10 Years Ago, Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die Became the Blueprint for Pop Melancholia

Looking back at Del Rey's major-label debut, released this week in 2012

Illustration by Steven Fiche
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The thing about being a trendsetting artist is that work that defies the norm isn’t always understood in its time. Once the ground is broken, once an idea or an aesthetic becomes palatable, it’s destined to become trendy, which means it’s time for it to die so the cycle can begin again.

Such was the case for Lana Del Rey’s seminal Born To Die, received with middling reviews by critics upon its release on January 27th, 2012, but rapturously by certain demographics. Del Rey became the queen of indie sad kids, a purveyor of melodrama, and the patron saint of tragic romance.

Here, a decade later, it’s far easier to look back and see how Lana Del Rey, and Born To Die in particular, shifted the trajectory of pop music, alternative airwaves, and indie playlists. The album proved that there was a place for nuanced theatrics, and that tapping into such a space isn’t only emotional but profitable, too.

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The viral success of “Video Games” melted into the sleeper hit “Summertime Sadness,” and the album introduced the world properly to the dark fantasy that is the character of Lana Del Rey. Born To Die isn’t her magnum opus (that would be Norman Fucking Rockwell!), nor is it how many non-fans would identify her (“Young and Beautiful”) — but it was the collection that started it all.

Get Your Red Dress On Tonight

In early 2012, when Born To Die arrived in full, the mainstream didn’t quite know what to do with Lana Del Rey. Her naked sadness, backed throughout the album by symphonic strings, was different from the in-your-face boldness of Lady Gaga. Some critics, clinging for something to which she could be anchored, tried to compare her theatrical, California shallowness to Ke$ha, who was dominating radio at the time — and while Ke$ha was certainly confident in her joyful recklessness, Lana Del Rey was in a separate space.

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Born To Die is less interested in a party and more focused on what happens when the party’s over and two people are staring at each other in silence. The previous year’s Billboard chart was topped by songs like LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” Where could there possibly have been a place for songs about wanting to die if a lover leaves?

It turns out there were plenty of people craving these exact themes, and it’s funny, now, to see how clearly Lana’s cinematic misery would land with people. “Let’s go get high… we were born to die” is a lyric that sounds more like how so many people tweet these days.

Elsewhere, the Lana Aesthetic — red lipstick, winged eyeliner, high-waisted shorts, flower crowns, and a detached attitude — dominated social media, particularly communities more on the fringe like Tumblr. She was the ultimate cool girl. She cared so much, but she looked like she didn’t care at all.

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It’s You, It’s All For You

With a sudden jolt to the spotlight comes quick criticism. After the mixed reactions to the album came plenty of people ready to try to minimize Del Rey, and her outright disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live did nothing to help.

There’s no way to kindly repackage what happened on SNL — it was just bad. But then came speculations about plastic surgery. People accused her of “putting on an act,” a baffling criticism when it should have been clear that that’s exactly what she was doing. Some people were mad that she was fascinated by a bygone era, others were mad that she didn’t actually do drugs to accompany the mad woman fantasy.

What’s become clearer in the decade since is that, often, maybe Lana Del Rey (or more accurately Elizabeth Grant) doesn’t even know exactly who she wants to be. Her personal politics tend to be confused and inconsistent. It seems like she recently realized that she’s not the kind of person that really needs to be vocal on social media. In her work, though, she’s able to make everything make sense.

Tell Me I’m Your National Anthem

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Born To Die laid the groundwork for everything we’ve heard from Lana Del Rey since — the threads that run through that LP to Ultraviolence and Norman Fucking Rockwell! in particular feel strong — but she laid the groundwork for so many other artists, too. Billie Eilish has pointed to Lana Del Rey as a key influence.

It’s easy to imagine someone like Orville Peck delivering a track like “Radio”; it’s hard to imagine that artists like Halsey or Lorde would have been able to hone their sounds without an album like Born To Die as a reference point. Taylor Swift is on record in 2019 calling Lana Del Rey “the most influential artist in pop,” full stop, during her Artist of the Decade speech at the American Music Awards.

What Lana Del Rey seems to be constantly doing, though, is self-destructing and then remaking herself in her own image. Sometimes, as of late, it’s by accident — but here, back in 2012, it seemed intentional. The album arrived, it set her ablaze, it found the ears it needed to find, and then it sent Lana Del Rey up in a cloud of cigarette smoke. She never had any intention of burning forever. That much was made clear by the name of the album.

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