Photo by Kleigh Balugo
The Old Hollywood aesthetic is one that people continue to draw inspiration from, yet none have been able to master it in the way that Lana Del Rey has. In fact, ever since the 2012 release of her second album Born to Die, Lana Del Rey’s name has become almost synonymous with Old Hollywood glamour. The Born to Die era was defined by Del Rey’s big hair, her minimal makeup with the exception of bold eye makeup, and the ever-present motif of Americana that was embedded in not only her music but in her overall persona.
Del Rey was able to create a new sound with the theme of 1950s/1960s Hollywood set to modern musical production, specifically taking inspiration from hip-hop when it came to the composition of many of the songs on Born to Die. The goal of creating an album that simultaneously was something classic yet innovative was not an easy feat, however, Lana Del Rey was able to achieve it. The album was successful, and as the 2010s ended, Born to Die made its way to many lists of decade-defining albums.
This unique blend was crucial in separating Lana Del Rey from her contemporaries, especially as social media began to grow in the early 2010s. Her timeless yet refreshing sound quickly gained her a loyal fanbase, especially on social media such as Tumblr. This is where I found out about Lana Del Rey, and from that moment on, Lana Del Rey has definitely been one of the most important artists in my life. I mean, in the age of streaming services, I have physical copies of Born to Die, Ultraviolence, and Honeymoon; truly a sign of admiration these days.
As the years have gone by, Del Rey has since released six albums (with a seventh album set to release later this year), yet the masses determined the Born to Die era to be her most iconic and monumental. The album was what helped Del Rey break through to the mainstream, and is ultimately what led her to influence artists such as Billie Eilish and collaborate with artists such as The Weeknd. And while Lana Del Rey has moved past the hyperfemininity and beauty of Old Hollywood, she is still associated with it to this day. This is mostly due to her lyricism and her music videos, where her influences are most apparent.
One of the major themes in Born to Die is love, specifically dramatic, intense, and often detrimental love. While Del Rey was criticized for lyrics such as “I will love you till the end of time,” “I’m nothing without you,” and the entirety of the song, “Lolita,” Del Rey’s songs reflect the melodramatic nature of Old Hollywood. Let’s be honest here, the majority of the films during Hollywood’s Golden Age have not aged well in many regards, with misogyny being one of them.
The love that Del Rey speaks of in most of the album does not end happily, nor does it seem to be a love that her persona should really be striving for, with songs such as “Blue Jeans” serving as an example. With lyrics such as “Big dreams / Gangster / Said you had to leave to start your life over / I was like, ‘No please, stay here,’ / We don’t need no money / We can make it all work,” the audience is led to believe that Del Rey’s love interest is a man with financial ambition.
Despite her begging, Del Rey’s partner eventually leaves, and Del Rey is left to hear of his fate from others: “But he was / Chasin’ (uh oh) / Paper (uh oh) / Caught up in the game / It was the last I heard.” In the music video, Del Rey is swimming in a pool with her love interest. It is revealed that the pool is infested with alligators, symbolizing her love interest leading her into danger, yet she completely submerges into it simply due to her love for him.
However, if there was ever a music video for a song on Born to Die that embodies tragic love, it’s the music video for “National Anthem.” The song “National Anthem” speaks of materialism, patriotism, and hedonism; what better way to express that than to invoke the Kennedys? Lana Del Rey stars alongside A$AP Rocky as Jackie and John F. Kennedy. The video follows their lavish lifestyle, and ultimately ends with the death of President Kennedy, with Del Rey’s voiceover reciting a monologue that exploded on Tumblr. The song alludes to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, with lyrics such as “Take me to the Hamptons, Bugatti Veyron,” “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact (kiss, kiss),” and “Um, do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?”
The love between Del Rey and her partner is as equally intense as many of her other songs, as she sings, “It’s a love story for the new age, for the sixth page / We’re on a quick, sick rampage / Winin’ and dinin’, drinkin’ and drivin’ / Excessive buyin’, overdose and dyin’.” However, it’s not necessarily the man Del Rey is in a relationship with that she desires, but rather the lifestyle. The man is simply a medium to get what she wants, which is this life of luxury and also the security of being in a relationship with a wealthy man, as she sings, “Dark and lonely, I need somebody to hold me / He will do very well, I can tell, I can tell / Keep me safe in his bell tower hotel.”
The most intriguing aspect of the “National Anthem” music video is that Del Rey actually plays another role in addition to Jackie Kennedy; in the opening, Del Rey portrays Marilyn Monroe, during the now infamous “Happy Birthday” performance for President Kennedy. This dual role creates a Madonna-Whore dichotomy, as Del Rey portrays the wife and the rumored mistress of one of the most famous US presidents in history.
This also highlights how Del Rey speaks of sex throughout the album, despite emulating what many would consider a less vulgar and more classy time period. Sex and the idea of being desired are usually tied to the downsides of stardom, where many cling desperately to what little fame they have or once had, or what people are willing to do for fame. This is demonstrated in the song “Carmen,” though the song is officially about teenage substance abuse.
The song illustrates the story of Carmen, a teenager who is envied and desired. The beginning of the chorus goes, “The boys, the girls, they all like Carmen / She gives them butterflies with her cartoon eyes,” demonstrating that Carmen is not only desired by a large number of people but that her youth is a major factor for their attraction.
However, Carmen’s life is not as glamorous as it appears, as indicated by lyrics such as “She says ‘You don’t want to be like me’ / ‘Lookin’ for fun, gettin’ high for free’ / ‘I’ dyin’, I’m dyin’’ / She says, ‘You don’t want to get this way,’ / ‘Street walk at night, and a star by day’ / ‘It’s tirin’, tirin’.’” However, Carmen still continues to wear the facade of happiness, “Lyin’ to herself, ‘cause her liquor’s top shelf.” While the song speaks of addiction, there is still the element of the exploitation of talent, specifically female talent; it is either to become a commodity and achieve fame, or have independence and be lost in obscurity.
The idea of the unsuccessful singer is best seen in the music video for “Ride,” which gained controversy for two reasons. The first was that many believed Del Rey was romanticizing and glamorizing sex work. While not explicit, Del Rey’s monologue at the beginning and end of the video alludes to her character being a sex worker, as she often travels with “the men [she] met.”
The second reason for controversy was the fact that towards the end of the video, Del Rey wears a Native American headdress, and at one point taps a gun against her head while singing the lyrics “I’ve got a war in my mind.” The indigenous community called out and criticized Del Rey’s cultural appropriation, many stating that it was an example of white women appropriating Native American and Romani cultures in order to create a “free spirit” or “wild child” persona. This isn’t the only time Del Rey has had some issues with racial insensitivity.
Many may not know that Lana Del Rey’s real name is Elizabeth Grant, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Many artists use pseudonyms in order to maintain some semblance of anonymity or normalcy. However, with a stage name like Lana Del Rey, one could confuse her on paper with someone of Latino or Hispanic descent. It also doesn’t help that during this time, Lana Del Rey wore thick eyeliner and hoop earrings, both staples of Chicana/Latina fashion. As mentioned before, Del Rey is originally from the East Coast, but has adopted California and the West Coast as a part of the Lana Del Rey persona.
Whether it was intentional or not, Del Rey has often made herself ambiguous, something she has not addressed to this day. This, the cultural appropriation, her infamous 2020 Instagram post where she criticizes almost exclusively black women in the music industry, and the mysterious Chianca-esque accent that will pop in and out of nowhere when she speaks, has personally made it difficult to be a fan of hers.
As a Latina and a woman of color, I distanced myself from listening to Lana Del Rey after the Instagram post in 2020, and only started re-engaging with her at the beginning of 2023. I can actively acknowledge Del Rey’s cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity, while also knowing that she is one of my favorite singers of all time. I believe that you can enjoy an artist who has done questionable, non-violent and/or non-criminal things in the past as long as they have seemingly evolved from it.
I don’t judge my younger self for being unaware of these controversies; I was much more invested in One Direction and Twilight to really pay attention to anything else. However, now as an adult, and as a marginalized person, I make it a point to always acknowledge Del Rey’s past. In my mind, if I can call out the problematic actions of artists I don’t like, then I must call out the problematic actions of artists I enjoy. Regardless, Del Rey’s past transgressions have largely been forgiven or simply ignored. In fact, Del Rey is still considered one of the major female pop singers, with millions awaiting her upcoming album Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. But why?
In hindsight, the idea of a white woman coming onto the music scene with an album such as Born to Die was a risky move. The only nostalgia people had in 2012 was for the ’90s, and those who missed the ’50s were simply conservative Boomers. I find it hard to believe that Lana Del Rey could have done this in 2023 and gotten the same results.
Then again, the political climate has intensified drastically since 2012, so much so that even Lana Del Rey, who had been hesitant to call herself a feminist when Born to Die was released, has felt the need to make her stance on women’s rights and equality explicitly clear since 2016. It could have been easy for Del Rey to pigeonhole herself with the Old Hollywood schtick, but Del Rey’s third album Ultraviolence evolved to a more psychedelic rock sound. In other words, Del Rey, like her music, has evolved and grown with her audience. Still, that doesn’t really explain why people are still drawn to Born to Die. Is it the aesthetics? Is it the music?
Personally, I believe the appeal of Born to Die is due to its complexity. Born to Die is a pop album that’s highly produced, and often lighthearted and fast-paced, yet it’s considered a pioneer in “sad girl” music and alt-pop. The music is considered to be nostalgic, but none of the songs actually sound like 50s music. Despite the seemingly surface-level niche, there is a lot of nuance to Born to Die. What 13-year-old me thought of as simply sad love songs have become dissections and analyses of codependency in relationships, underage substance abuse, and the inevitable loss of innocence that young girls face. Born to Die is melodramatic but poignant, haunting but lighthearted, nostalgic but modern. Every time I listen to the album, I find something new to appreciate, which has led it to become one of my favorite albums of all time. In theory, Born to Die was never meant to work; and I think that in itself is the reason why it continues to thrive.