When Lana Del Rey released her debut album Born To Die ten years ago, she caused a cultural eruption. Critics weren’t sure what to make of her, spawning hundreds of think pieces along the way. Many were quick to criticize Lana, with one review comparing her music to a “faked orgasm.” Still many listeners, especially teenage girls, were entranced by Lana’s mid-century Americana style and her femme fatale persona. To this day there is something undeniably captivating about Lana. She lives in a fantasy that borders on delusion, occupying a liminal space between modernity and antiquity, her world grounded in a universal sense of grief and longing. Born to Die is a lugubrious yet saccharine album, like a sheen of crystalized sugar coating a crimson knife.
Before Lana Del Rey there was Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant. For years, Elizabeth released music under various pseudonymsー May Jailer, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen, and Lizzy Grant. Her career changed trajectories when she uploaded the music video for “Video Games,” which led to a viral sensation. The music video intercuts recordings of Lana singing her lyrics with clips of antique Hollywood, home videos, apocalyptic scenes, and modern day paparazzi. “Video Games” feels like a home-strung attempt at a David Lynch film, coalescing disparate motifs to form a singular audiovisual portrait. Still, one can not tell if there is truly a puzzle waiting to be deciphered, or if the clips were placed spuriously. That inability to figure Lana’s authenticity would follow herー many noting that the seemingly self-edited video was for a song that had obviously been mastered in a studio, a detail that caused outlets to question the authenticity of her rise to fame. However, many found it refreshing to see a pop star that didn’t rely on theatrics. The virality of “Video Games” landed Lana Del Rey in the realm of popular media, with her debut Born To Die generating massive buzz.
The album opens with its self-titled track. A luxurious orchestra plays over a trap beat, melding classical with contemporary. The song revels in juxtaposition between old and new, high and low culture. The music video contrasts Lana singing in an opulent cathedral with scenes of “white trash” Americana. The juxtaposition fits with the theme of the song, a reflection on the fragility of love and death. Lana sings, “Oh my heart it breaks every step that I take/ But I'm hoping that the gates, they'll tell me that you're mine.” This track wouldn’t be Lana’s first meditation with death, as motifs of heaven, hell, and destruction run rampant throughout the album and Lana’s later work. She often alludes to a long gone lover, whom she wishes desperately to be reunited with. In “Dark Paradise” she sings, “Every time I close my eyes, it's like a dark paradise / No one compares to you / I'm scared that you won't be waiting on the other side.” Lana’s fascination with her own mortality reoccurs throughout Born To Die and the rest of her discography. In a now-notorious interview, she remarked, “I wish I was dead already.” Born To Die exemplifies Lana’s unapologetic sadness and her infatuation with finding beauty in the morose.
Lana Del Rey became the figurehead of the Sad Girl, an internet phenomenon where (mostly white and cis) teenage girls on Tumblr expressed their sadness through aesthetics like #soft grunge and #pastel goth. Lana’s pop melancholia embodied this glamorous reimagining of female sadness, such as in “Summertime Sadness,” a brooding yet catchy tune about being reminiscing on a past summer fling. Rolling Stone called her a “vamp of constant sorrow,” comparing her to Cat Power and Kurt Cobain. Born To Die is rife with proclamations of self-defeat and agony, cementing Lana as the perfect Sad Girl.
Despite Lana’s overt sadness, there is a tinge of humor through her use of hyperbole. In “National Anthem,” Lana declares: “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact (kiss, kiss).” In the music video, she roleplays as Jackie Kennedy alongside A$AP Rocky as John F. Kennedy. “National Anthem” is a lurid display of sexuality and royalty, bordering on blasphemous. She uses veneration as a way to exemplify American consumerist culture and glorification of political figures. Similarly, in “Radio” Lana sings about achieving success through the American Dream. “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon / Like a fucking dream I'm living in / Baby love me cause I'm playing on the radio.” Her sweet, high-pitched voice in tracks like “National Anthem,” “Radio,” and “Lolita,” feels mocking at times, like a schoolgirl offering backhanded compliments. Some would call Lana’s writing satire, but it’s not targeted at any particular societal problems and doesn’t promote a moral imperative. If anything, Lana explores these topics through glamorizing them. She acts as a demonstration of the values she condemns. As writer Christopher Glazek puts it: “Del Rey reveres the things we ridicule, exalting our baser instincts and especially our exhibitionism… In their shamelessness, they attack shame; in their glee, they sanctify desire, which is the ultimate subject of Del Rey’s work.” Maybe that was why the world of Lana is so compelling: she expresses those desires that ought to remain unsurfaced, delectably inducting us into a farce of pleasures. We, as listeners, want to believe that our dreams have been achieved and that there is, in fact, some ultimate beauty and meaning to our suffering.
What attracted me to Lana Del Rey as a semi-damaged middle schooler was her passionate entanglement between tragedy and romance. At the time, her unabashed sadness felt truly radical. Now, looking back as an adult who has survived the trenches of Sad Girl tumblr, I’ve come to realize that her persona veers more towards delusion. It turned out that her idolatry of submissive relationships and depressive theatrics were actually meant to be taken seriously. A lot of this came out when she posted her “question for the culture” on Instagram:
Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc
- can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money - or whatever I want - without being crucified or saying I'm glamorizing abuse??????
The entire post, since deleted, went on about how she often felt ostracized from modern day feminism. It’s understandable why Lana would go on this tirade, especially after enduring nearly a decade of incessant criticism. Still, Lana’s message came across as bitter. YouTuber Shansphere looks at Lana Del Rey’s statement in depth, arguing that even if the media’s treatment of Lana Del Rey was unfair, her targeting of women of color and her claim that there needs to be “space for women who look like her” was wildly misinformed. Lana’s social media presence revealed her many questionable opinions, making many fans wonder who they were really supporting. Nate Jones for Vulture wrote a chronology of Lana Del Rey’s controversies, observing that her heightened persona allowed her to evade criticism: “You couldn’t stay mad at Lana Del Rey. It would have been like getting mad at Betty Boop.” When people critiqued Lana, it was much in the same vein as slandering a fictional character. Over time, Lana Del Rey’s public image has unraveled. What may have started off as a playful and satirical caricature was revealed to be grounded in semi-truth; Lana’s Old Hollywood identity morphing into a more sinister 50s housewife.
Ten years onward, Born To Die is a memorable debut with lasting cultural impact. As a musical feat it is slightly hollow and repetitive, yet it establishes themes and sonic elements that would be put to greater use in later albumsー namely Ultraviolence and Norman Fucking Rockwell. More than anything, Born To Die signaled a cultural shift; away from the global pop theatrics which dominated the late 00s, exemplified by the likes of Lady Gaga and Beyonce, and into a more intimate notion of superstardom. Lana Del Rey offered a 21st century reimagining of what it meant to be a female pop star: the digital Sad Girl lost trapped between eras. However, for all her vulnerability, Lana proved to have equally as much of a persona as many of her fellow pop stars, one that would follow her for her entire career.
Then again… despite my attempt to intellectualize Lana Del Rey, I still think the album is full of pure bops. Truly nothing makes me feel more alive than her lovesick soprano on “Off To The Races,” or the waltz-like tempo of “Carmen.” Maybe it’s my inner fourteen year old speaking, but a part of this album will never leave me, even as I mature. There’s something addictive about her music; it’s like a tin of sweets you eat in secret. You realize the flaws in her music and public image, yet that doesn’t stop you from enjoying it. Listening to Lana Del Rey is a sweet, sweet delusion… your own “Dark Paradise.”