Elizabeth Grant, better known as Lana Del Rey, is an American singer-songwriter familiar for her fifties and sixties Americana aesthetic and theatrical style of songwriting. Her debut album “Born to Die” peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart. Her most well known songs are “Young and Beautiful” and “Video Games.” From the beginning of her career, she was held up as a fresh, original, new artist and when some disagreed, a backlash developed even before her first album was released. Her infamously bad SNL performance didn’t help matters either. Even with the backlash, Lana Del Rey continued to release albums, all of which were massively successful. With her latest album, Lust for Life, the discussion surrounding her has appeared again, and here are my thoughts.
Let’s start with her image. Del Rey’s vintage aesthetic doesn’t seem like a cause for criticism at first glance, but her critics feel like she tries too hard to pass herself off as a music icon of the past. To put it simply, she’s not original. Everything she does is taken from pop and rock stars of the fifties and sixties to the point where it feels like she’s playing groupie with music history. Obviously she’s not the only big name in music who does this––people like Bruno Mars or the late Amy Winehouse also used music from the past as inspiration for most of their music. But Bruno Mars does new things with it, adding modern instrumentation and songwriting while Lana Del Rey doesn’t really add anything to her sources of inspiration. Amy Winehouse had such a striking voice and fierce songwriting style that it made sense to use a more vintage sound. Winehouse fit in with singers from that time period. Lana Del Rey looks like she’s just cosplaying.
It’s also hard to understand what Del Rey is trying to say with her art. It’s clear that she has some sort of vision or message to share, but it usually ends up drowning in the theatricality of her lyrics and visuals. A good example to look at is Tropico, her bizarre short film released in 2013. The film is a bizarre Kanye-style musical vanity project that stars Lana Del Rey as Eve, male model Shaun Ross as Adam, Elvis Presley as Jesus, and John Wayne as God. Marilyn Monroe was also there, but in all honesty, I can’t tell you what role she played as she basically shows up once and then we never see her again.
I think Lana Del Rey is talented, she does make interesting points in her music. Her song “13 Beaches” is a well-written dive into her relationship with the press, and “Change” is a very meaningful song that looks at the conflicts and changes America has gone through and will face in the future. “Brooklyn Baby” is a funny satire of music hipsters. It’s frustrating watching someone with genuine talent putting out bad material. I imagine that’s why others are critical of her, and it’s why I am.
A good number of her songs are mid- to low-tempo songs about her failing relationships. The production usually doesn’t flatter her voice and those songs are all interchangeable with one another. However, some songs where she actually does try to make a statement can get laughable. Her song Coachella (Woodstock on my Mind) is about how she’s worried about the kids at Coachella because of tensions rising in America, not realizing that a kid with enough money to go to Coachella doesn’t have to worry about the political problems of America. Not to mention subtitling your song “Woodstock on my Mind” is another desperate attempt to relate herself with music from the past.
She’ll often collaborate with other artists like A$AP Rocky or The Weeknd in order to edge things up, but whenever it happens, she doesn’t really gain any street cred as much as the rap or R&B guest tends to lose some… “Ridin” with A$AP Rocky is definitely her best collaboration in my opinion because the instrumentation suits her voice; she and A$AP seem to have chemistry on the song, like they’re enjoying themselves. But, on songs like “Love” with The Weeknd he seems pretty bored throughout his verses and his opportunity to give the song some flavor is wasted.
While her image irks me, and a lot of her songs don’t appeal to me, I still think of her as a compelling songwriter and simply wish she would do better because I know she can do better. Her latest record, Lust for Life, did smell like progress to me with her actually taking on more dominant roles in her music rather than writing herself as the same distant, disinterested lover in her previous music. Is Lana Del Rey overrated? She’s flawed, but also has a lot of talent and potential.