Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die was perhaps the most successful trojan horse of its day. At a time when the charts were flooded with one-hit wonders such as Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, and LMFAO, Del Rey’s debut album marked the arrival of a self-made artist with real staying power, injecting the unflinchingly optimistic pop world with a lavish doom-mongery that was utterly irresistible. It may have seemed little more than a well-strung piece of baroque popcraft, but, ten years down the line, the artistry at the heart of that 2012 debut is clearer than ever, as is the extent to which Del Rey has re-shaped the landscape of American pop music.
Born To Die was released at a time when Del Rey had all but given up on her ambitions of being recognised as a songwriter. Her early career saw her perform in New York clubs under her birth name, Lizzy Grant and, at one time, ‘Sparkle Rope Jump Queen’. “I was always singing, but didn’t plan on pursuing it seriously,” she told Vogue in 2012. “When I got to New York City when I was 18, I started playing in clubs in Brooklyn – I have good friends and devoted fans on the underground scene, but we were playing for each other at that point – and that was it.” Then, at 20, she signed a $10,000 record contract with an independent label and moved to a trailer park outside New York, where she wrote her album, Advertising, while also working in community service: “Homeless outreach, drug and alcohol rehabilitation – that’s been my life for the past five years,” Grant told the fashion magazine.
After years of living hand-to-mouth, Lizzy Grant made one last dash for the gate. The tracks that came to form her 2012 debut were an act of defiance. Rather than writing music to appease the taste’s of an imagined audience, she decided to reel in her net and focus on just one person: herself. At this time, she managed to land a deal with Polydor/Interscope, changed her name to Lana Del Rey, and posted the self-made YouTube music video for ‘Video Games’ that would establish her as one of 2011’s breakout stars.
The following year, after accumulating no small amount of media attention with the dizzying success of ‘Video Games’, Del Rey released Born To Die on January 27th, 2012. On release, it seemed to offer listeners two things: a collection of pop songs rendered immaculate by Del Rey’s haunting vocals, and a commentary on modern American life. While she was quick to assert that the songs were about nothing more complicated than love, home, and friendship, Del Rey also inadvertently managed to isolate an imagined version of America; one that has only ever existed in the negative space between Johnny Cash and June Carter; or the lines on James Dean’s furrowed brow.
With ten years between us and the album release, the real magic of Born To Die seems to lie less in the music itself and more in the way Del Rey uses images and symbols to convey the conceptual subtext simmering behind her lyrics. “I’ve been making videos since I was 17,” she said in 2012. “I was originally just collecting vintage footage from archives and setting moving pictures to classical music, clips that meant a lot to me – maybe they were places that meant a lot to me…I had a vision of making my life a work of art, and I was looking for people who also felt that way.”
But, in making her life a work of art, Del Rey also inadvertently captured America at a point of transformation. So much has changed since 2012. In That second year of the teenies, Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse was but a glimmer in the Facebook CEO’s reptilian eye. And yet, with Born to Die, Del Rey predicted a world in which music would be completely detached from the physical universe – existing within a sort of simulated reality.
Take the album’s forerunner, ‘Video Games’, which was both a criticism of tech-induced dislocation and detachment and a product of it. It was, after all, beamed onto the computer screens of millions via the wonders of YouTube. Meanwhile, the lyrics for the album’s title track see Del Rey transform herself into a fantasy version of the American sweetheart: “Come take a walk on the wild side / Come kiss me hard in the pouring rain,” she sings. “You like your girls insane”.
All these years later, it’s still impossible to tell if these things were deliberate or not. What is clear, however, is that, after Born To Die, the divisions between commercial pop music and artistry became wonderfully blurred – demonstrating that the future of pop lay in the hands of those who could bring depth and insight into the mainstream.