In 2012, Lana Del Rey was a laughingstock to many.
There was loads of sexism behind the criticism of her allegedly fake lips (Hipster Runoff called her “DSL Soundsystem”) and in the reaction to the discovery that her given name was Lizzy Grant (your secret is safe with us, Bob Dylan) and (gasp) a Pitchfork “Best New Track” honoree (for the disquieting “Video Games”) was already signed to Interscope and not some long-drifting human home-movie that had resurfaced “honestly” on YouTube. Sure, she dubbed herself “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which differed from Vampire Weekend’s tongue-in-cheek assertion that their sound was “Upper West Side Soweto” in two ways: 1) it was cuter and 2) the men weren’t penalized in their review scores.
Lana’s album, Born to Die, was indeed bogus—in some of the best ways. She stacked syntax like Fiona Apple on the swaying “Million $ Man,” rapped like Gwen Stefani on “Off to the Races,” and out-trolled Carles on “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” Nonsensical images like Pabst Blue Ribbon and gold coins jibed with her catchy-as-Nirvana four-chord minidramas like “Blue Jeans” and “Diet Mt. Dew”; her self-awareness was palpable, and so was her emotional content. With its gorgeous, swelling orchestral arrangement, “Video Games” remains an unsettling blank stare at a fembot’s boyfriend. Her shaky, much-lambasted performance of that song on Saturday Night Live only made her portraiture of a used and possibly abused woman feel all the more scary and real.
After briefly lashing out with such worthy critic bait as “Cola” (infamously comparing the taste of her genitals to Pepsi) and “Gods & Monsters” (as in the land wherein she’s “looking to get fucked hard”--not exactly Honnalee), Del Rey mostly eschewed the publicity machine over the next five years. She wrote slower, more confident songs that stretched pop tempos like taffy and employed score-like dirge arrangements. She sounded both sadder and more in control; “West Coast,” the lead single from her next album, Ultraviolence, featured a prominent tempo shift that showed she wasn’t just cribbing the superficial qualities of “Some Velvet Morning.” She still took significant heat, not least from Frances Bean Cobain, for romanticizing suicide in a Guardian interview.
By 2015, though, her third album Honeymoon garnered significant acclaim, in part because her humor had grown craftier and less dependent on shock value. “Salvatore” pranked rudimentary Italian speakers and the hit “High by the Beach” was centered around a chorus where she “never bought into your bullshit.” To drive the point home, the video (a format where Del Rey’s always shown considerable mastery) depicted her destroying a stalking helicopter with a bazooka. At this point, not only were people outside of her cult (possibly the biggest to sprout in the 2010s) ready to love her, but the pop landscape had molded to fit her as well.
In 2017, actual statistics were taking stock of pop’s slowest average tempos in ages, and Lana’s narcotic ballads made for several high-charting foils in the Weeknd (who believes they’re singing to each other), Drake (before Afrobeats recently livened him up), and countless mumble-rap artists. The Weeknd himself appeared on last year’s Lust for Life, Del Rey’s poppiest album yet, which featured some of her greatest hits (“Love”) and some earned cameos (Stevie Nicks on “Beautiful Women Beautiful Problems,” especially).
It was also Del Rey’s least interesting full-length, despite its appearance on Pitchfork’s year-end Best Albums list. Overlong, melodically repetitious (the title tune is very pretty, until it wears out its welcome), and adding too few eyebrow-raisers to her iconically campy lyrical oeuvre. It appears she gets the most approval at her plainest. So work backwards and enjoy the cult classic Born to Die for what it is: A truly weird and inspired meditation on how money and men can screw you up, swaddled (ironically?) in the stars and stripes. That’s as presciently 2018 as any work of art, no?
Lana Del Rey
With: Jhene Aiko
Where: Target Center
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Jan. 5
Tickets: $41.50-$127; more info here