For years I hesitated to listen to Lana Del Rey because a friend once told me that too much of her will make you suicidal. “It’s the way she sings,” she said. “Like she’s underwater. Like she’s drowning.”
Drowning, I discovered, is a good way to describe it. Lana Del Rey’s songs are full-bodied and often string-heavy, her throaty voice rippling through the instrumentals. With headphones in, the music consumes your body. It drags you under, makes you forget yourself. Pausing the playlist after a long line of Lana songs is like waking up from a drugged sleep of silk and honey and heart-shaped sunglasses.
This effect may be due, at least in part, to the way Del Rey’s music soaks you in her persona. Her songs defy typical pop convention: they’re slow (maybe 50 beats per minute), sensuous, and most of all, sad—no bouncy dance floor bass lines for Lana. “You don’t want to get this way, / Famous and dumb at an early age,” Del Rey croons in “Carmen.” “I am alone in the night, / Been tryin’ too hard not to get into trouble, but I / I’ve got a war in my mind,” she sings in “Ride.” Her music videos, too, shy away from sunlit cheeriness, instead portraying a sense of dispossessed sexuality: Lana Del Rey stalking neon-lit streets alone at night, Lana Del Rey with a man’s hand spread over her thigh, Lana Del Rey smearing soap and cherry lipstick all over her mouth. The videos—and Del Rey herself, in interviews and photoshoots—glamorize movie stars and money, daddy culture and death. “Kind of a vintage Americana honey aesthetic,” one of my friends says. Del Rey herself calls it “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” or “Lolita lost in the ghetto.”
It’s a persona that has faced heavy criticism. Feminists accuse her of defining herself through her relationships with men. Music critics denounce her songs for sounding identical; concertgoers declare that she has no stage presence; bloggers complain that she sounds bored when she sings; reviewers charge that she had secret plastic surgery but won’t admit it. People say that her success is due to her father’s machinations, that she slept with record label heads to make her way to the top. That her success is due to her beauty and not to any talent. That she doesn’t have any talent. That she’s a fake. Most of all, they say that she’s a fake.
Despite the barrage of hate, many are still fascinated by Lana Del Rey. On YouTube, her music videos regularly garner over a hundred million views. Her most recent album, Honeymoon, sold over 200,000 copies in its first week alone. The poet Megan Falley wrote an entire chapbook of poems about her. A quick search will unearth articles analyzing her appeal, trying to put words to her aesthetic, in Salon, in the New Yorker, in Zeteo: “The Existential Genius of Lana Del Rey,” “Lana Del Rey Is Exhausted,” “The Meaning of Lana Del Rey.” There is something alluring about her, something addictive about her mythology that lies beyond the attraction of her words and her voice. The persona she presents in her music touches some nerve of interest. We like—or at the very least, are drawn to—this girl, this sad, sad girl who wishes that she “were dead already,” this girl who can sit on a throne decked in jewels and stare indifferently at the camera. She is an alcoholic, a druggie, a mistress. She is post-pain: she hurts so much she can’t even care anymore. She is a symbol of the immoral, seedy underbelly of all-American girlhood—think of her wrapped in an American flag aiming a machine gun, lying under the bright Las Vegas lights. She is Jackie Kennedy scrabbling on the convertible’s hood after her husband has been shot. She is woman as wound.
Many have tried to account for Del Rey’s magnetism. The French academic Catherine Vigier turns a feminist lens on Lana and claims that her popularity is because she “is representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society’s prescriptions for success in what has been called a post-feminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them.” Writer Amanda Petrusich equates Lana’s fame with her “embodiment of California’s dizzying, orphic appeal”—Lana Del Rey attracts us in the same way the Golden State does, as a destination for escape and the realization of our darkest dreams.
But to me, it seems to be simpler than that. Despite the knocks on Del Rey’s authenticity—her name change from Lizzy Grant to Lana Del Rey, her move from New Jersey to Los Angeles—the obvious constructedness of her persona is what appeals to us. After all, no one knows who Lana Del Rey really is. She speaks with wide eyes of how much she hates being famous, but the radiance of her smile at concerts is unmistakable. She turns her head away coyly during interviews to imply that yes, maybe she did really run with a biker gang when she was younger, but her accompanying laugh is hesitant. Online, few traces of Lizzy Grant exist independent of Lana Del Rey. Her persona seems ephemeral, a superficial construct. Who doesn’t envy such a complete image overhaul? Those who criticize her for being a fake are missing the point. That’s what she is supposed to be.
In many ways, art is the creation of myth. There is no movie star or singer who isn’t a construct in some way, molded to be marketed. Just look at Miley Cyrus’s high-budget antics or multiple piercings and tattoos: you think those aren’t publicity stunts, calculated efforts to erase her past as a goody-goody Disney Channel pawn? What about Kim Kardashian’s dramatic relationships and on-screen tantrums? Or Gordon Ramsay’s creatively foul mouth? The difference with Lana Del Rey is that her persona has hairline cracks in it—just enough to provoke us, to make us wonder. She discloses her pain but doesn’t give us specifics. She sings about money but once lived in a trailer park. She’s a California girl but grew up on Lake Placid. Mythology—that’s the real all-American ideal. She is a self-made woman, Jay Gatsby with eyeliner. But the vulnerability of Lana Del Rey’s mythos captures something darker, something more unstable about the American dream. Its construction embodies the transience of youth, the rapid mutations of personality in adolescence, the recklessness of living fast and dying young. Perhaps YouTube commenter Sammy, writing about “Ride,” puts it best:
The first time I listened to this song I was in high school, in those crazy years of hookups and sadness and crazy wild parties. So many lines of this song stuck in my mind and I would repeat them over and over again. Now listening to this song it makes me cry remembering those uncertain times, glad that those years made me into the person I am today. Thanks for this masterpiece Lana.
Lana Del Rey drags us into the darkness with her. How can we ask for authenticity when the very dubiousness of that authenticity is what lends her music its power? Nobody knows if Lana Del Rey—or Lizzy Grant—really knows anything about sadness or wealth, glamour or death. But then, neither do we. And so we follow her into the depths of her fantasy, and drown in its glorious sound.