Lana Del Rey was determined to be different from the very start. Born Elizabeth Grant in New York in 1985, she performed in nightclubs under aliases like ‘Sparkle Jump Rope Queen’, ‘Lizzy Grant & the Phenomena’ and simply ‘Lizzy Grant’. All were flops. She never seemed to make the cut.
In 2011, came her reinvention. Rechristening herself Lana Del Rey, Grant transformed herself into the dark, sultry, and mysterious woman the public has come to know today. Setting a haunting ballad to a home-made music video, ‘Video Games‘ was born and the world would never seem the same.
‘Video Games’ was Del Rey’s ticket to fame. After years of struggle, she had finally found success with a viral music video – which has now been streamed more than 650 million times. The road ahead however, would be laden with thorns.
The Mystery of Lana Del Rey
In the tell-all confessional world of modern pop, the sense of mystery Lana Del Rey exudes is magnetic. When pop icon Elton John interviewed her for Rolling Stone Magazine in 2019, even the 72-year-old show business veteran admitted to finding Del Rey enigmatic. Del Rey made little of his comments on her shadowy persona.
“It’s just that my family is still around and close,” she explained. “There’s only so much I could put on the table, coming from where I come from. I’m limited in what I could say in terms of being open. Maybe in 10 years.”
Despite her mysterious personal life, Del Rey has been candid about the origins of her alias. It was inspired by actress Lana Turner and a car – the Ford Del Rey sedan, produced and sold in Brazil in the 1980s. “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards,” she once told Vogue. “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.”
Lana Del Rey’s First True Love Was Alcohol
With Lana Del Rey there are always two sides to the story. While her most famous album covers depict her as a glamorous Californian film-star, she grew up in New York City. After struggling with alcohol addiction she was sent to boarding school at age 14. When her first releases as Lizzy Grant flopped, she pursued social work for the homeless and helped out at drug and outreach programs.
When proclaimed to be GQ‘s Woman of the Year in 2012 she spoke more candidly than ever before about her alcohol addiction. “I was a big drinker,” she revealed, “I would drink every day, I would drink alone, I thought the whole concept was so f***ing cool. A great deal of what I wrote on Born To Die is about [my] wilderness years.” Alcohol, Del Rey then admitted, was her first true love.
Is Lana Del Rey Real or Fake?
As the world fell in love with Lana Del Rey, Lizzy Grant was left behind. While this reinvention captivated millions, the sudden change also caused many to view Del Rey with hostility and suspicion. Following the success of ‘Video Games’ and ‘Blue Jeans,‘ she was subject to significant backlash. Some felt they had been victims of a trick. How could Lizzy Grant the musical failure, and Lana Del Rey the overnight success be one and the same? It was thought that there were higher powers at play.
One suggestion was that Del Rey’s millionaire father was backing her career. Another theory was that the flop of Lizzy Grant was a plant, a sneaky marketing strategy. Lana Del Rey was not Grant’s invention but that of music industry svengalis. “There are a lot of things that don’t seem organic about it,” said Steven Horowitz, who wrote a cover story about Del Rey for Billboard Magazine. “She’s putting on a show. She’s here to entertain us.”
It’s possible that Lana Del Rey never intended to be organic or authentic. It is entirely plausible that Del Rey was doing what many great artists before her have done. That is, create a persona. It isn’t out of the ordinary for artists to do this. Madonna, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan and even The Beatles have reinvented part or close to all of their story to secure fame. They are all characters created by a mingling of public desire and the shape-shifting nature of the artist themselves.
Authentic In Her Own Way
A more sympathetic view on the real-fake debate was expressed by writer Noah Levy at In Touch Weekly. In Levy’s view, Del Rey is authentic. Just not in a way everyone appreciated. “She cares about the art that she is creating,” he writes. “I don’t think that is fake at all. I think Lana Del Rey is manufactured. But when Lizzy Grant came out with music it failed. So she reinvented herself and it worked”.
Rapper Princess Superstar, who became friends with Del Rey in New York as she was going through her character-change, said of the issue: “I’ve never understood this controversy about whether [Del Rey] is real or fake. All artists have a persona. She’s not put together by some company. These are her songs, her melodies, her singing. She’s always had this Sixties aesthetic.”
Lana Del Rey’s Controversies
Del Rey’s fame has only grown over the past decade. As it has, many of her public acts and creative decisions have subject to intense scrutiny. Foremost amongst her controversies have been arguments over whether ‘Blue Jeans’ and other songs represent a glorification of domestic violence. Del Rey has also come under fire for wearing a Native American headdress, appropriating Latin American culture, being insensitive to sex workers, and filming a rape scene for a Marilyn Manson music video.
In 2020 the whirlwind of debate intensified. New waves of criticism followed Del Rey’s controversial comments on prominent Black female rappers’ use of their bodies for sexual marketing, sporting a face mask fans believed was only made of mesh and the inclusion of several people of colour on the cover of the new album Chemtrails Over The Country Club. One the more bizarre end of the spectrum was a conspiracy theory Del Rey was an ardent supporter of the Republican US President Donald Trump.
During a year where many across the world were fighting to combat racism and survive the coronavirus pandemic, the call for Del Rey’s cancellation was never stronger – for those who wanted it.
Balancing against those who criticise Del Rey are millions of fans and other musical artists.
Many of Generation Z’s biggest stars revere Lana Del Rey. While her songs have never been Number One singles, acts like Billie Eilish and The Weeknd cite her music as a powerful source of inspiration. Whether she is a visionary cultural icon or the pop culture equivalent of a racist statute, one thing that can be said is this. Lana Del Rey has become an institution.
Why Lana Del Rey Cannot Be Cancelled
When Lana Del Rey does end up in hot water, it always seems to be short-lived. Del Rey has a predictable pattern of responses to her alleged wrongdoings. Often she provides a convincing and legitimate explanation for her actions. At other times she delivers a modest, unknowing, fish-out-of-water reply. These tend to run as follows. All she did was share her thoughts. It got her in trouble. Now she regrets it. How was she to know any better?
Cancel culture looks to seperate the individual from the many on moral grounds. What those seeking to denounce musicians, for good or ill, often underestimate is the artist’s ability to connect, captivate and beguile. Lana Del Rey’s inability to be cancelled under present circumstances is a continuation of her artistic role in not just delivering a message or providing entertainment but giving cause for self-reflection and even revelation.
In an era of intense focus on the individual self, Del Rey’s provocative acts reveal several uncomfortable truths about human interconnectivity. Lana Del Rey is a mixture of messages, and unanswerable questions concerning where society as a whole can draw its lines and, more personally, to what degree an individual will compromise their moral values for the pleasure and intense emotional experience that music gives.
Lana Del Rey’s Staying Power
What is often lost among moral discussion of Del Rey’s actions is her longevity. Unlike other stars who dominated popular music in the early 2010s, Del Rey was not been permanently cancelled, given up or stopped having hits. Her turbulent controversies have only further propelled her into the public eye. She may be no role model but Lana Del Rey’s career as a recording artist has done nothing but move from strength to strength.
Others are not as fortunate. The careers and cultural influence of many musicians who dominated pop culture in the 2010s have dwindled. Lily Allen is one example. A woman and musical artist who often performed on the same international music festival circuits as Del Rey, she failed to survive tabloids plastered with drunken images of herself. One infamous instance was a paparazzi shot peering into the singer’s nose accompanied by a headline suggesting she had been snorting cocaine.
Lily Allen has overcome her past in spectacular fashion. Publishing a memoir in 2018 she set the record straight. She is now very publicly dedicated to sobriety. Her career as a hit-making recording artist has not been not so lucky.
An Unusual Girl With Chameleon Soul
While others have fallen out of favour or been forcibly removed from the fabric of pop culture, Del Rey remains. At the beginning of the music video to her 2012 song ‘Ride‘, Lana Del Rey performs a semi-autobiographical monologue that explains why. “I was always an unusual girl,” she shares. “My mother told me I had a chameleon soul. No moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality. Just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean.”
The way Del Rey creates her art is proof enough that, as much as she has been able to control it, she is built her reputation entirely upon her music. While she may respond to controversies and allegations of wrongdoing, she does not play off them. Scandal is a matter to be addressed – not fuel for her career.
Instead, she draws fans in with each new album. She entices listeners not just with a firm musical foundation but a drip-feed of knowledge about who it is she really is. It is no wonder she has remained adored by many and maintained a global fanbase for close to a decade. Del Rey has always left fans pining for more. Those who have become involved in her story are dying to know more but they have to wait for her to let them in before they get it.
Amidst a culture of instant gratification, Del Rey is different. She is not going to give the world everything it demands from her. At least not all at once.