Lana Del Rey has one of the most enigmatic personalities of modern pop, and it’s won her one of the most devoted audiences of the 2010s, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to get there.
For whatever reason, many folks who had no problem with the fact that Bob Dylan used to be Robert Zimmerman were scandalized by Lizzy Grant’s transformation into a living Lynch film character. The (often sexist) controversies surrounding her fuller lips, her coy publicity campaign, and her premature (and admittedly gawky) Saturday Night Live debut were all swirled in with artistic persona and refusal to break kayfabe in interviews.
But as of 2017 she’s remained firmly on the A list, and it’s not just because she’s weathered the storm. Her catalog is dotted with knowing glances at those who’ve let her do her thing while comments sections explode and fall into her traps. Trollgaze? Meet her under the bridge downtown. Here are 10 times she got you good.
1. “Come on, you know you like little girls,” “You’re my little sparkle jump-rope queen”
“Put Me in a Movie” (from Lana Del Rey…AKA Lizzy Grant, unreleased)
Before she was Lana Del Rey, Lizzy Grant was already toying with the male gaze’s presumptions of her, both in art and, being a woman subject to unwelcome advances, likely in life too. The swaying “Put Me in a Movie” is — there’s no way around it — a creepy song. It’s creepy because we don’t know if she’s into daddy play or if she’s luring in would-be predators to murder them. “You can be my daddy/ Put me in a movie” is an X-rated come-on that’s slightly kinkier than the usual porn-pop clichés. But topping it with “Come on, you know you like little girls” is a huge stop sign. Suddenly, we really have to know what’s going on here, but Lana doesn’t tell us and she knows she doesn’t have to. The character in this song doesn’t owe us her consent, but we do owe her ours. Rarely has a pop singer ever dared to keep her audience on the hook and leave them this uncomfortable. It makes “Blurred Lines” look like Adele.
2. “You like your girls insane”
“Born to Die” (From Born to Die, 2011)
“You” is often a central key to the point of view in Lana’s music, and sanity, particularly in regards to relationships, is a theme she explores often. Before her first full-length, people, including many men, acted scandalized by the submissive nature of her protagonist in “Video Games,” who, among other things, responds when she is whistled for. On her debut’s eponymous opener, she makes clear who is sponsoring this fantasy: You. If she acts insane, it’s because the patriarchy, or whomever she’s romanticizing at whichever point in time beckoned her as such. She’s wrongfully considered a scapegoat for “setting back women” or whatever just because she sings of relationships that do in fact exist and sometimes revels in the destructive elements. Even though it’s shone in a different light than, say, Brandy Clark singing “Crazy women are made by crazy men,” in “Born to Die” she directly links her sanity to her paramour’s specifications.
3. “Light of my life/ Fire of my loins/ Give me them gold coins/ Give me them coins”
“Off to the Races” (From Born to Die, 2011)
Let’s talk about artistic intent: Nabokov writes a novel about the male experience of paying a teenage girl to perform sexual acts and receives historical levels of acclaim. Lana Del Rey inhabits the persona of said teenage girl, down to the squeaky inflections, with blatant references to the Lolita novel, and doesn’t shy away from including the part where she asks for the money. The tastemakers cringe; they think it’s a bad act. But maybe she does such a fine job of getting a reaction out of an audience desensitized to older men taking advantage of young women that she deserves every coin.
4. “They say that the world was built for two/ Only worth living if somebody is loving you”
“Video Games” (From Born to Die, 2011)
Sure, nothing can be proven about this song. “Video Games” is the master class in stone-faced supplication. Read it on paper (or Genius) and it’s about someone who will do anything to please her man, or is at least entertaining the thought. But for all the thinkpieces it launched, no one, including the auteur herself, seems to disagree that it’s an unhappy song. She told the Dutch website 3VOOR12 in 2011 that it’s about being content and discontent at the same time, written “at a time when I had sort of let go of all my personal career ambitions.” And the effect of hearing those blank-faced, utterly brokenisms while the orchestra swoons around her feels like the maid Georgina in Get Out, smiling through her unconvincing platitudes while tears fall from her eyes. This is not unintentional. Hopefully four top 10 Billboard 200 albums later (including a No. 1), we can agree that this feverishly beloved artist knows what she’s doing.
5. “This is what makes us girls/ We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first”
“This Is What Makes Us Girls” (From Born to Die, 2011)
Many people looked upon this title with horror at how a new artist with, let’s say, slippery gender constructs would define all of womanhood. Lana Del Rey horrifies people by speaking to a present or past reality rather than an idealistic one a lot of the time; her perceived victimhood can either be something she tries to make the best of or something she can’t find her way out of. Not all of her critics take issue with her out of internalized misogyny, but she is plenty aware that she’s singing about internalized misogyny. Lana Del Rey teaches us to empathize with even those you believe to be shallow, and there’s value in that. In the time of threatening comments sections, this can’t be overstated.
6. “I’m tired of feeling like I’m f—ing crazy”
“Ride” (From Paradise, 2012)
It’s possible that Lana herself wasn’t aware that the opening song on her first album flaunts the “crazy” life and that the opener on its follow-up states her exasperation with it. But it’s consistent with her five-year progression from subservient video-game watcher to no-bullsh– buyer on “High by the Beach.” Born to Die didn’t always feel like it enjoyed the role it was performing, but it didn’t know how to feel any other way. She was, as one alleged rival would put it, “caught in a bad romance.” But she wasn’t unaware of it, or the emotional cost. Paradise’s first single works over many of the usual themes (“You can be my full-time daddy” — sound familiar?) with more of a defiant feel: “Don’t break me down,” “I’ve got a war in my mind.” It feels like she’s having an epiphany in real time, over a long road trip. But all we know for sure is she’s tired of her current situation. Maybe she’ll even dump that douche.
7. “My pussy tastes like Pepsi cola”
“Cola” (From Ultraviolence, 2013)
What, she can’t have a little fun with her haters? Call this her “Come Together” if you need to contextualize it that way, but major artists historically love to spit complete nonsense and see who gets mad. And lest you castigate her brand-dropping, “Come Together” mentioned cola too.
8. “I f—ed my way up to the top”
“F—ed My Way Up to the Top” (From Ultraviolence, 2013)
There isn’t much to this alleged Lady Gaga diss track beyond its syntactically ambiguous (and perfect) title. It could be read to any of her haters, really, and there are so many ways: She f—ed up (sue her), she f—ed her way to the top (that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?), she f—ed up on her way to the top (hey, you try being thrust into the SNL limelight as a shy depressive). It’s indicative of one of her greatest qualities: the fact that she may idealize fantasy after fantasy, but she always leaves the seams showing. She didn’t have her pre-Lana pictures wiped from Google, nor the music taken down from YouTube. She leaves a trail because she’s never pretended she isn’t a real person underneath all those tropes and glamour. Lana Del Rey is interested in the relationship between tropes and reality, not banishing one from the other.
9. “The truth is, I never bought into your bullsh–”
“High by the Beach” (From Honeymoon, 2015)
There it is! She never bought into her “old man”/“daddy”/Axl Rose/whomever’s bullshit after all. On the record. She can’t believe we fell for it. She’s also not surprised. You know those are just records, right? Got a light?
By Dan Weiss
Courtesy of Billboard