Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Retrospective: Born to Die • Lana Del Rey

It was near midnight on Jan. 14, 2012. The world had just entered a transformative year for popular music: The musical ecosystem would support dozens of traditional Top 40 radio hits in the months to follow, but the internet’s creep toward becoming a genuine industry pipeline would also intensify throughout 2012. The internet’s place in media consumption shifted from a place to find music discovered on legacy formats, to a platform to discover music that large media conglomerates wouldn’t pick up. And in just one night, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey would topple the barriers in about eight minutes of airtime: She jumped from web pages to breakfast table conversation when she performed on Saturday Night Live, a legitimized stage for established traditional hitmakers, before she had dropped her first major label record.

A nervous performance of breakthrough ballad “Video Games” very well could have elicited a sympathetic eyebrow raise from viewers at home, but by the janky cry of “No puh-leeezah” in “Blue Jeans,” any reservations had been settled: America hated Lana Del Rey, a star the internet birthed. Outlets began to pull online posts as a real-time gauge of public opinion, with actress Juliette Lewis tweeting and deleting, “Wow watching this 'singer' on SNL is like watching a 12 year old in their bedroom when they're pretending to sing and perform. #signofourtimes.” Two weeks later, the rollout for Born to Die, the debut album buoyed by “Video Games” and an ornate baroque pop title track, charged forward: The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, where it would continue to chart for over 400 weeks. So hey, maybe the people didn’t hate Lana Del Rey after all, but nobody told the critics.

In music publications, Born to Die was treated like any other female pop release – that is to say, not well. It would be a few years until music classified under a growingly ambiguous pop genre would shift away from being just popular music, and in doing so, inadvertently become cool in the ears and minds of tastemakers. Pop in 2012 was an incredibly fragmented landscape: Adele and Katy Perry were in the latter halves of their career-best album campaigns, Calvin Harris was pushing electronic dance right into mainstream radio, Fun and The Lumineers landed one-off, synth-free alternative hits, and Psy became the founding father of K-pop recognition in Western culture with “Gangam Style.” Lana Del Rey, meanwhile, was stretched between the pillars, largely shoehorned into the flashbang pop group while being granted as much credibility as a novelty act. And for that, Born to Die was determined to be nothing more than a quick trend – until it wasn’t.

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Between the dozens of think pieces that preceded this one and the dozens more that will follow it, Lana Del Rey’s pathway to vindication will be documented in enough words to fill a novel. From its suspension of perpetual tragedy to its moody, ornate production choices, Born to Die can be traced in the pedigree of most pop-adjacent releases to follow it – if not in their musical DNA, then in their empowerment to push pop’s boundaries outward at the very least. Signaling pop’s descent from popular music to a concept as broad as “alternative” or “rock,” it is the monolith of what pop music could become once untethered from expectations. Hell, the album didn’t even match its own expectations: While “Video Games” primed audiences for an album of unsurprising torch songs, the album ultimately delivered those songs alongside many others that skewed Lana Del Rey into a much more interesting artist.

Born to Die was among the first notable pop records to ditch ground-pounding dance-pop beats and embrace the sharper, less dominating beats of trip-hop, an internet-birthed genre that has since inflated into an industrywide reference point. The beats feel less like the driving force and more like the pacemaker, mostly providing Del Rey a backboard against which to bounce a sing-rap delivery. While Kesha may deserve honors for her pioneering of her trademarked party girl sing-rap style, Del Rey certainly gets credit in innovation. On this record, she stitches it over a sea of strings and between showy displays of her true singing capabilities. In the process, she spins haphazard style into something more elegant – whether she’s playing the submissive mobster mistress on “Off to the Races” or a woman on the prowl for the next socialite connection on “National Anthem.” 

In that way and so many others, Born to Die is an album of dichotomies. She both celebrates and inverts a Norman Rockwell illustration, idealizing old America while glamorizing the unsavory underbelly that would never enter public discourse in the feigned modesty of the 1950s: Drugs, prostitution, suicide and alcoholism are painted with as much elegance as love and passion, swirling the desirable and the undesirable into a fine art caricature of American culture. “Carmen” traces the unsteady footsteps of a troubled bar crawler with a good poker face, yet Del Rey lifts her like a banner. But then we reach “This is What Makes Us Girls,” where she paints her own name under the same street lamps as she reminisces about her turbulent teenage tenure in a boarding school: With this song, “Carmen” comes into focus. Maybe Lana Del Rey isn’t such a character after all.

• • •

When the online tabloid circuit traced Lana Del Rey’s digital footprints and discovered years of false starts under different names, commentators thought they had found the ticket to rip her fresh start from the roots: “I am calling artistic fraud - tantamount to charlatanism. There's nothing to see - or hear - here. You should move on. Lana Del Rey is nothing,” Simon Sweetman wrote for New Zealand’s Stuff, under a tantrum titled “Lana Del Rey: 2012’s Zero Talent Star.” Paul Harris was quick to manufacture that, “the backlash from fans who felt duped has been unprecedented,” in his post-Saturday Night Live headline for The Guardian. Of course, it's true Born to Die was overworked and calibrated down to the finest details – an exhaustive set of demos reveals the album's many pre-release evolutions – but had her adamant critics examined all the evidence at hand, they would have realized that Lana Del Rey is the same woman from every pre-fame video: Her affinity for buzzy words, fussy details, and taboo themes became the through-line between her past, present, and future selves.

Lana Del Rey's brand has been refined many times over since the release of Born to Die. Immediate reactions to the album undoubtedly tilted how she progressed as an artist, as she drifted into an elusive presence beyond her music. After she concluded the album campaign with Tropico, a campy 30-minute short film that extends the story of Adam and Eve to prostitutes and burglars, Lana Del Rey never again embarked on such an indulgent display of Hollywood excess. The following record, Ultraviolence, subbed hip-hop for alternative rock, and the cornerstones of Born to Die wouldn’t be referenced again until her fourth album, Lust for Life. By last year, she had relinquished any semblance of her initial form when she released two records that more closely identify with autobiographical folk music than overwrought baroque pop. In spite of her own influence, Lana Del Rey retreated to being a singer-songwriter – nothing more, nothing less.

But perhaps that’s the sign of a true musical revolutionist. Once an album permeates the industry bedrock, its sound becomes the definition rather than a redefinition. At that point, it’s time to untether an identity from it and continue to deliver the unexpected. For Del Rey, that meant lifting what she leveraged expertly on “Video Games” – how to magnify an unremarkable event into a red-hot meteor of emotion – and continuing to shape it until it became an almost unrecognizable descendant like “Blue Banisters.” What the two tracks also share, however, are the backbone of Lana Del Rey’s craft: Her ability to float between literalism and metaphor – blurring the lines between the real and the fake, as she declared herself on this very album. It’s been the fine balance Lana Del Rey has walked all along, starting with a polarizing record that ignited not just a career, but an industry.

Born to Die was released on Jan. 31, 2012, under Interscope Records.

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