Singer Lana Del Rey, whose new album Ultraviolence was one of the best of the year, is certainly one of the most controversial pop stars of the year. While her fans (which include Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who had her perform at their wedding events at Versailles) love her hyper-stylized aesthetic, detractors have branded her a fraud. "She seems to be both trying too hard and not trying hard enough," as Slant's Paul Rice puts it, "stoking questions about whether she even means any of what she's singing."
But ultimately the controversy that surrounds Lana Del Rey made her into a star, and it didn't stop people from listening to her new album.
The Creation of Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey was born in upstate New York as Elizabeth Grant, the daughter of a millionaire entrepreneur who sold internet domains. Grant went to boarding school in Connecticut, and studied metaphysics at Fordham University. She started writing songs after high school and signed her first recording contract in 2007 with indie label 5 points at age 21. She released an EP with them , Kill Kill, under the name Lizzy Grant.
Here's a video of Lizzy Grant performing:
In this video, she's self conscious and awkward. She hangs on to the microphone like a life raft, and her voice is muted as she sways aimlessly from side to side. Grant must have known, on some level, that what she was doing wasn't working. She had released her debut-full length album titled Lana Del Ray (note the different spelling) on iTunes with 5 points, but it received little attention or praise.
She hired a new manager, Ben Mawson, and set off to reinvent herself. To become a self-made pop-princess sensation, she had to seem self-made, and Lizzy Grant had to die to make room for Lana Del Rey. But she made a major mistake. She bought back the album rights to Lana Del Ray, pulled the original EP from the market, and swept clean her internet presence. This "clean slate" came back to haunt Del Rey when members of the music community began to question her authenticity.
After throwing out Lizzy Grant's persona, Lana Del Rey dyed her hair brown, upped her old Hollywood look, and became a sensation. The created persona of Lana Del Rey was an ode to the Hollywood of yore. Her videos were lavishly produced, over-the-top, and completely eccentric. Her voice got deeper, her mouth became poutier, and she added as much confidence as eyeliner. She describes herself as a "self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra" and is known for packing her songs with pop cultural references from the 1950s and 1960s.
With the YouTube release of her song "Video Games" in June 2011, Del Rey took off:
Six months later, her second studio album Born to Die debuted at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Since then she has released a short film, Tropico, and an EP titled Paradise. Her third studio album Ultraviolence was released in June, and as of November 1 has sold more than one million copies. But none of that came without controversy.
How Lana Del Rey became a polarizing figure
When "Video Games" premiered it was labeled as a "self-release" and grew viral among indie-bloggers within a few weeks. Pitchfork awarded "Video Games" a Best New Track label. Del Rey claimed to write her own songs, and was credited with creating the video for the song herself.
She gave an exclusive interview to Pitchfork in August 2011. She said that she'd been singing in Brooklyn since she was 17 and "no one in the industry cared at all. I haven't changed a thing since then and yet things seem to be turning around for me. Perhaps the angels decided to shine on me for a little while." But that bliss didn't last for long.
As early as September of 2011 — less than a month after Pitchfork sang her praises — the tides began to turn. Indie-music blog Hipster Runoff labelled her the "most controversial broad in indie right now," saying that she carefully planned the hype around "Video Games" and was trying to trick the music world into believing that she was a self-made, American Dream Achieving, Indie-pop princess. Hipster Runoff split her coverage into two distinct camps (#teamlana and #efflana), with critics claiming that she was a poser and just a "failed mainstream artist." By October the critiques had become personal: Del Rey was criticized for having lip enhancement surgery (which she denied). Despite the criticism, Lana Del Rey signed to Interscope records.
In fact, all of this criticism was making Lana Del Rey a figure of public interest. By January 2012, it looked like Lana Del Rey was set to take over the music world. As she neared the release of her "debut" album Born To Die, her popularity soared.
In 2011 De Rey's only haters were the music bloggers. But in January 2012, in conjunction with the release of Born to Die, Lana Del Rey was chosen as the musical guest for Saturday Night Live opposite host Daniel Radcliffe. It could have been huge moment for Del Rey to shine, but she flopped.
For most of the performance, Del Rey just swayed back and forth. She was nervous. She looked like the shy, t-shirt-wearing Lizzy Grant she was supposed to have discarded. She looked beautiful but her performance fell flat. Brian Williams, the anchor for NBC Nightly News, said, "Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night," and that she was "the least-experienced musical guest in the show's history." Her only defender was Daniel Radcliffe, who did not even see the performance.
It's important to remember that at this point, Del Rey still had not put out a full-length feature album. Lana Del Ray was well-buried from the public. For her to perform on Saturday Night Live was a huge boost for her album before she had even released it.
When the album did drop, though, the backlash was swift. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times wrote that "The only real option is to wash off that face paint, mess up that hair and try again in a few years. There are so many more names out there for the choosing." Even Pitchfork, who had lauded "Video Games," gave Born to Die a 5.5 out of 10 calling it "the equivalent of a faked orgasm—a collection of torch songs with no fire."
Lana Del Rey's SNL performance, regardless of what the critics said, piqued listeners' curiosity. All of the bad publicity drew more people to her music, and when Born To Die dropped, it hit No. 2 on the Billboard album charts. Born To Die sold more than three million copies, and was the fifth best-selling album of 2012. Since then, her 2013 Paradise EP debuted in the Billboard Top 10, and she has had two platinum singles with a remix of her song "Summertime Sadness" and her single for The Great Gatsby, "Young and Beautiful."
Did any of the controversy matter?
Perhaps — but if it did, it probably helped her. Creating a stage persona is one of the oldest tricks in Hollywood, and it's been done by some of the biggest pop stars. The name change in itself is also not uncommon. Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino; Kid Cudi changed his name from Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi. Hell, one of the most iconically "authentic" artists, Bob Dylan, was born Robert Zimmerman. Authenticity itself is a construct of the music industry.
In some ways, Taylor Swift is a perfect mirror of Lana Del Rey. Swift started out as an "authentic" country star with her big curly hair and songs about teenage love, but over time she has become sleeker, more polished, and much more popular. Like many stars before her, Del Rey realized what she was doing wasn't working, so she changed it. Lizzy Grant was never going to have a hit song, but Lana Del Rey has and will. "It's not that there's anything 'inauthentic' about Del Rey," Nitsuh Abebe wrote for Pitchfork. "It's just that the aesthetic references surrounding her are all already so pungent, evocative, and well-worn that it's hard to reshape them."
But if we look at the timing of Del Rey's controversies, detractors could easily argue they were planned, that her public dust-ups were, like the rest of her persona, manufactured. She gives a miserable SNL performance, spurring hundreds of headlines the week before the album drops. Then, when she's set to release a new single "Ride," she adds some controversy to her publicity by wearing a full Native American headdress, an appropriation of another group's culture. "Lana Del Rey may be more in control of her career and her life than most think," Louise Webster wrote.
When Del Rey released her short 27-minute art film, Tropico, in December 2013, she again found a controversy by appropriating Latino gangster culture. "Dressing up like an entire culture and calling it 'fashion' is offensive," Hillary Crosley wrote for Jezebel. "using another person or culture as an outfit to make your art edgy is in poor taste."
It's no surprise, then, that the release of Ultraviolence was accompanied by still more Del Rey controversies. She declared she was not a feminist to Fader, saying, "For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. "I'm more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what's going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities."
She also told a Guardian interviewer, "I wish I was dead already," while discussing the early deaths of Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. This interview later gained steam when Del Rey claimed to never have said that, and been manipulated by the interviewer. The Guardian then released the audio. Francis Bean Cobain (daughter of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain) took the comment as an opportunity to call out Del Rey on Twitter writing, "I'll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it's 'cool.' Well, it's fucking not. Embrace life, because you only get one life. The people you mentioned wasted that life. Don't be one of those people. You're too talented to waste it away."
But none of this controversy changes the fact that Ultraviolence is a better album than Born To Die was, and that people bought it and listen to it. Ultraviolence is more rock-heavy than Del Rey's earlier work and built on a themes of desperation and loss. Even Pitchfork, who demolished her first album, gave Ultraviolence positive review, saying Lana Del Rey is "a pop music original full-stop, and there are not nearly enough of those around." Overall, Metacritic gives it an average score of 76, or "generally favorable," which is significantly higher than the 61 Born to Die received.
The cult of Lana Del Rey did not just survive the controversy of inauthenticity, it thrived through it. Ultraviolence is on track to sell between 175,000 and 200,000 copies in its first week, which landed her in the #1 spot. Lana Del Rey is not going anywhere soon.