Today Lana Del Rey releases Ultraviolence, her second full-length studio album, and despite the A Clockwork Orange–inspired title, it arrives in a more placid world than her first. Nowhere to be found are the nasty takedowns from the first go-around; the anti-Lana ringleader hipsterrunoff.com hasn’t been updated since November; plastic surgery and the origin of her name are no longer popular topics of water cooler gossip. Leveler-headed arbiters seem to have prevailed.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, corporate sponsorship was the only way she could shake off those original accusations of selling out. Little more than eight months after the January 2012 release of her first album Born to Die, she was at an H&M party, standing on a makeshift stage in the lower Manhattan night club The Wooly. Wearing a little black dress, she sang the cover “Blue Velvet” that had been commissioned by the giant Swedish fashion retailer. She proceeded to star in the TV commercial the brand hired Johan Renck to direct, and pose for the fall print advertising campaign shot by Inez and Vinoodh, and then the Holiday campaign photographed by Sølve Sundsbø.
Her rendition of the classic number is now almost iconic, arguably on par with Tony Bennett’s or The Clovers’ versions. When she first sang it, though, she must have been surprised to not be derided—not so much as a snicker from the blogosphere. In the era of the personal brand, getting paid to rub some of one’s own luster off on a corporate sponsor translates as validation, not inauthenticity. Never mind Sasha Frere-Jones’s New Yorker review of Born to Die, in which he eviscerated the bloggers’ un-fact-checked, gossipy attacks: It took a brand partnership to put the online wailing to bed.
Born to Die sold seven million copies worldwide and charted in the top three in every major western market. By any possible metric, Lana Del Rey is a success. She enjoys both cult status and commercial viability. She’s been steadily releasing singles and EPs for the past two years. Her Paradise EP included “Blue Velvet;” a few of her early pre-Lana Del Rey songs, like “Yayo;” and the major hit “Ride.” The Anthony Mandler–directed biker gang video for “Ride” was an event in of itself, as was the short film he created for her song “Tropico.” Last summer, the Cedric Gervais remix of “Summertime Sadness” became her highest-charting single in the United States. Around the same time, she released “Young and Beautiful” as part of the sound track for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Both it and “Once Upon a Dream,” which she recorded more recently for the Maleficent sound track, garnered wide praise.
Ultraviolence is a great album with a little more reliance on traditional melodic storytelling and little less on hip-hop posturing than her previous work. But it is also colored by a recent interview Del Rey gave to The Guardian, in which she expresses a pretty serious level of unhappiness: “I wish I was dead already,” she tells the writer. She makes that statement in the context of comparing herself to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. She sounds equally alienated and despondent in a recent interview for The Fader. “All the good stuff is real but isn’t, myself included. . . . Whatever you choose to be your reality is your reality,” she says. “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.”
Lana Del Rey has never been, despite the early claims, an inauthentic pop star manufactured by label honchos—but she was created by forces outside of herself. The first mass consumption of her image came with the posting of her DIY video for “Video Games.” Since then, like a well-curated Tumblr feed, she has added images and videos and sound to the collage of memes that is her mythology. Fans and writers have blogged and reblogged, ad infinitum, the idea that is Lana Del Rey; or, rather, the ideas that are Lana Del Rey, none more or less true than any other.
In that same Fader interview, Del Rey says, “Feminism is just not an interesting concept.” In making such oblique yet controversial statements, she has to know that the world will take her to mean a million contradictory things. Some will be aghast; others will take her words as subversive critique. And while she may not enjoy being hated, she understands that the formula works for her art. It is somewhat horrifying when, on Ultraviolence’s title track, she sings, “But blessed with beauty and rage / Jim told me that / He hit me and it felt like a kiss”—an echo, of course, of the song performed by The Crystals and cowritten by Carole King. But it would be a stretch to say that, in romanticizing a nostalgic idea of femininity, Del Rey is glorifying domestic abuse. The power dynamics between the retro characters she creates, and plays with, involve a lot that is unpleasant. If she is going to dress up like Jackie Kennedy, she’s not going to whitewash the rest of it.
The world seems to have finally caught on. She now has the room to invent and reinvent herself, to romanticize whatever sad suffering she pleases, and to make lush and cinematic her odd love affair with desperation and aloneness—all without the love-hate whiplash of her early days. Not only her person but also her music stands alone. As even Pitchfork now admits, in its review of Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey is her own genre. With neither clear derivations nor obvious imitators, she is a singular talent, and is so recognized.
Album of the year tbh.