She was a tragic character from the very beginning—Lana Del Rey was Born to Die. And yet, half a decade later, her story continues; her myth still grows. The pouty princess who once served as Hipster Runoff’s lifeline has made her way to the (literal) top of Hollywood with a renewed Lust for Life. “We’re the masters of our own fate,” she coos with confidence on the album’s title track. It’s a well-worn cliché that sounds downright profound coming from a woman who has meticulously created and refined a persona that is far more than meets the black-lined eye.
Lana is not the tortured seductress we first assumed her to be. No, she is a true and shrewd 21st-century star. She glorifies outdated stereotypes, while challenging outdated perspectives on sex, race, youth, beauty, power, fame, and the American dream. She then neatly fits these ideas into classic archetypal figures that come alive in noir soundscapes as silky and sumptuous as her bed sheets surely must be. Here, we break down Lana Del Rey into her four most distinct roles and unpack the influences behind them.
THE FEMME FATALE
Lana got plenty of heat back in 2014 for telling The Fader, “The issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept.” The fact that she opens a song with a line like “my pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” doesn’t help her cause, but she’s hardly proven to be a powerless woman. In fact, Lana is arguably at her best in her most infamous role: the femme fatale. Her idea of feminism is using and abusing the power of femininity, not unlike strong sex symbols before her, from the slithery slyness of Nancy Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot to the overt eroticism of Madonna. Of course, the femme fatale can be as lethal to herself as she is to the opposite sex. When her own dangerous games of sex, drugs, and intrigue turn against her, self-awareness becomes crucial. When Lana admits that she wants “Money Power Glory” and that “prison isn’t nothing to me” (on “Florida Kilos”), she takes on the gall and grit of proud bad girls Rihanna and Amy Winehouse.
THE HOPELESS ROMANTIC
Lana will break an endless amount of hearts, but will forever find true love elusive. She can lure the boys in but never quite let them go. She is the hopeless romantic, much like “Lust for Life” collaborator The Weeknd, who once said, “she is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music.” On her big, symphonic ballads, she’ll sweep you up in every intimate detail with the pained quiver of Antony Hegarty, the vivid imagery of Leonard Cohen (whose “Chelsea Hotel #2” Lana has covered), and the brooding intensity of Chris Isaak’s sultriest unrequited-love song, “Wicked Game.” All the while, she associates youth and beauty with romance (“Will you still love me/ When I’m no longer young and beautiful”), believing that none of these things will ever last—but it doesn’t mean she’ll stop falling in love.
THE SAD GIRL
Behind every calculated move and every shade of cool is a sad girl “crying tears of gold.” This is the fate of a tough temptress with a soft soul. Lana wallows in her sorrow as much as she does in her drugs, booze, and boys. Her most indulgent torch songs are draped in infinite sadness, starting with the obvious “Sad Girl,” with its dark, dusky swing in the style of Twin Peaks enchantress Julee Cruise, or “Million Dollar Man,” in which she echoes the most “Sullen Girl” of all, Fiona Apple. She even finds a kindred spirit in Mr. Lonely himself with her stunning cover of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.” Still, through all that misery, at least she knows that she’s pretty when she cries.
THE ALL-AMERICAN PROVOCATEUR
Lana embodies the American dream as every bit of the illusion that it is. The American flag is her most provocative symbol, whether she’s standing proudly before it (mischievously winking) or suggestively wrapping herself in its stars and stripes. She finds money, fame, and all that dream promises—but never happiness. She sings of Springsteen in “American”; portrays herself as both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O in the video for “National Anthem”; and even gets political on “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” Her vision of America starts and ends on the West Coast. She paints the Golden State as both scandal and savior with hints of EMA and Courtney Love; tells sordid tales of “Guns and Roses” like only Guns N’ Roses could; and finds her fellow California “Freak” in video co-star Father John Misty. All together, she is America the Beautiful, the Cunning, the Miserable.