Sex, Lies, and Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is America’s sultriest and edgiest pop-music sensation. But who is she really?
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Lana Del Rey is America’s sultriest and edgiest pop-music sensation. But who is she really?
Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey, America’s most enigmatic, controversial, and seductive rock star, spent the morning in Los Angeles traffic, anxious, wearing one of her favorite minidresses—the navy blue cotton one—on the prowl for some fake palm trees she wanted as onstage props for tomorrow night’s show in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It’s the famed resting place of Rudolph Valentino and Fay Wray, and she felt certain some faux tropical flora would add the perfect finishing touch for these surreal final shows of her long 2014 tour. But she is home now and calm, at ease on the little deck just off her bedroom, hidden behind the tall hedges encircling her 1920s Tudor, freshly painted but stylishly in need of repair—Hollywood golden-age glamour gone slightly to seed—like a scene from Sunset Boulevard or, perhaps intentionally, one of her videos.

“I never saw myself in California,” she tells me. Del Rey is as much provocateur as pop star, known for moody and lush songs about the intersection of sex and violence and money. The videos with which she made her name traffic in the faded imagery of American nostalgia and decline. She combines a classic, sultry beauty with a heavy dose of all-American alienation—the head cheerleader gone desperately wrong. A few years ago, she changed her name, changed her hair, discarded an entire album, left behind a world-beating partying habit, and started anew. For someone like that, California seems an inevitable landing point. 

“I had such a love affair with New York,” she says of her days as a struggling chanteuse. “I loved all the history that came with it, the early ’60s, Bob Dylan, and the Beat poetry era. I was always kind of looking for this big artist revival, but I never really tapped into anything.” She feels closer to that in Los Angeles, where she’s found a few kindred spirits who share her fascination with “that early Laurel Canyon scene. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young…I tuned in to something here and never really wanted to leave.”

Her two shows at Hollywood forever mark the end of a year of nonstop touring in support of Ultraviolence, a follow-up to 2012’s Born to Die. Ultraviolence, recorded in Nashville with a seven-piece backing band, is rock-tinged and guitar-heavy but still replete with Del Rey’s trademark hope-she’s-joking songs like “Fucked My Way Up to the Top.” Most weirdly: Critics raved about the thing. 

It’s a stunning turnaround for an artist who spent the nascent portion of her career inspiring more confusion—and sometimes pure vitriol—than adoration. She emerged from the American pop-cultural slipstream, goes the story, fully formed, with the gorgeous Super 8–inflected video for “Video Games” and a two-song EP. Accompanying these was an impressionistic (some would say too impressionistic) backstory with wild chapters on alcoholism, a stint in a New Jersey trailer park, and a litany of destructive relationships with older and at times awful men. 

Then came the backlash. It started with her admittedly strange Saturday Night Live performance in 2012, in which she seemed to be channeling a heavily medicated Marlene Dietrich. Music bloggers went on the attack, calling her “talent-starved,” an “unconvincing work of fiction,” and an “annoyingly faux minx.” But here’s the thing: People became entranced. Her debut album sold seven million copies worldwide, and Ultraviolence debuted on iTunes at number one in 80 countries around the world. Her concerts became frenzied pop-culture events. 

These days Lana tends to shrug off criticism about her altered appearance or the veracity of her persona. She concedes that “when I went darker with my hair, I don’t know why, but people took my music more seriously.” The same thing happened when she changed her name from plain Lizzy Grant to Lana Del Rey. It opened things up for her, freed her.

“There’s a lot to be said for pretending,” she says. “You know?”

Lana Del Rey once described herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” and it’s a fairly apt description of her music. Her songs, steeped in ’90s trip-hop and rounded out with lush ’60s strings, are like dioramas: tiny, insular worlds where the atmosphere is more important than the facts. Much like her life. 

Del Rey’s parents dropped out of the New York City advertising game when she was a baby and raised her and her two younger siblings in rural Lake Placid. She was purportedly a wildly rebellious kid who partied hard as a teen until her parents sent her away to boarding school to straighten up. She didn’t start writing songs until she was 18.

“I was in college in the Bronx [at Fordham], and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says. “Everyone was going out drinking, so I had to try to find something else.” She started hitting the open-mike nights in Brooklyn, and her mostly traditional girl-pop was compelling enough that in 2007, while still a senior, she signed a record deal with an indie label. Then, a complete reboot: She bought herself out of that contract, trashed the album she had cut, destroyed all traces of the woman she had been, and tried again. 

So she wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation, not really, and Del Rey doesn’t like the idea of it much anyway. “For me, there really wasn’t reinvention. That is more of other people’s reinterpretation. I feel so much continuity between all my music and all the videos.” She describes her frustration at her first label and the need to break out. “I really wanted to keep making music, but my label had shelved my records for two years. And I…I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to incorporate cinematic strings with a heavier, nastier sound and lyrics.” 

That nastiness pervaded her new identity as well. Lizzy Grant was all about blond sweetness, but Lana Del Rey flaunted her obsessions with fatalism, death, seediness, and danger. In her 2013 short film Tropico—a swirling dreamscape suffused with Latino gangsters and strippers—Del Rey cast herself as an erotic dancer with a double-teardrop tattoo. Some criticized her for reinforcing stereotypes of Latinos as thugs and criminals. But Del Rey sees it as a version of herself.

“I live in East L.A., and I speak Spanish,” she says. “The girls who work in the club in the video are my friends, people I knew before I became a little more well known. Like, I’ve always spoken Spanish in all my songs the past few years. So for me, personally, it’s not a far-out-there reference.” 

That’s all fine, except that, well, she doesn’t live in East Los Angeles or anywhere near it. Not all of her songs have Spanish in them. And saying that some of your best friends are Latino…Let’s just leave that one alone.

Del Rey isn’t about to apologize for anything, but it’s clear that she feels misunderstood. “I’m missing the mark in terms of having comrades and being aligned with a musical movement,” she says. “But I definitely feel like what I come up with musically is on the pulse of what is relevant.”

And that, after all the speculation about her nature, background, and intentions, is what matters. It’s beyond the point if she really meant it when she said, “I wish I was dead already” or “Feminism is just not an interesting concept” or, if one of her most notorious songs is to be believed, her reproductive organs taste like a certain well-known soda (look it up). Everything has been asked and answered, by the critics and the online trolls and the endless writers of endless knee-jerk think pieces. The music and the images are too good to get trapped by such considerations. And if her trajectory as an anti-pop pop star proves anything, it is that her art, sincere or otherwise, is hers and hers alone.

Photos by Neil Krug