Exploring the American Dream of Lana Del Rey | Miami New Times


The Uniquely American Mystery of Lana Del Rey

How did Lana Del Rey go from a laughingstock to America's sweetheart?
Lana Del Rey at the 2023 Billboard Women In Music in Inglewood, California, on March 1, 2023.
Lana Del Rey at the 2023 Billboard Women In Music in Inglewood, California, on March 1, 2023. Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images
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I've never really understood Lana Del Rey. She is a figure that burst fully formed into the musical landscape more than a decade ago with a persona combining nostalgia for Hollywood glamour and classic Americana with a deeply contemporary melancholy — more Liz Taylor than Marilyn. She's broadly kept that persona going ever since, gaining a cult following among pop music fans. Three of her albums have gone to number one in the UK, a country which also gave her an Ivor Novello award for songwriting.

It can be hard to see the appeal. "Venice Bitch," the epic centerpiece of her most highly acclaimed record Norman Fucking Rockwell!, epitomizes what makes her so ingratiating. Producer and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff does his best Tame Impala impression with an extended psychedelic guitar outro lacking heft. Del Rey's lyrics rely on unoriginal, vapid clichés ("As the summer fades away/Nothing gold can stay") and inane wordplay like in the song's title (a play on Venice Beach), and her vocals, processed in the same overdubbed, distant style Antonoff would use on Taylor Swift's Midnights are solipsistic, disinterested, and monotonous. If she's California Dreamin', she might as well be sleepwalking.

How could anyone see this as great music, especially when Weyes Blood soon came along and did the same thing better just a few years later?

It's helpful to look at the musical climate in which Del Rey, who is stopping at the iThink Financial Amphitheatre on September 23, emerged. In the early 2010s, pop music was split between maximalist EDM hits and more sophisticated indie acts adored by blogs like Brooklyn Vegan. Critics feted the likes of Sky Ferreira and Frank Ocean, who took on themes similar to Del Rey's early work, albeit with a more current sound and lyrical finesse. There's perhaps no more definitive take on Californian wealth and boredom from the era than Ocean's "Super Rich Kids" with Earl Sweatshirt, for instance. A few years later, Lorde would come along and win over everyone from the blogs to the charts with her take on indie pop, even winning two Grammys for "Royals."

Del Rey, at this time, was little more than a curiosity at best and a sideshow at worst. She was on a major label but took cues from indie scene aesthetics. Her first major public exposure, a bizarre Saturday Night Live performance in which she sleepily performed "Video Games," was roundly panned, even mocked by the show a week later, but got attention from teenage fans, especially from the creative Tumblr. But GIFs of her twirling onstage in a ballgown would be all over the platform for years. 

Then something funny happened: the Tumblr teens grew up and got jobs as music writers. The poptimist wave that rose in the middle of the decade saw critical reconsideration of major acts from Beyoncé to BTS, and Del Rey saw her boat lifted with the rising tide. Pivoting cleverly from melodramatic midcentury pop to Laurel Canyon soft rock on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, presaging the late-millennial obsession with Fleetwood Mac, proved to be the wisest decision she ever made. The album was declared a masterpiece upon release, with Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield comparing her to Joni Mitchell and Nancy Sinatra. Pitchfork, which gave her debut Born to Die an embarrassing 5.5 out of 10 ("a collection of torch songs with no fire," wrote Lindsay Zoladz), delivered her a 9.4, with Jenn Pelly calling the record "the apotheosis of Lana Del Rey." The album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, with Grammy nods to follow.
How did Lana go from a laughingstock to America's sweetheart? As questionable as I consider her music to be, it has to be said that she is indeed tapping into some uniquely American ideas. For one, there's artifice: All of her fans know that Lana Del Rey is a stage name, that the singer was born Elizabeth Grant in upstate New York and had little to do with anything California until she built her pop-star persona — and they don't care. America is the land of opportunity but also of invention and reinvention. It's the country that invented Hollywood and ballroom culture, two spaces where anyone can be anything. We revel in fakeness and lies; we let a con artist run for president and then elected him. Del Rey understands this better than other modern pop stars, and it's a key to her success.

That acceptance of artifice leads to the other key to her appeal, which is more contemporary and generational: nostalgia and melancholy. People have always been sad, sure, but Lana's music taps into a uniquely American sense of isolation, intense yearning, and angst codified in movies like Rebel Without A Cause that resulted from the intense postwar suburbanization. More than half the country lives in the suburbs, which are, especially for young people, uniquely boring and desolate places. One has to drive everywhere. The only places to hang out are parking lots and dead malls. Any true sense of community or solidarity in more urban or rural areas evaporates amid cul-de-sacs and tract housing. The only entertainment comes from television and, more recently, the internet, both sources of massive anxiety through panicked messaging about America's future, transmitters of doomful news about school shootings, climate change, and right-wing politics. Against this backdrop, her thematic embrace of California — the "end" of America, the place where Manifest Destiny and limitless bounty drop off into the Pacific — feels all the more prescient. She channeled an abstraction of the real American Dream, one which has nothing to do with homeownership and everything to do with fame and romance without complications. In Lana's world, the American Dream means luxuriating in one's ego, not having to think about anything but yourself. It's a dream that could only result from an existence as isolated as one goes through in suburbia.

Del Rey, or rather Grant, didn't grow up in a suburb herself, but her upbringing in Lake Placid seems like it was just as stifling: she's described bouncing around boarding schools and teenage alcoholism in interviews. She knows what it's like to feel trapped somewhere, wasting their youth, and I'd be willing to bet that every one of those Tumblr kids who turned to her felt a similar need to escape. She gave them a vision of a past that was at the same time nostalgic and validating, the America they were promised but never received.

Recently, the singer seems to be jettisoning her aloof persona, at least in public. She's been seen in very odd places in the lead-up to a concert tour of the South: working behind the grill at Waffle House in Alabama, covering Tammy Wynette at famous country-western club Robert's in Nashville, in a 7-Eleven on the Jersey Shore. No explanations have been provided. Perhaps trying to understand Lana Del Rey is like trying to understand America itself: a fool's errand.

Lana Del Rey. With Zella Day. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 23, at iThink Financial Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sainsburys Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883; livenation.com. Sold out.
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