Back in 2011-12 when Lana Del Rey emerged, I recall two concerns occupying the music press. One was whether some female singers – Rihanna got most of the flack – weren’t doing feminism any favours by painting themselves as highly sexualised and/or willingly self-destructive characters chasing after terrible men. The other concern was the quaint concept of musical authenticity. In 2012 Twitter peaked and suddenly, when a new artist appeared, any Tom, Dick or Harry could do a background check and within seconds reveal their earlier, less polished and possibly failed selves – such as Lizzy Grant, who performed at open-mic nights in Brooklyn before she took on the name Lana Del Rey.
A year or two before the luxuriously sad viral hit that made her famous – “Video Games”, a tale of decaying love sung by a woman whose aesthetic, she liked to say, was a kind of “gangster Nancy Sinatra” – here was footage of the same woman singing meekly in a T-shirt under a different name. The well-heeled upstate New Yorker, the rumours ran, had had her first record bank-rolled by her father. And her lips seemed to be plumper as Lana Del Rey – had she had collagen injections?
There followed a torrent of online vitriol that seemed disproportionate even at the time. The Guardian ran a think-piece that feels, seven years later, like cracking open a time capsule: “some people feel victims of an immense confidence trick… a few critics began to wonder if… the transformation from Grant to Del Rey had been planned all along”. The authenticity debate has always been a big part of pop, but as impenetrable megastars have once again come to dominate the industry, we seem to be getting over it: now, when we talk about authenticity, we tend to talk about authentic engagement with a brand instead.
Del Rey has honed her own brand like none of her shape-shifting peers. The heavily-stylised, Fifties-slash-Twin-Peaks Americana that permeates her songs is focused into a new album called Norman Fucking Rockwell!, which just about says it all. Her particular shtick, which seemed out of place at the beginning of this decade, would now seem to represent an American dream that has been lost to Trump (she refuses to perform in front of the American flag these days). She always wanted to become a “great American writer” – and this month Pitchfork declared her one, having described her debut album as the musical equivalent of a faked orgasm. On the new track “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It”, she pictures herself “tearing around in my fucking nightgown/24/7 Sylvia Plath”. And later this year, Del Rey’s debut collection of poetry will come out, entitled Violet Bent Over the Grass Backwards. She may not have moved with the times since her debut album Born to Die in 2012 – but the times have moved with her.
“Video Games”, as a love song, was uniquely poignant because it captured the distance between some kinds of men, and the women who love them – the dismissive, despondent lethargy of the figure sitting on the bed versus the burning energy of the woman looking on, whose infatuation grows, the more hopeless the situation becomes.
Lana Del Rey has been called antifeminist: she once said that for her, feminism just wasn’t “an interesting concept” – she was more interested in space travel. But her dogged insistence on recording these draining relationships in song – the antithesis of millennial anthems such as “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or “Shake It Off” – deserves admiration; because music is a direct line to the heart, a mirror of the things you’d rather not feel, but do. That’s why an album like Joni Mitchell’s Blue – inspired by countless failing loves, but standing back from them, too – still resonates. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is littered with Joni-like, Laurel Canyon references, in fact – Del Rey once said that she became part of the music scene to “make friends, fall in love and start a community around me, the way they used to do in the Sixties”.
The opening words to Norman Fucking Rockwell! run thus: “Goddamn, man-child/You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you’”. But then the manchild in question becomes a “self-loathing poet” – and ultimately “just a man/It’s just what you do… why wait for the best when I could have you?” That’s a very Del Rey position, but also a human one: to embrace the destructive relationship so passionately while knowing you could do better. She puts it wryly in “Happiness is a Butterfly”: “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst/That can happen to a girl who’s already hurt?”
Some great American songs – I’m thinking of Paul Simon’s “America” or Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” – like to pit two lovers against the vastness of the landscape. For Del Rey, the American setting is also an increasingly hostile one: she rush-released “Looking for America” in August this year in response to the shootings in Dayton, Ohio. But along with cynicism there is also idealism. In “Venice Bitch”, a sprawling nine-and-a-half-minute excursion through gentle electronica, she sings “One dream, one life, one lover… You’re beautiful and I’m insane/We’re American made”.
At the centre of the album are five soporific songs with minimalist piano or synth backing: Del Rey weaves her waltzing, sweary way through them in a low voice, building the slow romantic dramas she’s become known for. “Love Song” asks whether it’s safe to be ourselves; “California” promises – wistfully – an all-night party, should an ex lover ever come back to the US and “hit her up”. “Bartender” records a more surreal LA life featuring “canyon ladies” levitating and games played “from the valley to the beach”, its romance undercut by the dull anonymity of its pint-puller love-interest. (She reminds him she can only drink Cherry Coke. Alcohol, Del Rey once said, was her first love: she had a problem with it in her teens.)
A couple of years ago, on a November night, I attended an awards ceremony for behind-the-scenes music industry folk at a converted warehouse in Canada Water, London. It was one of those events you spend craning your neck around for someone interesting but no one was remotely famous apart from, to everyone’s surprise, Del Rey, who’d flown in from LA that morning to pay tribute to her British managers. She has been with them since before her first hit and moved over to live with them in Camden when bugger all was happening for her in the US.
In a long speech, she described her struggle to get a break in the industry. The problem, she said, was that people did not know what to do with the “tone” of her songs and the “peculiarity of her writing style”. They couldn’t envision what her career might look like long term: “My melodies weren’t four to the floor, my sentiments weren’t always cheerful.” You could still say the same of the music – but its value, and the value of Del Rey as a concept, has risen, and now the career seems set.