It has never been an easy time to be Lana Del Rey. The patron saint of Hollywood sadcore burst onto the music scene a decade ago to near-instantaneous backlash, and it has been a tumultuous journey ever since. Although her aesthetic has barely wavered, she’s been alternately held up as an anti-feminist symbol, an inspiration for young women, and an exemplar of out-of-touch whiteness. Sometimes the conversation about Del Rey has overshadowed her actual output. With the promo cycle for Lana’s new album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, kicking up controversy, her meaning in the culture is shifting again, much to the frustration of the artist herself.
Del Rey broke out with her song “Video Games” in the summer of 2011, a time so far in the past that much of the debate about it played out on blogs that no longer exist. Rarely has an aesthetic been so fully formed on a first single — or rather a first music video, edited by Del Rey and posted to YouTube: five minutes of grainy Super 8 Americana with cheesecake shots of the artist lip-syncing into her webcam.
Her mid-century femininity hit a nerve. That hair! Those lips! Who could forget the press release touting her as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”? Five minutes’ digging proved her backstory was not very gangster at all: She had a marketing-exec father and a well-to-do upbringing upstate, and had previously released an EP under her real name, Lizzy Grant. The lips, too, were suspect. By the time you’d heard of Del Rey, you’d probably also heard she was a fake, an industry plant who put the “retro” in “retrograde.” Soon, though, there was a backlash to the backlash: Hadn’t plenty of male artists embraced alter egos? Critics noted this but remained unconvinced. “It’s not that there’s anything ‘inauthentic’ about Del Rey,” argued a Pitchfork writer. “It’s just that the aesthetic references surrounding her are all already so pungent, evocative, and well worn that it’s hard to reshape them.”
If writers paid more attention to her iconography than her music, well, that was partly because there wasn’t much music out there yet, and critics seemed to agree what she had released wasn’t interesting. (The Village Voice called it “early-’00s singles bar music.”) Still, her image had real juice.
If the first stage of the Lana-versation was marked by a lack of actual content, her disastrous January 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live changed all that. In a now-infamous segment, Del Rey turned in an Ambien-inspired rendition of “Video Games,” wandering aimlessly in circles onstage. With the benefit of hindsight, she was an inexperienced live performer shrinking from a too-bright spotlight, but few at the time were in the mood to make excuses for her. Enough viewers complained that SNL had to do a follow-up sketch begging the haters to chill. It wouldn’t have been surprising for Del Rey to go the way of Kreayshawn, consigned to the dustbin of early ’10s history.
When Lana’s first proper album, Born to Die, debuted on the heels of that SNL appearance, the New York Times called it “album as anticlimax, the period that ends the essay, not the beginning of a new paragraph.” The public did not agree: Born to Die became the fifth-highest-selling album of 2012 worldwide. If Del Rey was really so bad for women, why were so many of them buying her record? The French academic Catherine Vigier pinpointed the source of Del Rey’s appeal: She was “representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society’s prescriptions for success in what has been called a postfeminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them.”
Del Rey released a follow-up EP at the end of 2012, another one a year later, then the album Ultraviolence six months after that. As she got more prolific, it became easier to understand what she was doing. She was a musical Tarantino; her overwhelming collage of references was the aesthetic. The music got better, too, as she learned how to move between personae, from unapologetic gadfly (“Fucked My Way Up to the Top”) to unhappy recipient of the male gaze (“Pretty When You Cry”). In Cedric Gervais’s throbbing remix of “Summertime Sadness,” she got her first and only Top 10 hit. Critics began giving her grudging respect, then actual praise. She benefited from a shift in the discourse, too: “Video Games” came out during indie rock’s dying days as a cultural force. Who cared anymore if someone wasn’t “real”? That paled in comparison to other sins, like cultural appropriation.
The Teflon Woman
On political issues, Del Rey remained resolutely off-trend: The same summer Taylor Swift did a feminist rebrand, Lana was telling the Fader that “the issue of feminism [was] just not an interesting concept” to her. Occasionally, she had employed iconography too powerful for her to control — her cavalier comments about Kurt Cobain sparked a dustup with his daughter — or played with imagery she had no right to. In her 2012 “Ride” video, she donned a Native American war bonnet; in the short film Tropico, she cosplayed as a chola stripper. Still, unlike Swift, who built her stardom on the notion that she was giving access to her true self, Del Rey’s heightened persona ensured that critiques never escalated into full-on controversy. You couldn’t stay mad at Lana Del Rey. It would have been like getting mad at Betty Boop.
Del Rey’s next three albums — 2015’s Honeymoon, 2017’s Lust for Life, and 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! — were increasingly acclaimed. As we entered the Trump era, however, even Lana couldn’t stay above politics, especially as the new president’s favored iconography (nostalgic Americana, ostentatious consumption, strong men) was not entirely unlike her own. In response to the changing times, she scrapped her American-flag motif and stopped singing a lyric about physical abuse. She also joined a group of witches in putting a hex on the president. Her image became slightly less remote and mysterious; a 2017 article approvingly noted that she was “kinda regular.” So regular, in fact, that in 2020 she showed up to the Grammys in a dress she got at the mall.
Engaging with the world also meant engaging with social media, where Del Rey started to release years of frustration over her press coverage. “I make sure I know what my story is,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s why I get mad if I read something that seems off.” Every few months brought a new dust-up. She got into a Twitter beef with Azealia Banks. There was a microcontroversy over her relationship with a “celebrity cop.” And she got defensive when an NPR critic dove into a deep analysis of her persona. Del Rey claimed that she’d “never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” It was a laughable assertion and a rite of passage: She was now the kind of star who had ill-advised tweets, just like everyone else.
2020 was a treacherous year for celebrities online, who had to navigate a complex set of unwritten rules about the proper tone to strike on social media that bedeviled even the savviest among them. So of course Del Rey wasted no time stepping in it. In May, she announced her new album with an Instagram post: “Now that Doja Cat, Ariana [Grande], Camila [Cabello], Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc. — can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money … without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse? … I’m not not a feminist, but there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me.” The other artists’ fans united against her, pointing out that she’d mostly targeted women of color. Del Rey’s own fans pleaded for her to delete the post. A more calculating star might have known it was time to go away for a while. But it was 2020 — who was capable of logging off? Instead, she dug in her heels. “The fact that they want to turn … my advocacy for fragility into a race war — it’s really bad,” she said in a follow-up video. Her timing was impeccable: That same week, the Amy Cooper scandal turned white women’s “fragility” into a punch line.
Del Rey tried to get back on the right side of history, but once again she was playing with imagery whose meaning had slipped out of her grasp. When she Instagrammed L.A. protests against police brutality, she drew criticism for posting videos of looting. When she did a book signing wearing a mesh mask, she was accused of putting lives at risk. (She claimed it had protective plastic underneath.) Eventually she entered a state of twitchy paranoia familiar to listeners of Taylor Swift’s Reputation. After posting the art for her upcoming album, Del Rey appended a defense against accusations of tokenism that had yet to be made: “As it happens when it comes to my amazing friends and this cover, yes, there are people of color on this record’s picture.” She added, “My best friends are rappers, my boyfriends have been rappers.”
She was not entirely wrong to be so anxious. The following day, Del Rey proposed to an interviewer that Trump was so addled before the January 6 insurrection that “he doesn’t know that he’s inciting a riot” — and was immediately accused of downplaying the violence. Unhappy with the way her comments were circulated online, she personally responded to seemingly every single tweet about it, taking particular umbrage with Complex. “It’s fucked up. You know I’m real,” she tweeted at the website, whose audience has primarily been people of color. Shortly after Chemtrails’ release in March, she sarcastically reposted a months-old Harper’s Bazaar think piece: “Just want to say thank you again for the kind articles like this one and for reminding me that my career was built on cultural appropriation and glamorizing domestic abuse.” Then she announced she would soon be releasing yet another album: Rock Candy Sweet, out June 1.
Thus, the negative feedback loop rolls on. Every stilted and tone-deaf public statement brings less charity from the blogosphere, which only makes her skin even thinner. There are two ways the relationship can go from here: If the albums hold up, Del Rey’s artistry could push away the memory of a few bad posts. If it’s not, we all may be better served muting her for a while.
*A version of this article appears in the February 15, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!