long been a reference point for LDR, this particular brand of classic rock -- silky guitar solos, compressed drum fills, and lingering, mournful outros -- is unlike anything she's attempted before. The most exciting aspects of Norman Fucking Rockwell! come in these unexpected moments. A faithful reading of Sublime's "Doin' Time" contorts to fit Grant's moody approach, becoming an extension of her own expression rather than a goofy, ironic cover. Where huge pop hooks met eerie melodrama on previous albums, here both extremities of that formula have grown more understated and direct. "Venice Bitch" is the best example of this. The nine-minute song begins with gentle strings and soft, hopeful melodies but winds into a long, meditative stretch where synth textures and hypnotic repeating vocals bleed into walls of noisy guitars. While much of her older material reveled in its own inconsolable sadness and detached numbness, the lush sonics and intimate narratives of Norman Fucking Rockwell! draw out hope from beneath desolate scenes. The patient flow, risky songwriting choices, and mature character of the album make it the most majestic chapter of Lana Del Rey's continuing saga of love and disillusionment under the California Sun”.

There are assumptions made about Lana Del that might feed into this idea of persona and whether Lizzie Grant is a radical departure from the musical moniker. In interviews, you have this very bright and interesting artist who is a lot cheerier than her music would suggest. I guess those who deal in a slightly dreamier sound are accused of being sad of defeatist. I think there is a lot of romance in Lana Del Rey’s work; a lushness and sweep that is a welcome tonic to a lot of what is out today. So many artists deal in empty energy and processed sounds. With Lana Del Rey, there is something much more graceful, memorable and appealing. You can tell Del Rey is someone who loves to jot her observations and is someone who takes so much inspiration from the people and places around her. In this recent interview with NME, she talked about her lifestyle and writing process:  

Del Rey isn’t the only modern artist to be painted as this perpetually glum figure because of the melancholy that lives in their music. If she was considered the prom queen of sadness, James Blake would likely have been named king. Last year, he dismissed the “sad boy” label appointed to him, calling the phrase “unhealthy and problematic” and damaging to the discourse around male mental health. Del Rey feels similar about the tag being thrust upon her. “I really never felt like much of what people said about me resonated with how I felt at my core,” she says. “I thought it was cool that I was just in my process and, at some point, I’d probably get to some kind of plateau where the sound would round out and it would grow into another thing. It was a little nerve-wracking having people want me to be one way forever but, I mean, it’s a life. There’s a life in there and that’s ever-evolving and definitely for the better.”


You might expect Del Rey to be making her own legends in her downtime but her life, she insists, is pretty regular – a healthy mix of creativity and friend time. There’s the driving (“a lot of driving,” she says), the game nights with her friends, the trips to the dog park with her photographer and director sister Chuck Grant, the poetry writing, the swimming, and filming the things she sees as she flits between LA, San Diego, San Francisco, and other communities along the coast.

“I’m a big chronicler,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time just capturing stuff, even on the phone. When the wildfires were happening [in 2018] I wanted to get up in a plane and see it and film it.” As if to pre-emptively reinforce her point, a day earlier she posted a candid video on her Instagram of a conversation about aliens taking place on a green-lit boat.

I did mention how more artists are becoming political. It is hardly a coincidence when you consider who is in charge in the U.S. and U.K. She did mention her concerns in the NME interview and her fears for America under Trump:

Looking ahead to the 2020 Presidential election next Autumn, the key issue that needs to be tackled, in Del Rey’s view, is mental health. “The thing about ‘Looking For America’ is it’s not just about the citizens’ right to bear arms,” she explains. “I get that. It’s people not being able to pull out and look at the broad picture and be like, ‘It starts with this’. There’s no addressing of mental health. Yes, there’s the gun, but it doesn’t mean that just anyone should be allowed to get one.”

Right now, she’s not sure who she thinks would be best to tackle that concern while challenging Trump next year but she’s “listening to everybody”. “Anyone would be better,” she adds with a dry laugh.

There is already rumour of another album in 2020, White Hot Forever, and it will be interesting to see what direction that takes; whether it is romantic and passionate or takes more of a political course. I can hear some new singers emerging who are very much inspired by Lana Del Rey’s cinematic sound. Those breathy and emotional vocals; lyrics that are happy to reminisce and look back at a different time but, always, there is that modernity and urgency. There is so much soulless and dry Pop around; it is great we have an artist like Lana Del Rey out in the world. I think she will continue to put out albums, and it cannot be long until she gets some big headline requests. I think we will look back in years to come and remember her as a true original and, whereas she had a slightly unsteady and hard start (with press questions and her material finding its feet), she has overcome all of that and is one of the most popular artists in music. I have ended with a playlist that puts together her very best moments. It shows how she has evolved through the years and just how striking her music is. The music of Lana Del Rey is a huge force in the world and it sounds…    

LIKE nobody else around.