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(Credit: Polydor)

Music

Celebrating Lana Del Rey, an artist that changed the landscape of contemporary music

It seems almost impossible to imagine the modern-day landscape without Lana Del Rey to guide it. Bursting onto the scene with her titular debut, Del Rey managed to capture a newer form of music, one based on compassion, hi-fi and gallows humour. Compared to the more lightweight pieces spearheaded by Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, Del Rey’s album had soul, much of it stemming from the heart, yet this was a format written for a more intellectual audience to the chart-topping pieces too regularly heard on the radio. 

Don’t believe me? Why would you, I’m not a musician. But you should believe Billie Eilish, who refused to compare herself to the writer of ‘Video Games’. “Everybody’s always trying to make everybody compete,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Billie’s album might pass Ariana’s…’ But just stop. I don’t care. I don’t want to hear that Billie Eilish is the new Lana Del Rey. Do not disrespect Lana like that”. 

Respect is certainly due, largely because Del Rey’s desire to write as a woman caught in a personal abyss. “The one thing that makes me upset is that if I hadn’t been so distracted with my personal life and my poetry, I could’ve broken it down in a more delicate, precise way,” she once said. “I guess the way I could’ve done that is just by adding one more defining song to it. Right now it’s really, really good, but I don’t know if it’s perfect, and that really bothers me. I think I need to add that song, ‘Dealer’, where I’m just screaming my head off. People don’t know what it sounds like when I yell. And I do yell.”

Her philosophy sounds strikingly similar to Taylor Swift‘s, another consummate artist who writes from a perspective based on experience. Earnestness was scarcely heard on the chart hits in the early millennium, but to their credit, Del Rey and Swift demanded a more honest form of expression, both from their audiences, and more importantly, themselves. In other words, Del Rey offered women a soapbox from which they could furnish their personal truths.

Look as far as ‘Born to Die’, perhaps Del Rey’s most fondly-remembered track, a propulsive rocker that was heavy on chorus, light on restraint. What it boasts is a stellar lyric, bolstered by the voice of a woman determined to make her mark on an industry predicated on men. ‘Born to Die’, and the album that came with it, delved into the hearts of America that lay dormant in the hearts of the men who lived through it, similarly championing the many women who survived it.  

It came out in 2012, only a year after Jennifer Lopez’s Love?, but given the maturity of Del Rey’s work, it sounds like it was recorded decades after. Unlike the popcorn-fluff of Lopez’s material, Del Rey’s album was rife with imagination, offering a female perspective to the indie charts populated by men. So yes, I am going to use that oft-bandied term “ahead of its time” because the Born to Die album was, to make it clear, way “ahead of its time”.

(Credit: Lana Del Rey)

But like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Del Rey has never held a fanbase that’s exclusively based on one gender alone. Former Fleetwood Foxes drummer and now Father John Misty crooner, Joshua Tillman, worked with the starlet in 2013 and admitted: “It was a dream, I’d do anything she told me to. That’s what I enjoyed about the video, just being her puppet. I like being told what to do by a woman in that position.”

The feeling was clearly mutual, and Del Rey enjoys a male fan base, much as she does one born out of the LGBTQ+ community, and with fans all over the world. She definitely holds a fan base in Latin America, which makes sense because of her surname. “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards,” she told Vogue in 2011. “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.” 

Deeply rooted in cinema, her work held a more progressive angle, as it signals a new change in music. The only other artist I can think of is Kate Bush, another idiosyncratic female rooted in her heart and soul. 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! furthered the comparison with Bush, especially on ‘Venice Bitch’, which could easily have been written by the ‘Wuthering Heights’ writer herself. 

Bleachers guitarist Jack Antonoff produced her 2021 Chemtrails over the Country Club effort, offering her another avenue to pursue her art. Opening another valve, this album was her most visceral yet and continued the narrative into a newer, fresher decade. The album features a zesty cover of ‘For Free’, a punchy Joni Mitchell number tastefully updated for the post-pandemic times. By that time, St. Vincent had also issued an album, which bore a striking resemblance to the anthems Del Rey released a decade earlier. 

Who knows where Del Rey will go next, but whatever it is, it won’t be boring. “The way things started off for me in the way I was portrayed was that I was feigning emotional sensitivity. I really didn’t like that,” she told Mojo. “Because I didn’t even get famous ‘til I was, like, 27 and until then, I sang for less than free. And I loved it. I really was that girl who was pure of soul. I didn’t give a fuck.”

But at least she gives a “fuck” about her music, and long may it continue to be exciting.

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