Five years ago, Lana Del Rey was having a rough time in the press. Reviews of her major-label debut, Born to Die, were mixed at best, and the SNL performance that should have been a crowning moment in her still-new career was instead roundly criticized. Even SNL itself spoofed her the next week.
But the thing is, none of these harsh responses were Lana’s fault! In fact, the Lana Del Rey Backlash™ was the product of our own unrealistic expectations and toxic projections. She never owed us shit, and she’s the only person who’s consistently known that.
While Lana's early singles were sweeping and sentimental, they kept listeners and viewers at arm's length. The video for "Video Games" played into the audience's zest for nostalgia (read: VHS-quality footage that made us aware we were peering into someone else’s world), while “Born to Die” was a lofty exercise in self-mythology. Evoking ’60s-era Americana, Lana created a modern, sensational take on Rebel Without a Cause with the help of a pet tiger. Almost instantly, she established herself as a character. And just as quickly, we wanted access to more.
This laid the foundation for one of the most embarrassing backlashes to anything, ever. While Del Rey’s debut performance on Later... with Jools Holland in October 2011 didn’t earn her any new fans, any goodwill was trumped by her SNL haters a few months later (including Brian Williams, who actually penned an email condemning her SNL appearance as “one of the worst” in the show’s history, for some reason). As Lana sang, twirled, and mumbled through Studio 8H, viewers on social media went ballistic, skipping any sympathy for the singer’s stage fright and opting instead to use her as a handy example for their vague anger at blog culture, hipsters, or those darned kids today. In that moment, Lana Del Rey was no longer a performer, but a symbol for the changing cultural landscape. She was the cloud for old men to yell at — they just wanted her to go away.
Which, of course, she did not do. Born to Die went on to sell over 7 million copies worldwide, and Del Rey delivered “Summertime Sadness” in 2013 — a song whose remix ended up going platinum, along with Del Rey's theme to The Great Gatsby. She released the intriguing Ultraviolence in 2014, toured with Courtney Love the following year, and delivered the full-length Honeymoon shortly after to strong reviews.
In the five years since all those people decided to hate Lana Del Rey, she’s become less a poster child for the pitfalls of the music industry and more proof that the digital landscape can offer ashes from which to rise. Born from the death rattle of 2000s blog culture, she nestled into her musical and aesthetic niche, banking on her artistry to carry her above the naysayers and cloud-yelling olds and directly to a fan base that genuinely identified with her sound, vibe, and lyrical subject matter. The internet may have been behind the 2011–2012 Del Rey hype/hate machine, but it also ended up bringing together enough loyal listeners to make her one of today's top pop stars. Lana Del Rey and her people found each other, and won over many of her haters in the process.
Or at least that’s what we can glean from the response to Lust for Life, Lana’s upcoming record, whose cover art actually depicts the singer smiling. The thing is, we’d be foolish to assume that her smile signals the arrival of a “real” Del Rey, or that, after years of offering us only serious heartbreak, we’re finally getting a peek behind the curtain. As she’s always been, Lana is a consummate performer. She is a character, whose version of herself is being generously extended to the masses for consumption, analysis, scrutiny, and praise. Over the last five years, she's grown as a songwriter and performer. Everything else? It’s stayed more or less the same. She sings big, emotional ballads that capitalize on nostalgia and romantic melancholy, and she does what she wants, knowing that she owes us nothing.
The only real difference? The rest of us have seemed to clue into that. And while there are still some Lana Del Rey haters out there, most of us have matured enough to accept and embrace her artistry for what it is.