Like most Brits of a certain musical disposition, I discovered Lana Del Rey on a wet Tuesday evening in October 2011. For it was on the BBC’s late night music show Later… With Jools Holland where the chanteuse born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant in New York made her debut appearance in the living rooms of millions.
I’d chooned in to watch an old favourite, Peter Gabriel, but became bewitched by this slightly tentative self-conscious new face — a “viral sensation” on YouTube so they said, giving a sparse performance of her current 45, Video Games.
The song was murky, mysterious, magnificent even; haunting and suggestive of a suburban, gothic menace lurking in the background. In the coming days I played the telly clip on repeat until the track was finally available to download. Transfixed was my word du jour.
Video Games introduced her as an old soul, longing in the age of the right-swipe for lasting romance and deep connection—or at least a boyfriend who would pause a Halo marathon long enough to hold a decent conversation. She seemed, ill-fatedly, a woman born into the wrong era. And then, suddenly, she blinked awake from her Old Hollywood dream and found herself in this strange moment, right here and now. In fact, the singer celebrates her 35th birthday today.
Grant’s journey to this stardom was a long, steady climb. Having recorded a clutch of small time or no time releases under various names, including Lizzy Grant and May Jailer, the singer rechristened herself Lana Del Rey and envisioned a Southern California dream world constructed out of sad girls and bad boys, manufactured melancholy, and genuine glamour, and then she came to embody this fantasy.
At first, her stylised noir-pop and accusations of being an inauthentic concoction garnered sceptical sneers, but her long-playing debut proper, 2012’s Born to Die proved she was way tougher than her soft exterior suggested.
I have to say the whole authenticity backlash is one of those things that seems dafter to me as I get older. Pop (and rock) have always played on levels of artifice—the likes of Alice Cooper, Dylan, Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, Gaga, Father John Misty and even Bono are the obvious points, or even the craze for bands being farmed out to faux indie labels in the 1990s, but you can head right back to the bluesmen who were encouraged to play up poverty and misery in their backgrounds because the audiences of the time lapped it up.
Modern pop’s as much about presentation as the actual music, and if Grant created the Del Rey persona to sell the music, well good for her because it’s worked. Lizzie Grant, millionaire’s daughter isn’t a particularly interesting back story but Lana Del Rey, gangsta Nancy Sinatra, ‘Lolita lost in the ‘hood’ is far more intriguing.
Following a storming if divisive dance remix of the single Summertime Sadness, LDR steadily gained not only popularity but respect; her second album, 2014’s Ultraviolence, received positive reviews to accompany her sales, and her imitators (of which there were many) became merely an alluring accessory.
Lana now has an impressive six studio albums under her svelte belt, the most recent being Lust For Life (2017) and 2019’s charmingly titled Norman Fucking Rockwell. Go girl.
A quintessential Lana mission statement which topped many critics’ best of year lists, NFR is a complex and beguiling work full of luscious, surfy soft-rock ballads that peer uneasily at the demise of the American Dream. But there is a radical kind of tenderness now present in her music, a preserved innocence that once seemed irrevocably lost.
Talking of loss, the aptly titled The Greatest is a masterpiece of melancholic nostalgia, as it mixes mournful end-of-the-world rumination with numerous pop culture references including David Bowie’s Life On Mars? Dennis Wilson and The Beach Boys’ Kokomo (the middle Wilson bro never made it to Kokomo, drowning in LA’s Marina Del Rey in December 1983), and her infamous feud with a certain rapper and his support of the orange ogre Donald Trump.
Kanye West is blond and gone
Life on Mars ain’t just a song
I hope the live stream’s almost on
The double feature video film with Fuck It, I Love You Del Rey makes the kind of America she’s harking back to even clearer; showing Del Rey in a Venice Beach dive bar eulogising her lost youth as she runs through a selection of her jukebox favourites—Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jeff Buckley—who all have one thing in common: they’re no longer of this earth.
If you’ve listened to even a second of music this past decade, it can seem like Lana Del Rey has been many things to us over the years: sad girl supreme, flower child, American oracle. Really, she’s been those things all along, as she adapted, evolved, and changed along with the world. With a seventh set, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, due this September, in 2020 she finally attained the ideal she always intended to be: a timeless torch singer designed as the tragic romantic icon for her age. Long may she reign.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the birthday girl herself at a show I attended one Friday night in June 2015. Well, it sounded like her.
What happened was I’d read online that Lana Del Rey was playing an open air amphitheatre in the great outdoors of Bristow, Virginia (a bit rednecksville central, if I’m honest), in suburban Prince William County, about 35 miles west of Washington, DC.
The venue was charmingly named Jiffy Lube Live (I kid you not) and thought it would be fun to come.
Despite the cavernous shed, LDR was good (despite not playing National Anthem for some reason), her soft and hazy voice transporting the 20-plus thousand crowd in a way that was almost intoxicating. It was rather like a current that pulls you away from reality and lets you ride the waves of a Del Rey sea.
After the show I bumped into the touchy feely young couple who had been on the same bus from Washington DC as me: two 19 year olds called Christian and Brooke.
They were sweetness personified, really. This isn‘t them.
As we agreed to share an Uber, I mentioned how struck I was by the high-pitched sound of the crowd: the squealing and cheering “really sounded like a load of young girls.”
”Yeah, or twinks,” the boy Christian replied, as the girl Brooke chuckled.
I didn’t say it, but I thought that was interesting. I hadn’t realised straights used the term ‘twinks’ to denote a young person as well as us gays.
And then what do you know? As we approached DC I spied a familiar looking app on Christian’s iPhone. As he was sitting in the front passenger seat I tried to crane my neck ever so discreetly so his girlfriend wouldn’t catch me. He was flicking through Grindr when he could have been flicking something else. Crikey.
It turned out not only was our Lana banana a confirmed homosexualist, but that Washington DC Gay Pride was about to kick off that very weekend. So, naturally, I decided to stay in the American capital for the second biggest Pride event in the country. Though it was not without its imbecilic invaders.
It’s a massive event. Literally everyone gets in on the party, including no more than half a dozen “messengers from God” whose pomposity and piety knew no bounds when they tried to tell me they’ve been put there to “save homosexuals” like me.
Well, I’m not homosexual for a start, but I rather enjoyed grabbing the nearest boy I could find and snogging his face off to piss the Jesus jackballs off. Oh, which just happened to be master Christian.
Gee, this life’s a funny thing. It occurred to me that compared to other thirtysomething ‘gay icons’ such as Beyoncé or Lady Gaga, who are famous for their more vibrant and lively, energetic pop, Del Rey’s mellow sound and her mysterious persona appeal to members of the LGBTQ community in a more subtle and way, allowing her to reach a different, unconventional group.
With her damaged bad girl persona, Lana acts as an undercurrent that sweeps over members of the community who choose not to fill the mould of society’s stereotype of a queer person. Though many might find her music to be dark and ambiguous, she voices the complexities and uncertainties of love, relationships and the struggle for recognition beautifully, and often – intentionally or not – mirrors the general experiences of homo society.
In other words, summertime badness is real.
Seeing as just two weeks later Barack Obama announced that the ‘controversial’ issue of gay marriage was now legal across the US (on my birthday no less, which is also the anniversary of Stonewall, naturally), I think we can be gracious in our victory.