What determines our identity? Are we stuck with that with which we are born, a result of our environments and families, or do we have the ability to construct them anew? For Lana Del Rey, the answer is clearly the latter. Born Elizabeth Grant in New York City, the 26-year old singer grew up in Lake Placid until she was shipped off to boarding school at the age of 14 to deal with her alcohol addiction. Although born into a family of means, Del Rey continuously presents herself as struggling and eternally isolated. This discrepancy has caused many to challenge the persona she showcases in her lyrics and videos. However, the crooner has indeed survived her fair share of trying personal experiences and makes a large effort to expose herself to others through her passionate involvement with community service, specifically through homeless outreach as well as drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The singer pulls off her self-constructed image marvelously and respect her dedication to maintaining an artistic guise.
Del Rey began her music career by playing in clubs around New York City under multiple pseudonyms. Upon settling on Lana Del Rey, she told Vogue, “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards. I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba — Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.” Del Rey signed to a record label and released an EP called “Kill Kill” in 2008, followed by her first full-length album entitled “Lana Del Ray a.k.a Lizzy Grant” in 2010 (her stage name was eventually changed to its current spelling). Soon after this release, Stranger Records discovered Del Rey after seeing her videos on Youtube and released her debut single “Video Games” in 2011, the song that has won her multiple awards and that remains her biggest hit. “Video Games” struck its audience with such force because for most of us, it was our introduction to her captivating voice, one that disguises her true age, race, appearance and upbringing in its unprecedented nature. Additionally, the song comments unapologetically on the way in which we live today. The lyrics are a blunt metaphor regarding our separation from our own desires, with a profound melody to match.
Del Rey’s second full-length album (on which she writes every song) is called “Born to Die” and was followed by an extended version called “Born to Die: The Paradise Edition.” On the album, Lana Del Rey’s voice is hauntingly soulful, capable of making the listener depressed and elated at the same time. Compared to Azealia Banks, Ellie Goulding, Sky Ferreira and one of my personal favorites, Marina and the Diamonds, Del Rey falls within an elite group of women with intense vocals, offbeat reputations and a lot to say. As with these artists, Del Rey’s music is very malleable in terms of remixing, and multiple house artists have utilized her vocals and melodies in their music. On their own, her songs can tend to sound alike, but Del Rey attempts (often successfully) to remedy this by mixing in disparate singing styles, even turning to pseudo-rap in some cases.
The songs on “Born to Die” highlight Del Rey’s signature breathy vocals while making keen observations about American culture and expressing the singer’s own opinions about our social conventions. I enjoyed the album — especially the transcendental videos, which are more like melancholy musical vignettes. However, some of the lyrics definitely reflect a sense of forced commentary and outdated societal qualms. Lines like “Money is the reason we exist/Everybody knows that it’s a fact/Kiss kiss”, can’t help but come off as clichés rather than as intimate sentiments.
Another important facet of the album is Del Rey’s interpretation of gender roles. Lyrics like “This is what makes us girls/ We don’t stick together ‘cause we put our love first”, are emotionally riveting testaments to the way women can lose themselves and confuse their identities in relationships. I was especially struck by how she admits wholeheartedly to her own submissiveness and reliance on men (emphasized in the song “Ride”). Del Rey has said “I did dream of escaping. I always just figured it was gonna be a man who would take me away.” Indeed, the singer is hardcore and incredibly creative, but it’s hard not to feel disheartened by her complete lack of effort in changing these “realities” or in suggesting any reprieve for the rest of us.
While her music has cast Del Rey into the spotlight, it’s impossible to write an article about her without noting her striking fashion sense. She’s been the face of H&M and Jaguar and has graced the covers of multiple different magazines, including Vogue and Glamour. She emphasizes old Hollywood glamour with her big, structured hairstyles and Brigitte Bardot eye makeup, which she sports on stage as well as in most all public appearances. Her maintenance of this look rings truer than Lady Gaga’s extravagantly forced costumes and helps round out the artistic image that she creates with her old timey vocals and grainy videos. She manages to balance a more classic 50s style with rocker tees, cut offs and lots of gems and studs, making herself look like the chicest runaway you’ll ever meet. Also, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t want a pair of red high-top Chuck Taylors after watching the video for “Born to Die.”
Overall, I am definitely a fan of Lana Del Rey’s, and would recommend checking out Born to Die. Her songs are powerfully evocative, and draw people who have no personal connection to her stories into her emotional and artistic sphere. When you’re listening to the album, be sure to check out “Blue Jeans,” “Dark Paradise,” “Summertime Sadness” and “Carmen.”