Cover Story: Lana Del Rey Is Anyone She Wants to Be
Read a candid interview with one of the era’s most controversial stars, on fame, feminism and her new album, Ultraviolence.
From the magazine: ISSUE 92, June/July 2014. This is the last of four covers from our annual Summer Music issue.
The camera zooms in on Lana Del Rey as she turns away from the crowd, hiding all but the slightest silhouette of her face. In the background, a massive screen flickers deep purple and blue; beside her on stage sits a potted palm. For one full minute: riotous, embracing applause. Gently, she wipes a tear with the middle finger of her left hand, then wipes her nose, which from this angle appears as the bottom-half of a perfectly slender S curve that begins on her forehead, shimmies down her face and ramps off into the void. Finally, she turns to address the audience, smiles and says, “I think you’re going to have to sing it for me.” The piano starts, and everyone complies, very loudly and very clearly. She tries to sing too, of course, then pauses to cry and smile at the same time, seemingly overwhelmed by the audience’s affection. But no one else stops singing: It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you…
Lana Del Rey, the singer whose entire self so often seems a carefully constructed display, didn’t conceive of this scene, like she has the many music videos that helped propel her to fame. First came the eerily star-foreshadowing montages of 2008, in which she stitched together found footage and vamped in front of an American flag under her given name, Lizzy Grant. Back then, sometimes she’d make four videos for the same song, but most times, nobody much saw them. Next came “Video Games,” which applied that same cut-up look to a slightly fuller sound, and thrust Grant, now singing as Lana Del Rey, from bedroom clips to blockbusters. Then the big budgets arrived: she sat on a throne backed by two tigers in the video for “Born to Die,” embodied both Jackie O and Marilyn in a span of minutes for “National Anthem” and, for "Tropico" lounged with Elvis and John Wayne in CGI heaven. Lana Del Rey’s filmography is a master class on how to build an icon, and yet, no footage feels like proof of her iconicity as much as the shaky clip of a teary 2013 performance, shot on a phone by a fan in Dublin.
I ask her why she was crying. “I’d been sick on tour for about two years with this medical anomaly that doctors couldn’t figure out,” she says, to my surprise. “That’s a big part of my life: I just feel really sick a lot of the time and can’t figure out why. I’d gotten these shots in Russia, where we’d just been. It was just heavy. It’s just heavy performing for people who really care about you, and you don’t really care that much about yourself sometimes. I thought it was sad. I thought my position was sad. I thought it was sad to be in Ireland singing for people who really cared when I wasn’t sure if I did.” I’d expected self-congratulation, the triumph of finally making it. You never really know.
We’re speaking in the Brooklyn backyard of this story’s photographer, and she’s wearing one of his shirts. It fits her poorly—probably a men’s XXL—and with her hair and makeup done up for the cover shoot, she gives the impression of a young lumberjack’s date the morning after prom. She must know this. They’d been taking the photos in the house earlier, in an attempt at a more laid-back glimpse of a star known for her Hollywood glamour, when she noticed a rack of his vintage clothes and asked to pull from it. More than raw beauty, hers is the gift of producing a precise effect; voilá, she looks like somebody’s girlfriend.
It’s a few weeks before the release of her second major-label album, Ultraviolence, and like any artist with over a billion YouTube views, the 27-year-old Lana Del Rey is blessed and cursed with a punishing schedule. By the time I click off my recorder, after nearly 90 minutes, her publicist has twice come out to end the interview. In both cases, she rebuffs him. Barefoot, she carries a casualness with hardly a hint of the imperious pop star I’d expected; she’s excited, pensive, a little bit apprehensive. After, she tells me it’s the longest interview she’s ever done.
From the backyard where we sit, through an old screen door with a frame rimmed in dried-out vines, I can always hear her entourage. Among the six or seven inside, there’s her bodyguard, formerly employed by Brad Pitt, and her British stylist, Johnny Blueeyes, who during the shoot was prone to bursting into the room and crying, “You’re a staaaar!” The whole team, she says, was hired in 2011, after “Video Games” attracted offers from Interscope and Polydor. “I met everyone the same week,” she says. “Because I was very shy, I just sort of stuck with them.” Later, she mentions the staff again, by way of self-analysis. “I’m never the star of my own show,” she says. “I have a very complicated family life. I have a complicated personal life. It’s not just my life, it’s everyone else’s in this extended family unit. It’s always about someone else, even with the people I work with. I’m the quietest person on the set, generally. I’m actually the one that’s trying to keep it all together. It’s pretty weird. It’s a weird, weird world.” She’s chain-smoking Parliaments.
Everyone knows Lana Del Rey’s so-called true identity: she was born Elizabeth Grant, daughter to an entrepreneur who sold domain names. In the press, there’s been a perverse joy in labeling her a phony, whether that’s regarding her supposedly surgically enhanced lips (she has always denied this), or the rebranding that marked her early career. She was born in Lake Placid, in upstate New York, and went to boarding school in Connecticut. When she first started doing shows in 2006, while studying metaphysics at Fordham University in the Bronx, it was with a folky bent and a guitar that her uncle taught her how to play. The F chord was too hard, she later told the BBC’s Mark Savage—“Four fingers? Never going to happen”—but she recorded an acoustic album as May Jailer just the same. (That record, Sirens, was never released, though it eventually leaked online.) In 2008, while still in college, she signed a $10,000 record deal with an indie label called 5 Points and moved to a trailer park in North Bergen, New Jersey. index Magazine filmed a giddy interview with her there; she appears in a car mechanic’s windbreaker, her platinum blonde hair tied up with a baby blue scarf, and, when asked about the “very cohesive package” of her musical identity, says, “It has been a lifelong ambition and desire… to have a defined life and a defined world to live in.” During this period, she teamed with David Kahne, a producer for Paul McCartney and The Strokes, and developed a more idiosyncratic sound for her self-penned lyrics, with affected jazz vocals, synthesized orchestra sections and hip-hop drums—an uncanny mix of old and new. Under the name Lizzy Grant, she released an EP, Kill Kill, and recorded an album, Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant, which sat on 5 Points’ shelf for two years before it was digitally released in 2010. By then, she’d gone brunette with swooping Veronica Lake curls, and was spending time in London in search of another deal. With the help of a newly hired manager and lawyer, she bought back the album rights and pulled it from the market. Henceforth, she would be known as Lana Del Rey.
But her past was still there in traces online, the story of a small-town girl with big dreams and the cunning to change herself to make them come true. It’d be an all-American tale, if only she seemed self-made; instead, there was a discomfiting sense of someone else behind the scenes, orchestrating a bait-and-switch with secretly funded videos that only slummed their DIY aesthetic. For an artist who broke online, her father’s background raised red flags—beside selling domain names, he’d worked in advertising and helped market her Lizzy Grant releases. And there was a suspiciously short time between “Video Games,” which was listed by many blogs as a self-release, and the announcement that she’d signed with two major labels. In any case, she was never especially embarrassed about her ambition; rather, she embraced it as a defining trait. On “Radio,” the pluckiest song on Lana Del Rey’s relentlessly downtrodden debut, Born to Die, she sings of success like a taunt: American dreams came true somehow/ I swore I’d chase em until I was dead/ I heard the streets were paved with gold/ That’s what my father said… Baby, love me cause I’m playing on the radio/ How do you like me now? She was a star who announced her own arrival, singing of fame with a wistfulness even as she was just beginning to taste it.
Many critics were bristled by her supposed fraud. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica pronounced Lana Del Rey D.O.A. in a scathing review, concluding with: “The only real option is to wash off that face paint, muss up that hair and try again in a few years. There are so many more names out there for the choosing.” Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz called Born to Die “the album equivalent of a faked orgasm.” It was an unusual time for music, with major labels chasing the internet’s whims by poaching unproven newcomers off the strength of a viral track and a look. For skeptics, Lana Del Rey became a symbol of puffed-up online buzz itself. (Before Zoladz’s 5.5 review, Pitchfork had notably awarded “Video Games” Best New Track and granted her a Rising profile, ostensibly reserved for artists they recommend.) The Hipster Runoff blogger Carles, a one-man peanut gallery to the indie press, was Lana Del Rey’s most visceral and obsessive critic, but also one of the most insightful, because criticizing her always came hand-in-hand with criticizing himself and the music web’s ceaseless appetite for breaking artists to sell to brands (or take down in think pieces). He called it their “dark, abusive, co-dependent relationship on the content farm.”
“It’s just heavy performing for people who really care about you, and you don’t really care that much about yourself sometimes.”
But as it turns out, a lot of music fans didn’t care. Today, Born to Die has sold over 7 million copies worldwide, more than Beyoncé’s last two albums combined. Ten months after the LP’s release, her Paradise EP debuted in Billboard’s top 10. Eight months later, Cedric Gervais’ EDM remix of “Summertime Sadness” went platinum; soon after, her song for The Great Gatsby soundtrack, “Young and Beautiful,” went platinum, too. On that last track, a haunting orchestral number, she directly addresses her own status and the position of many a woman, pop idol or not: Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful? Sometimes her songs drag long, and sometimes her self-seriousness can be grating, but in beautiful moments such as that, with her voice situated among an aptly hot-blooded score, Lana Del Rey’s confidence about her own vulnerability transcends melodrama into the realms of great art. In the period since her big authenticity reckoning, one thing has become clear: accusations of constructedness would not crush her. She says they came close, though. Shortly after the release of “Video Games,” she started dating another musician, Barrie-James O’Neill. According to a profile of her in Nylon, he first phoned her out of the blue after his manager sent him the video with the caption “Your future ex-wife.” I ask what he was like during the period of her most pronounced attacks. “He was worried,” she says. “I was, you know, a mess. I totally wanted to kill myself every day.”
Over the years, four themes have come to define her lyrics, whichever the persona: indecisiveness, submissiveness, reverence for American icons and self-destructiveness, both within herself and the men she idolizes in song. It’s a lot of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” and in fact, she quotes that infamous song unwinkingly on the title track of Ultraviolence, before continuing, You’re my cult leader, I love you forever, I love you forever. The consistency at which these four themes appear in her music suggests not quite a foxy con artist, but rather someone moving superficial pieces around themselves—a name, a look—until they find a comfortable identity, much like anybody navigating young adulthood. So I ask her what she was up to with those old Lizzy Grant videos, when she’d don a Marilyn Monroe wig, drape herself in the stars and stripes and blow the webcam a kiss. “Honestly, I feel like it’s more of a girl thing,” she says. “I was just kind of playing, and, literally, I’m still playing. For me, being this way and dressed like this isn’t different than being out in a wig. It’s all the same to me. It’s all nothing, it’s all everything. I could really go any way. I’ve lived a lot of different lives. I lived down in Alabama with my boyfriend, I lived here in Brooklyn and in Jersey. I’ve been a lot of different people, I guess.”
There’s a monologue that opens her “Ride” video, which she tells me is autobiographical. Part of it goes like this: “I was always an unusual girl. 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.” In the video, she has sex with a 40-something biker on a pinball machine. In “National Anthem,” she’s married to A$AP Rocky, who portrays a black president who likes to shoot dice. In “Tropico,” she runs with a Hispanic crowd. In a number of others, she’s with a scrawny white guy with tattoos. The men change but sex is constant; Lana Del Rey embodies searching for yourself in someone else. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” she tells me at one point. “I’m trying to do what feels right. I tried a lot of different ways of life, you know, things I never really talk about, just because they are kind of different. I didn’t really have one fixed way that I could envision myself living. Going from a good relationship to a good relationship—I thought that was healthy.”
Her portrayal of those relationships, though, has prompted mixed reviews among feminists. Some criticize the way she seems to idealize powerlessness and servitude, while others appreciate her fluid embodiment of different identities, as well as her candor about both her desire and her weakness. In any case, her comments on the subject will be disappointing for both camps: “For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept,” she says. “I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.” Fortunately, her ambivalence about politics doesn’t undo any subversiveness that may be embedded in her work (though, nor does it excuse any ill it may cause). When pressed, she adds, more illuminatingly, “My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.” I ask her why she’s always being choked in her videos, and she gives a fitting answer: “I like a little hardcore love.” That raises an important point: she’s the one willing these scenarios into existence, romanticizing the very things that hurt her. She writes her own songs and music video treatments, and a similar self-mythologizing applies to her interviews, too. In a Lizzy Grant-era piece for the Huffington Post, she told a reporter, “Strangest performance: Alone in a basement for a handsome record executive. Strangest [song] ever written: Back at his office while I was making out with him.” When I ask her if she regrets joking like that, given how often people perceived her as a puppet of some executive team, she says, no, the story was true: “I had a seven-year relationship with the head of this label, and he was a huge inspiration to me. I’ll tell you later when more people know. He never signed me, but he was like my muse, the love of my life.” Rather than shying away from the snake pit that is sex and power, she walks right in. On Ultraviolence, there’s a song called “Fucked My Way Up to the Top.”
But is she happy now that she’s there? No matter what, her singing voice seems so sad. In an essay called “The Meaning of Lana Del Rey,” a French academic named Catherine Vigier offers one explanation: “She is representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society’s prescriptions for success in what has been called a post-feminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them.” Vigier goes on to argue that, for women living under capitalism, there can never be happiness—not through money, nor celebrity, nor even love—and she says the music makes this point clear. So there you have it: a post-feminist, socialist reading of Lana Del Rey. There’s a queer reading available, too, if you consider her identity-play synonymous with dressing in drag, as Christopher Glazek did in Artforum, calling her a “great queer performance artist.” With Lana Del Rey, everybody’s a critic, and any interpretation is possible.
By the time of Ultraviolence’s release, those infinite opinions have long since canceled each other out, leaving room for listeners to take up a more subjective relationship with her music without the pressure of coming up with something clever. Compared to Born to Die, the new album sounds far more like straight-up rock music, recorded in live takes with a Nashville band assembled by producer Dan Auerbach. She’s withdrawing from contemporary pop, a space in which she says she never felt comfortable; gone are the genre-blurring samples that gave her debut the impression of trying too hard to be trendy. The album feels like a sprawling American desert, devastatingly huge, windswept by shrieking electric guitars. Lana Del Rey is surrounded by ghosts and completely alone, the last lines of her verses reverbed out and leading nowhere forever. We could go back to the start, she sings on the title track, but I don’t know where we are. Certainly the rock ballad suits her retro preoccupation; the lead single “West Coast” evokes the opening riff of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and the chord progression from The Stooges’ proto-punk “Dirt.” She seems to have found confidence in psych-rock and narcotized swing.
One of the most telling lines from Born to Die was on the song “Off to the Races”: I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him. Within the self-contained world of that album, this was both a low-point and a high-point, with Lana copping to utter reliance on men but also having the self-awareness to say so. On the Ultraviolence standout “Brooklyn Baby,” she exalts her band-leader boyfriend for a few verses, then lands on this uncharacteristically self-assured gem: Yeah, my boyfriend’s really cool/ But he’s not as cool as me. I ask her about the line, and she says, “That wasn’t even supposed to be there, and I kind of sang it with a smile, and Dan was looking at me and laughing. I’m just kind of fucking around.” She’s already convinced everyone else of her worth, but here she seems to have finally convinced herself.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m trying to do what feels right.”
In that Lizzy Grant interview with Huffington Post, she spoke of her love of American icons: “All the good stuff is real but isn’t, myself included… Whatever you choose to be your reality is your reality.” You can be the president’s wife, as in “National Anthem,” and you can be his mistress; you can be a stripper and you can be Eve, as in “Tropico”; it doesn’t matter which version of yourself came first when you can be everything at once. That’s a powerful thought, and I’m not sure she even completely understands it. “My career isn’t about me,” she tells me at one point, lamenting the misunderstandings about her that she says have riddled her critics’ attacks. “My career is a reflection of journalism, current-day journalism. My public persona and career has nothing to do with my internal process or my personal life. It is actually just a reflection on writers’ creative processes and where they’re at in 2014. Literally has nothing to do with me. Most of anything you’ve ever read is not true.” We don’t know who she is, but you know what? Neither does she.
As she moves from one character to another in her music videos, and from one type of man to another, from one recording alias to another, Lana Del Rey performs not just existential crisis but the power to blindly push through it. On Ultraviolence’s “Money Power Glory,” she sings, My life it comprises of losses and wins and fails and falls, a line immediately followed by more self-sacrifice: I can do it if you really, really like that. Even if she’s only adapting to curry favor, isn’t that what we all do? We perform identity every day, tweaking ourselves for a boyfriend and a boss. Using the very idea of malleability, Lana Del Rey has fashioned herself a superstar, setting to music the human drama of altering yourself to survive and rise. Still, she’s enamored with self-destruction, and perhaps shapeshifting is also about precisely that: you play so many characters that you lose any stable sense of yourself, so that when you’re standing in front of a crowd, for example, and they’re screaming your praises, your response is confusion and tears.
At shows these days, she takes breaks between songs to sign things and take pictures with fans. A recent reviewer described the crowd’s reception as hitting “approximately jet-engine volume”; a music executive who saw her said it was like she was The Beatles. But talking to her, reality bends until only sadness seems like an appropriate response. That raincloud-eyed, tattooed guy who always appears in her videos, from “Blue Jeans” to “West Coast”—his name is Bradley Soileau. Toward the end of our talk, I ask her why she has used him so much. “I like Brad because I respect him that he’s free enough to use his body as a canvas,” she says. “He has a quote about war written across his forehead. I like that he knew that alienated him from society in a way that he couldn’t work regular jobs. He made a conscious decision and manifested it physically that he was going to be on the periphery. I like what that symbolizes.” That sounds a lot like what happens to someone when they become a famous musician, I tell her. There’s no going back for her either. “That’s true,” she says. “It’s pretty fucked up.” A stray cat tip-toes across the fence surrounding the backyard, and Lana Del Rey lights another cigarette. I ask her what she misses the most. “I miss everything.”