Last Tuesday I went to a concert of Lana Del Rey in Antwerp, Belgium. More out of my way than usual for me for a concert, but Lana Del Rey hardly ever visits Europe so I didn’t let this opportunity go to waste. After a week of listening to her again and after this amazing concert I got to thinking about why I have such a strong reaction to Lana Del Rey. She is an odd one in my taste, as there are elements in her music that make her fit in well with what I usually listen to, while parts stand in direct contrast to my tastes. Why is that? I also noticed that outside the all-around beloved Video Games the critics seem to have mixed feeling about her. All this thinking and listening made me decide to write something about what to me is one of the greatest and unusual artists of our times.“We both know that it is not fashionable to love me”
I first noticed Lana Del Rey for the first time, like pretty much everybody else, through the song Video Games. It was love on first listen. This is a solid top 100 entry of which I like basically everything. It is one of the most sexy sounding songs I know, with perhaps the best seductive vocals I have ever heard. But there was more, there is melancholy in there. A sense that the relationship in the song is less than ideal. It is more clear in the music and in the vocals than in the lyrics. In concert, Del Rey confirmed my feeling that this was a conflicted love song by changing the main lyric into “Go play your stupid video games” (she loudly emphasized the “stupid” too); in other words, the guy has perhaps more of an eye for his game than for his girlfriend. So on the one hand, you have a girl singing “They say that the world was built for two/ Only worth living if somebody is loving you/ Baby, now you do”, on the other hand there is a subtext of things not being all right in paradise. As per usual with great music and other arts, a little bit of paradox never hurts the depth of a song.
Then her first album (well, there were some unofficial and unreleased albums and EP’s before, but let’s ignore those for now) Born to Die was released. It is rated better now and has some popularity on this forum, but let us not forget that it was not really well reviewed at first. In fact, I only read negative reviews at the time and a lot of the complaints were that it didn’t sound at all like Video Games in general. Stupidly, it made me decide not to listen to Born to Die. I stuck to Video Games.
When two years later Ultraviolence was released I heard West Coast on the radio and had to admit that once again she made a great song. That song was my summer of 2014. The reviews of Ultraviolence were more positive but still rather mixed. It seems like critics didn’t know what to make of it. This time I ignored the critics. West Coast was so strong that I wanted more and I gave Ultraviolence a chance. Lucky me. It was great. A few months later I also finally tried Born to Die, which at first I only liked on certain tracks. I was disappointed with the hip-hop influences on much of it. Over the years though, I’ve come to love each track. The hip-hop elements now make it stand out to her other albums, although her latest, Lust for Life, brought them back.
Ultraviolence eventually was vindicated somewhat by the end of the year, when it landed on quite a few End-of-year lists. It struck a chord with at least a part of the musical community, although to this day she has some very strong and vocal naysayers. Still, the hype surrounding Ultraviolence didn’t carry over to next year’s Honeymoon. This album came and went very fast, although the song High on the Beach had some limited radio play (rare for Del Rey outside of Video Games). This very forum, which embraced Ultraviolence, didn’t speak a word of Honeymoon and critics didn’t waste much words on it. Undeserved as I found out, as it is beautiful. Go listen to it, if you haven’t.
Then two years later came Lust for Life, probably her most openly appreciated album yet – and the only one I don’t consider a masterpiece, although there are a lot of amazing songs on there. Lust for Life actually cracked our MegaCritic top 100 of the year, a first for Del Rey. I think there are a couple of songs there that just don’t add much to what we already have, but a lot of the songs still don’t let themselves be ignored, especially the stunning first four.
So these are the four albums. There are also some singles for other projects, many collaborations and the Paradise EP. She is very prolific. Still, I thought that for most people she would still be the one hit wonder from Video Games. When I told people I would go to her concert they mostly didn’t know who she was. I was wondering how she got a huge venue like Sportpaleis in Antwerp to book her, with no less than Cat Power as an opening act. Then I looked at how much she was listened to at Spotify. Turns out her numbers there are huge, on par with many popular contemporary pop acts. Video Games isn’t even her most played song there. I don’t know who those people are who listen to Lana Del Rey en masse, but I give them credit. Del Rey herself does too: during the concert she thanked people for listening to and buying her records despite a lack of radio play and promotion.
In some ways, Lana Del Rey feels like a hidden gem that somehow got uncovered by just the right people to make her into a success. As said, I was wondering about her special appeal, which explains her faithful fans, but also her critics.
Let’s start with the critics. I feel that a lot of them just don’t know what to make of her. She seems like she belongs into pop, but she isn’t really pop. Art pop maybe? The masses don’t hate her, but she doesn’t speak to them in the same way Katy Perry or Taylor Swift do. But she has some of the same themes as them. Listening to Lana Del Rey you hear tales of love, heartbreak and lots of extremely beautiful people attending parties. Really, the lyrics of Lana Del Rey in general seem to belong to the same world as those of Miley Cyrus’ album Bangerz.
People who have read my review of Wrecking Ball know I hate Bangerz (despite liking Wrecking Ball, as the exception that proves the rule). That is one of only two albums I have heard from start to finish I would rate with a 1 out of 10. The world it sketches of people partying seems like a conscious attempt to make the listener more stupid (and no, I’m not one of those people who believes that pop music is an actual conspiracy to keep the masses dumb; although Bangerz almost changed my mind).
Lana Del Rey is subtly different. Hers is a world that is definitely ruled by parties, sex, free love, alcohol and drugs. She also posits this world as belonging to the young and the beautiful. I still have a hard time seeing Lana Del Rey settling into midlife. It is important to stress that Lana Del Rey is very much not against this loose lifestyle. She loves the parties, the sex, the drugs, the drinks, the liaisons and all the people that she meets on the way. In fact, she goes a step further, she loves the people that treat her bad. She loves fatalism. She finds beauty in bad love. Crying makes her feel alive as much as laughing.
Here we get into the strange appeal of Lana Del Rey, into what makes her so special to me. The world of parties is not my world. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I can’t stand uneven relationships, I have never worshipped the young (for some reason I think I should note here that I am 2 years younger than Del Rey). Del Rey’s world is very much not mine. But I have noticed before that a great artist can draw you into his or her world no matter how far removed it seems. They put you into their mind, they let you see through their eyes and hear with their ears.“I heard that you like the bad girls, honey/ Is that true?
To achieve this you need both honesty and depth. Del Rey achieves this with her conflicted view of the world she inhabits. It is a world of superficial beauty, but real feelings. Like I said, she really loves her world, but it seems to make her sad and leave her empty (just a little note: I write about the view expressed through her songs as I interpret them, I can’t of course speak for Del Rey as a person). She paints a picture of melancholy as well as some of the more obvious artists like, say, Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen. Her methods are not so much poetry and lyrics, though these have their moments, but through layered melodies and above all her emotive voice.
That voice is something else. I always find it hard to capture its essence in words. It is very sexy and seductive, but damn sad. It reminds me of jazz or torch song singers (I was thinking that Honeymoon – the song - could be tailor made for Billie Holiday), but it sounds more modern. Like Amy Winehouse, the style of her voice is clearly rooted in the past, yet seems to belong very much to the present (her lyrics have the same quality by the way). In a way she is Miley Cyrus, Rihanna or Katy Perry, but as if the ghosts of Etta James, Billie Holiday or even Bessie Smith came back to possess them.
It is this that makes the Born to Die (the song) a tribute to being alive and dying at the same time. Ultraviolence (once again, the song) is a dangerously insightful look at how a violent relationship can sustain itself. Love is a tribute to the way in which modern life drives us all insane. High by the Beach is a rare song in which Lana Del Rey actually leaves a bad guy, preferring to get stoned and going nowhere (she has a special affection for underachievers). Pretty When You Cry might just be the ultimate tribute to sadness, with Summertime Sadness coming in as second. 13 Beaches is another fond reflection on failure. Then there is a song actually named Fucked My Way Up to the Top, which needs no further explanation.
I could go on. Listening to these four albums over and over again they reveal more and more emotion. I can’t stress enough how unique her perspective of La Dolce Vita is (I don’t evoke that Fellini film lightly, as it is the only thing I know that equals its vision). I think that it is her focus on “superficial” lives that keeps the critics a bit at bay. That and the fact that she doesn’t fit current feminist views. She has been criticized as being anti-feminist, because her protagonists tend to be in thrall of men and sometimes accept being mistreated by them.
This is true and I felt uncomfortable with it at first too, but the thing is, Lana Del Rey has stated that these stories are autobiographical and reflect her own taste in men. She makes no claim that she speaks for all women. This led me to think about the few women I know who have indeed remained in relationships with men who mistreated them (and I’ve seen the opposite too, with genders reversed). Whether feminists like it or not, these women exist and could use a voice. In a way, Del Rey made me understand those relationships more. Not so much intellectually as well as emotionally. She is not a feminist in a fashionable sense, but her sympathy for unfashionable women is what makes her paradoxically a feminist in her own way. Like it or not, not all women are superhuman Beyoncés. I relate to the fallible Lana Del Reys more. Her sense of fatalism and mutual destruction seems more real to me, even if it is not an ideal to strive to. I always liked film noirs more than superhero movies anyway and I wouldn’t be the first to describe Del Rey’s music as noirish.
Gender politics aside, this is already a rich oeuvre, more multifaceted than you’d guess with only a single listen. I keep uncovering gems. Until last week I hardly noticed the existence of Ride (mostly because I paid little attention to Paradise, which is a bit weak overall) and now find it rivalling Video Games as my favourite Del Rey track. Ride has an amazing melody.
I can’t say whether the interest in Del Rey will grow or dwindle in the future, but I hope I made some case for her as one of the greatest artists of these times. Below is a playlist with my 25 favourite songs by her, in no particular order:
“Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain, like your girl’s insane”