Lana Del Rey — Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of “Born to Die” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Lana Del Rey — Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of “Born to Die”

The Album First Came Out on January 27, 2012 and It Captured the Angst and Desire of a Generation

Jan 27, 2022
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Once upon a time, not so long ago, the prospect of an alternate America nurtured an offshoot of modern youth, estranged, through crystalline fantasies of virtue and discovery, from an era of continued cultural decadence. The present was slow, the future bleak, and a romanticized, misty past held inevitable allure. This lone shadow empire—of streetlights and vacancy signs, of movie theaters, cigarette smoke, and twilit porches cast in hazy citrine light—stood upon a vast ocean of swirling longing and nostalgia: a collective reimagining of modern history, at the hands of a generation so often condemned to fates of useless degrees, menial existences, and unrealized desires.

Perhaps, at least in hindsight, it took the major-label debut of singer/songwriter Elizabeth Grant, aka indie pop sensation Lana Del Rey, to ultimately embody this sometimes aspirational, often wistful Millennial condition. Possessing a great deal more cult appeal than many pop releases of its time, the aptly titled Born to Die unlocked a new door in music, while ultimately summarizing the spirit of the early ’10s, with Del Rey’s theatrical lyrics and existential dramatics accentuating its brash Americana imagery, retro fixations, and transparent longing for intimacy and stimulation.

A popular culture skin-walker in the tradition of Bob Dylan and David Bowie, Del Rey initially attempted to mystify her origins to skeptical critics. This creative philosophy was echoed in her controversial Saturday Night Live appearance earlier that month, during which she appeared to stumble through her performance, seemingly impersonating as many major artists as possible. Likewise, she paraded across each track on Born to Die in disguise, her various personae having been described as Dolores “Lolita” Haze, if “lost in the hood,” a “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” Jessica Rabbit, and, perhaps even more elusive, herself.

Presently, Born to Die possesses even more relevance than it did a decade ago. The opening title track—retrospectively named among Billboard’s 100 songs that defined the ’10s—frames with shimmering strings the first of Del Rey’s characteristically cinematic proclamations—“Come and take a walk on the wild side/Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain”—effectively introducing her smokily despondent vocal style, as well as the album’s melodramatic narrative. In assimilating with Born to Die’s epic scope, the track’s sickly sweet apocalyptic tendencies are juxtaposed with Del Rey’s lachrymal sense of alienation, best embodied in the timeless confession, “I feel so alone on a Friday night.” Her unwavering faith that, despite the raw, intermingled sense of codependent devastation, the best is somehow yet to come for herself and her Luciferian lover adds yet another layer of tragedy, rendering Born to Die consistently intriguing from start to finish.

The suite-like “Off to the Races,” arguably Del Rey’s finest song, features the singer cycling, as on her aforementioned SNL performance, through multiple vocal techniques, including “chatting” and her signature “baby-doll voice.” Here, Del Rey unveils her “Lolita” persona, quoting Nabokov’s novel and portraying herself as bikini-clad and poolside, a much older man admiring her, loving her “with every beat of his cocaine heart.” Among the album’s most intricate cuts, “Off to the Races” showcases producers Patrik Berger and Emile Haynie’s gritty soundscape, rich in dance-ready beats and dreamy orchestration. “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” both key entries, continue the opening track’s doomed Bonnie & Clyde-esque saga. For those who were present for its initial release, the latter track may sound especially “of its time,” its classic melancholia undercut with references to its own generation’s resignation.

The album’s highest points arrive in succession, beginning with “National Anthem,” whose sinister string section swells against a sordid narrative of excess and social ascension offered by Del Rey’s “Jessica Rabbit” character. This track serves as the culmination of her early work’s red, white, and blue fascinations, Del Rey insisting, “Tell me I’m your national anthem.” Indeed, for a youth culture which had come of age against the backdrop of a widening sociopolitical divide and devastating recession, the reverberations of which were still felt in 2012, the presence of Old Glory, and Del Rey’s association of it with wealth and affluent splendor, once signified a certain national ideal—an aesthetic patriotism for a generation largely without allegiance. Similarly, the spellbinding “Radio”—itself an underrated artistic achievement on Del Rey’s part—sees her proclaiming, “American dreams came true somehow/I swore I’d chase ‘em ‘til I was dead/I heard the streets were paved with gold/That’s what my father said.” In essence, Born to Die condones in its listeners the desire for something more.

That said, while even the warm, yet foreboding waters of “Dark Paradise” carry within their currents the promise of some flight toward earthly delight, tracks such as the presumedly autobiographical “Carmen” and early hit “Summertime Sadness” ensure a consequence to the freedom portrayed on previous numbers. The former, a dreary ode to self-destruction and innocence lost, depicts the natural degradation of glamour at the hand of indulgence. The latter, a languid micro-drama, finds the narrator “feelin’ electric tonight/Cruisin’ down the coast, goin’ about 99,” oblivion’s certain inevitability stalking just beyond the dusky shoulder. “I know if I go,” Del Rey assures her listeners, “I’ll die happy tonight.” As though risen from the ashes, a final figure emerges on the album’s closing cut “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” She speaks frankly, an expository reminiscence of the heartache and delinquency to which she confesses, equally proud and weary. It is possible that, 12 tracks in, the listener is introduced at last to some semblance of the true Elizabeth Grant: privileged, vulnerable, idealistic, and bold.

Of course, as with her triumphs, even Del Rey’s tragedies are ornamented with exquisitely baroque production, awarding each cut a certain vintage soundtrack quality. More cynical critics dismissed Del Rey’s aesthetic preferences as mere gimmickry, a clever marketing scheme to gain her “cred” among the era’s indie tastemakers, ushering her—blatant pop sensibilities and all—into the coveted underground. The painful sincerity in many of her lyrics should serve to dispel such suspicions, as should her perpetually lively creativity and relatively solid output over the past decade. Lana Del Rey, love her or not, remains one of her generation’s most influential and recognized artists.

Ultimately, the significance of Del Rey’s sadcore masterpiece rests not only within her artistry, but also the movement which came of age beneath its neon sentimentality. In all its pining, anguish, and expectation masquerading as disillusionment, Born to Die remains a definitive time capsule of Millennial culture in transit—the soundtrack to a movie we didn’t realize we were living, until we suddenly found ourselves watching its credits roll.

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