The Authenticity of Lana Del Rey

Don’t judge a book by its cover

‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ (2019) album cover

Lana Del Rey has been an unfairly misunderstood artist as cause of a somewhat rocky rise to fame with her debut lightning-in-a-bottle album Born To Die (an album that has been in the Billboard top 200, for more than 400 weeks!). Back in 2011 she had her first TV appearance on Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, the performance was met with harsh criticism. Subsequently, that made many listeners and critics in the music world “question” her authenticity as a artist.

Her sultry voice and polarizing old-school beauty, have added to her celebrity factor and given the public something to talk about. Her authenticity has been a topic of discussion because Lana used to look a bit different before her big break. It was the money and self-clarity what fulfilled Del Rey’s true artistic vision of herself, “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards, a name that sounded as beautiful as the music. I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba –Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside” (Vogue)

Lizzy Grant and Lana Del Rey have always shared the same fixation for the broken Americana image and themes of finding beauty in tragedy:

Del Rey’s American vision was never perfect. At the core of the retro-American narrative, are a set of flawed characters, often receiving or enacting violence. There was a filter of supposed beauty laid over this violence — or that seemed to be Del Rey’s vision. -Hanif Abdurraqib

However, there is online history, as well as dozens of leaked music from the Lizzy Grant days, which show the same kind of style and lyricism. Despite the initial outrage, in the last seven years, Lana Del Rey has been steadily building up her credibility in the music industry by staying true to herself. According to Del Rey’s former record label director, David Nichtern:

“If she is ‘made up’ — well, she is the one who made herself up. She has very strong ideas about what she does. The idea that someone could manage her into a particular shape — it’s impossible.”

UNCOVERING SEXUAL FREEDOM: PARADISE

By 2012, Lana Del Rey had scored herself the biggest hit of the summer with the Cedric Gervais remix of her song “Summertime Sadness,” a remix that she had never heard before until it was already on the radio. Any artist that puts profitability over artistic integrity would see this as an opportunity to recreate more songs in the fashion of the multi-platinum hit remix, but not her.

Ride music vide (2013)

Lana Del Rey kept following her vision and released a 10-minute short film for her lead single “Ride” off her Paradise EP, showcasing one of the best visuals of her career. The film challenges the notion that life is too short to feel ashamed:

Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies?

Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience them?

I have

I am fucking crazy… but I am free.”

Del Rey encourages the viewer to find their personal freedom and live their fantasies, even if it not socially acceptable. Writer and actress Tavi Gevinson adds:

“[Lana Del Rey] has many different qualities that women in our culture aren’t allowed to be, all at once, so people are trying to find the inauthentic one”

After Ride, a year later Del Rey released a second 30-minute film titled Tropico, showcasing three other songs from her Paradise EP: “Body Electric,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “Bel Air.”

The film feels like a manifesto of artistic expression, as she plays with the Biblical stories of sin and redemption, and the forbidden fruit, but adding her own surreal and brilliant twist. She brings together different personalities from different times, such as Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, among other references, in a backdrop of overbearing iconography, pop culture worship, and sexual deviation. She also plays different personalities that come together as one character, such as Eve, Virgin Mary, a stripper, and a gangster Chola, where she plays both the good and the evil, as she makes an effusive larger-than-life transition from the Garden of Eden (fantasy) to Los Angeles (reality). A lustful homage to classic Americana.

The film Ride started the Paradise EP album cycle, while the film Tropico gave closure to it just right before embarking on her next artistic (and dark) voyage.

EMBRACING HER PAST: ULTRAVIOLENCE

Interviewer: With all the flak you’ve received over the years, some people would have thrown in the towel. But you doubled down and made an even more fucked up, almost hyper-Lana record with Ultraviolence.

LDR: I so double downed. [The early criticism] made me question myself — I didn’t know if it was always going to be that way. You can’t put out records if 90 percent of the reviews are going to be negative. It would have made sense to step all the way back, but I thought, ‘Let me put out three more records and see if I can just stand in the eye of the storm.’ (Pitchfork)

Lana Del Rey kept on getting harshly criticized for her every move up until this point. She emotionally reached rock bottom, turning this mental state into her sophomore full-length album, Ultraviolence, in 2014. The orchestral hip-hop sounds that once made her famous were now gone, as she dived into a world of slow guitar riffs, chaotic drums, and highly reverbed vocals. Long gone was the heavy makeup and extravagant hairdos as well, exchanged for simple washed-up jeans and white t-shirts, letting the music take the front seat. Ultraviolence is generally praised as her magnum opus by fans and critics alike.

[Ultraviolence] observes a sort of dark cinema where characters are capable both of being damaged and of damaging. It seems Del Rey’s flawed [Americana] vision has finally come to life, in the real world, and she’s visibly and vocally wrestling with that.

Whereas Del Rey’s past work focused on the imperfect Americana imagery, this record presented a hyper-exaggeration of what Del Rey presented in her first two records; containing themes about aggression, addiction, submission, depression, and abusive relationships. The record also feels like a direct attack on the Del Rey haters, with tracks like “Brooklyn Baby” sarcastically parodying the whole construction of herself.

When asked about the message in her music, she explains that she does not have an angle in mind when she writes her songs. She sees her albums as journals of the different periods of her life as she documents her feelings through her music. In 2017, Del Rey did an interview with Stevie Nicks, where she clarified:

I wanted to chronicle how I was feeling at that moment, for each record. I had a lot of stories that I wanted to tell that I hadn’t told yet up until this point. Now. There’s been a feeling of freedom and lightness of being in the present moment when you don’t have all of those feelings about the past weighing you down.

The album is also considered a bold statement from her part because she did not want to tone down any of the lyrics or the intended meanings of the songs, and therefore, risking alienating listeners.

The honest representation that Del Rey writes about exposes a brave woman who is not afraid of the idea of putting her wildest dark thoughts out there.

The track “Pretty When You Cry” for example, it exposes Del Rey at her most vulnerable and melancholic. The song was recorded in one take while freestyling with her guitarist Blake Stranathan: “The vocal inflection has its own narrative, it’s not all lyric drive. It is just kind of moments in time that are meaningful to me left untouched. The fact that I didn’t go back and try to sing it better is really the story of that song.” Del Rey is an artist that cares about her craft holistically, not only are the lyrics and sound important, but the feelings and story that she conveys are as vital, if not more.

We also have the infamous title track, “Ultraviolence”:

…he hit me and it felt like a kiss.

In an interview in 2017, three years after the release of Ultraviolence, she explained: “I sing “Ultraviolence,” but I don’t sing that line anymore… having someone be aggressive in a relationship was the only relationship I knew” (Pitchfork). Del Rey keeps evolving as an artist and admits that she does not sing some of the lyrics anymore because she does not carry the same mindset.

“I really feel for myself at the time. Did I really just say I don’t matter to anyone? That’s fucking crazy (referring to her song ‘Terrence Loves You’.” -Lana Del Rey

Del Rey finds empowerment by using her albums as catalysts for her self-exploration as an artist and as a human being. After all, we are only human.

DISCOVERING HERSELF: HONEYMOON

Lana Del Rey’s following album was Honeymoon in 2015, and it was the opposite of what Ultraviolence was. Gone was the submission and dependence on abusive men. Del Rey now focused her efforts on her self-discovery and inner strength with lyrics such as: “You could be a bad motherfucker / But that don’t make you a man” on “High By The Beach,” and “I see you leaving / So I push record and watch you leave” on “Music To Watch Boys To,” where she emphasizes that men no longer have control over her life.

On March 2018, it was announced by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) that Del Rey was going to receive the ASCAP Global Impact Award, where President Paul Williams said:

“[Del Rey’s] sparkling soundscapes and crisp storytelling are anything but of this world. Lana’s art allows us to step into a technicolor dream, where endless possibility is the only rule. Lana casts an ethereal glow across all she touches, leaving us all excited for whatever spellbinding path she ventures on next.”

The records that Del Rey has put out in her career are typically a composition of different elements besides the music itself. Her albums have a theme, a story, a sound, and an aesthetic. One of those elements is her journey and mentality, where she then bases the sound of the album around those feelings. Lastly, she comes up with an aesthetic that wraps all those foundations together. She told Complex Magazine: “For me, if I don’t have a concept, it’s not worth writing a whole album. I don’t like it if there’s no story.”

LIVING IN THE PRESENT: LUST FOR LIFE

In her latest album, Lust for Life, released in 2017, Del Rey finally experiments with the notion of writing with a bigger scope in mind. For the first time, the singer-songwriter decided to step out of her mind and write about the things and events that are happening to all of us as a society. Del Rey also finds herself more involved in global issues, such as feminism. She has tried to raise awareness about the Women’s March by bringing it up in magazines and has written in social-media about it. Del Rey also assisted to the Grammy Awards Red Carpet in 2018 with a white rose to show support and talk about the #MeToo Movement, and has written songs, such as “Coachella — Woodstock In My Mind” about the recent North Korean nuclear threats.

Del Rey has also opened her political views as she has been very outspoken about her opinion on the current cabinet of president Donald Trump. She was asked by Complex Magazine during an interview if she had any fears of compromising fans for having such a strong public stance, to what she replied, “You don’t negotiate when it comes to your work or your art. You stand totally firm and take the consequences. In terms of losing fans, I don’t care. Period.” This comes as a consequence of receiving backlash for stating that she was going to stop displaying the American flag in the backdrop of her song “Born to Die” when performing it during her tour, saying:

Things have shifted culturally. It’s certainly uncomfortable. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die”. It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now — it didn’t feel weird in 2013. (Pitchfork)

Lana Del Rey is a woman that holds immense musical integrity and creativity, she enthusiastically denotes that her biggest accomplishment is her records, as she has put parts of herself that she can only understand into them:

“In terms of my gauge of what’s good, it is just what I think. I have an internal framework that is the only thing I measure it by. My own opinion is very important to me. It starts and stops there” -Lana Del Rey

However, people fail to see that because she has been labeled as a manufactured product of the music industry. “Society abhors a woman who can’t be categorized — especially if she is willfully defying the categories, and even more so if she’s famous” (TheCut). Del Rey is not well perceived for her individualistic attitude in her music, but in judging her, the culture once again only condones and reinforces a single exemplary profile that women must express appropriate behavior and hide their vulnerabilities in the public eye in order to convey a strong and independent image.

Lana Del Rey has shown the public that she is an artist that puts her mind and soul into her art, an artist that is not afraid of turning her deepest fantasies into a form of artistic expression. An overabundance of different authenticities have been used by critics to evaluate Del Rey: from those who only consider certain aspects of her songs all the way to those that criticize her past or her physical body itself. I chose to cut through this by selecting a very narrow and essential aspect of her — her artistry and passion for real emotion and valid human experience.

This is an issue that matters because society is valuing shallow aspects of pop culture when they should be focusing on what an artist creates rather than what they are. Del Rey has so much to offer in terms of challenging individualistic freedom: projecting qualities that women aren’t allowed to be.

In her world, the good and bad is not as easy as black and white, as she finds her power in playing with different roles and exploring the juxtaposition of topics to discover something surreal.

Lana Del Rey creates a balance between reality and fantasy, producing atmospheric time-capsules that she has crafted for herself to share with the world, and where listeners can transport themselves into.

Digital Analyst @ McKinsey & Company. Denver. Interested in tech, music, and pop-culture.

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