Believe it or not, it’s been almost eight years since Lana Del Rey released her breakout track ‘Video Games’, but even the most casual of Lana fans will know she’s undertaken a variety of musical personas both before and since the song’s release.
Born and raised in New York, from a beginning playing open mic nights as a teenager to an early career making folk music, then onto a short lived pop career under her birth name Lizzy Grant and then finally achieving fame as Lana Del Rey, the musician has packed a lot into the last fifteen or so years, influencing pop culture and building up an army of mega stans in the process.
Here at DIY, we love a good pop star (obv), so for the uninitiated, we’re here to demystify Lana’s career trajectory ahead of new album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, starting from her humble beginnings and tracking her career through the last decade before looking forwards to her sure to be fascinating new era.
The early years
She may later become known for her sweeping, cinematic sound, but Lana Del Rey’s musical beginnings were much more understated. As a student at Fordham University in New York, where she studied philosophy with a focus on metaphysics - a branch of philosophy that deals with things like “being, knowing, identity, time and space”, according to Google - Lana began recording music and performing live under the stage name May Jailer. Around 2005 and 2006, she recorded two EPs - ‘From The End’ and ‘Love Like Me’ - as well as a full album called ‘Sirens’. Some of the music ended up online years later, of course, and on the tracks we hear a completely different side of Lana through a series of acoustic folk tracks on which she’s almost unrecognisable to the music that eventually made her famous.
A couple of years later, this time opting for bleach blonde hair, Lana Del Rey first made her first proper stab at music industry success under her own name Lizzy Grant. In 2007, whilst in her last year at university, Lana submitted a demo tape of acoustic tracks called ‘No Kung Fu’ to indie label to 5 Point Records who, according to an interview with label owner David Nichtern over on MTV, offered her a recording contract with an “all-in budget of $50,000” and “a significant advance”. After that, Lana relocated to Manhattan Mobile Home Park (you can see a low quality version of an interview recorded there in 2008 here) and began working with producer David Kahne on an EP, called ‘Kill Kill’ which she released later that year as Lizzy Grant. So far, so normal.
Except Lizzy Grant didn’t take off. Whilst working towards her first full-album, Lizzy wanted to change her name, got new management and decided to change the direction of her sound. In early 2010, she released her first album ‘Lizzy Grant a.k.a. Lana Del Ray’, but the record didn’t sell as planned. Just three months later, apparently, her new management bought her out of her previous record deal, demanded all references to Lana’s career as Lizzy Grant be wiped from the web and not long after 'Lizzy Grant' was no more...
The beginnings of Lana Del Rey
Fast forward a little over a year and Lizzy, now known as Lana Del Rey, first offered a glimpse of her melancholic “Hollywood sadcore” in the form of ‘Video Games’. Legend has it, after moving to her sister’s apartment in Manhattan, Lana recorded several takes of her singing the song, gazing into her MacBook camera, and spliced the footage with archive clips she found online of everything from skateboarding contests, old school clips of paparazzi and the Hollywood sign and cartoon apocalyptic landscapes, before uploading the footage and watching it quickly go viral.
“The verse was about the way things were with one person, and the chorus was the way that I wished things had really been with another person, who I thought about for a long time,” Lana told Dazed about the track in 2011. “‘Swinging in the backyard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name’. That was what happened, you know? He’d come home and I’d see him. But then the chorus, ‘Heaven is a place on earth with you, tell me all the things you wanna do’ wasn’t like that. That was the way that I wished it was – the melody sounds so compelling and heavenly because I wanted it to be that way.”
But just like the song’s dissecting of the difference between artifice and reality, all weren’t convinced by the quick transition from Lizzy Grant to Lana Del Rey. The seemingly quick change of her image and viral pick-up of her music alongside rumours that her career was being bankrolled by her dad’s money and shaped by a series of busybody music managers keen to shape her image to make the most profit, meant she drew her critics. ‘Who really is Lana Del Rey?!’ they seemed to ask, ‘and what other explanation could there possibly be for such a sudden change of image, other than that it was some (older, more powerful) man’s idea?’
The owner of Lana’s early label, 5 Points, David Nichtern wasn’t so sure, telling MTV in 2012: “I laugh pretty hard when someone said she was put into an image. There’s no way you can do that with her. She’s very headstrong and knows what she wants. …She wanted to be known as Lana Del Rey pretty early on. That was her name, she cooked that up, I thought it was a little wack. She was this beautiful young songwriter named Lizzy Grant, it was a cool name. But she wanted to create this thing, Lana Del Rey.”
Born To Die
Skip forward to January 2012 then and we see the release of Lana’s debut album ‘Born To Die’. With glossy production, it’s an album drenched in the artifice of Old Hollywood, with sex, drugs, manicures and swimming pools on side and Lana playing the character of a ‘damsel in distress’ on the other, often pining over a powerful man who always seems emotionally distant. “I'm not afraid to say / That I'd die without him / Who else is gonna put up with me this way?” laments on ‘Off To The Races’ before she’s just as cheerful on ‘Dark Paradise’, singing “I wish I was dead / No-one compares to you”.
A few days before the release of ‘Born To Die’, Lana made her first major live TV appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Video Games’ in a performance that was widely criticised. Seeming a bit awkward on stage whilst not hitting quite all the notes, it led Entertainment Weekly to brand the Lana “the worst SNL musical guest of all time”, whilst Lana herself told Rolling Stone she thought she “looked beautiful and sang fine”. Fair enough.
But either way, the performance didn’t seem to dent Lana’s commercial success. By mid-2014 ‘Born To Die’ had sold seven million copies, reached no.1 in eleven countries and with it catapulted Lana to superstardom, leading her to ride the wave of her success and quickly release a follow-up EP ‘Paradise’ as part of the deluxe re-issue of the record. Not too bad, then.
Lana originally expressed doubt about making a second record, telling Vogue: “I don’t think I’ll write another record. What would I say?” But after linking up with producer and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, 2014’s ‘Ultraviolence’ took Lana’s music in a new direction, toning down much of ‘Born To Die’’s ceremonious excess, swapping it instead for something a little gentler, washed in splashes of psychedelic guitar.
“There was a lot of bullshit I’m not used to,” Dan told Rolling Stone about taking the album’s less radio-friendly singles to Interscope. “The label says, ‘We’re not going to give you the budget to extend this session unless we hear something.’ And we send them the rough mix and they fucking hate it and they hate the way it’s mixed. And it’s like, ‘Thanks, asshole.’… I think Lana put her foot down. Maybe it’s normal for her, but it’s not normal for me.”
“The story I got told,” he added, “is that they played it for her label person and they said, “We’re not putting out this record that you and Dan made unless you meet with the Adele producer. And she said, ‘Fine, whatever.’ And she was late to the meeting, so while they were waiting, the label guy played what we recorded for the Adele producer and he said, ‘This is amazing, I wouldn’t do anything to change this.’ And here’s the kicker: Then all of a sudden, the label guy said, ‘Well, yeah, I think it’s great, too.'”
But what the album may have in terms of instrumental advancement, her songs often stick to the same themes found on ‘Born To Die’ - tales of women who mourn for and hold-on tightly to men who treat them badly yet somehow manage the incredible feat of still remaining irresistible. Take ‘Sad Girl’ for example, which acts almost like a theme tune to her entire musical ethos when she declares “I’m a sad girl / I’m a bad girl” repeatedly in response to being a “mistress on the side” to a man who’s “got the fire”. Or in the title track ‘Ultraviolence’, where she sings “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” quoting The Crystals’ 1962 song of the same name, before affirming in a spoken word interlude: "I'm your jazz singer and you're my cult leader / I love you forever, I love you forever.”
But there’s also something almost self-referential in the way Lana speaks about her stories on ‘Ultraviolence’ on the album, as though telling her stories both seemingly for and in spite of her critics - an entertaining of the media narrative of herself, whether it’s true or not. “I want your money, power, and glory / I'm gonna take them for all that they got” she demands on ‘Money Power Glory’ whilst she brags “I fucked my way up to the top” on a song called, obviously, ‘Fucked My Way Up To The Top’. It’s record that’s still undeniably Lana Del Rey, yet one that preempts her critics in a new musical era that seems to say “I know what you think of me and I don’t care”.
Not much more than a year later came Lana’s third album proper ‘Honeymoon’. Swelling with strings arrangements, voice stronger than ever, a lot of the album sounds wistful and gloomy; despite this Lana explained how the album wasn’t necessarily coming from a dark place, telling NME: “I really wanted to have one more record out that was able to speak for me, even if I wasn’t in a place where I felt like speaking about myself. Aside from that I was happy and not really feeling like the album needed to be too cathartic. It felt like a good time to have fun with some elements of psychedelia and surrealism, production-wise.”
Often returning to the more cinematic elements of her early work, the album also incorporates elements of blues and jazz and takes things down a more experimental route with singles ‘Freak’ and ‘High By The Beach’, the latter of which came with a music video featuring Lana shooting down a paparazzi helicopter with an actual machine gun (!) from the window of her beach house (see below).
Lust For Life
Lana’s fourth album ‘Lust For Life’ stands out for two main reasons, compared to its predecessors. Firstly, it’s her first album to feature collaborators, with The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon all appearing on the record.
And secondly, as the photo of Lana beaming with a smile on the cover art as opposed to giving a moody stare this time seems to foreshadow, it’s a far more positive than her previous work. Opener ‘Love’ for example is a straightforward ballad about, well, love and embracing it in its purest form, whilst she brushes on politics on ‘When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing’, urging the importance of continuing to have fun in a Trump-era age of political uncertainty. “Is it the end of an era? / Is it the end of America?” she asks, before conceding “No, it’s only the beginning / If we hold on to hope”, sounding like one of the most positive versions of Lana yet.
Referring to a 2014 interview where she talked about not being a feminist, Lana explained her shift in focus to Pitchfork on the release of the album: “Things have shifted culturally. It’s more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe [...] Women started to feel less safe under [Trump’s] administration instantly. What if they take away Planned Parenthood? What if we can’t get birth control? Now, when people ask me those questions, I feel a little differently.”
“I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. 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.”
Norman Fucking Rockwell
Lana announced her fifth album Norman Fucking Rockwell with two new tracks - ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’ and the 9 minute, thirty second long epic ‘Venice Bitch’. While seemingly full of the same dreamy California sadness that the singer has become known for they signal a new direction under the assistance of producer Jack Antonoff, who’s known for his work on Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’, St. Vincent’s ‘Masseduction’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ and ‘Reputation’, among others. But despite the producer’s pop hit past, his work on Lana’s new music seems to have taken it in a more softer direction, led by piano-based chords and swathes of electric guitar.
First meeting through ‘Born To Die’ producer Emile Haynie when Lana was making the album in 2011, the pair later re-connected in January 2018. Speaking about working with Jack on the new album, Lana said: "I told him I had three songs that I already liked for a new record, that I wasn't really writing music, and we sat down at his studio in New York and I mean he kind of started everything, 'cause he would just play chords for hours, and like, he's so good at piano, some of the stuff he writes, like, just melodically, is really - it's kind of classical - and in my case it ended up turning more folky. He made it really easy for me to just riff over everything he was doing, and in our first week I had two songs I just thought were maybe like two of the best songs I had written. He just has a lot of truth in him.”
Other new songs that have been unofficially previewed from the record include ‘How To Disappear’, which Lana performed at an Apple event in Brooklyn in October, and ‘Sylvia Plath’, which she posted a snippet of to Instagram. Lana also recently played two new country songs - ‘Hey Blue Baby’ and ‘I Must be Stupid for Being so Happy’ - at a benefit concert alongside Jack Antonoff, although these don't seem likely to be on the full album.
But with MTV UK reporting that the full album will finally be out on 29th March, there’s a little time to wait to see just how the next era of Lana Del Rey will play out.
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