To the annals of terrible things from 2012 that were not, in retrospect, quite as terrible as they first appeared—a list that includes Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” The Newsroom, Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco, blowing a lottery pick on Austin Rivers, the Battleship movie, the Wii U, and Pippa Middleton’s cookbook—let us now add Lana Del Rey’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. Yes. We’re getting this out of the way. There she stood, the artist pretty recently known as Lizzy Grant, on January 14, 2012, more than two weeks away from the release of her major-label debut, Born to Die, a relatively unproven quantity and thus a somewhat anomalous SNL musical guest. Also anomalous: the internet’s immediate, visceral, disgusted, furious, and not a little performative reaction.
This is rough. I will not argue otherwise; I am not a performance artist. Del Rey is moaning the startlingly morose “Video Games,” a gorgeous and narcotized torch-song power ballad for the iPhone Virtual Lighter app era, and still one of the best debut breakout singles of this decade. She looks dazed and stiff and extravagantly uncomfortable, which is partly a shrewd embodiment of the song itself and partly your garden-variety dazed, uncomfortable stiffness; her voice is deep and rich and booming and tragic, with perilous swoops into her upper register that radiate her discomfort outward. (By the last chorus you’ve learned to brace for the wobbly ascent of the line “I heard that you like the bad girls / Honey, is that true?”) She takes a full twirl after each chorus, a campy gesture in super slo-mo; she is both the deer and the headlights. Even if you’d spent the past half-year or so doing nothing but incessantly arguing about this person on the internet, it was a surreal and profoundly unsettling experience.
So: rough. Her second tune, “Blue Jeans,” is a much less mesmerizing ballad delivered in an even drowsier manner. But especially back then, almost every artist on SNL sounded lousy for one reason or another, and Del Rey’s turn in the barrel is not the tuneless catastrophe you might remember. It certainly did not seem to deserve the gleeful Twitter-shame roundups or the melodramatic derision of, say, NBC anchor Brian Williams, who told Gawker boss Nick Denton, in a private email Gawker immediately published, that “Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night—booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters.” Rude, Brian. Rude, Nick. Rude, everyone.
For the longest time nobody quite knew what to do with, or for that matter how to talk about, Lana Del Rey, but even Saturday Night Live took a shot at it. Three weeks after that alleged catastrophe, who should show up to chat with Seth Meyers on “Weekend Update” but Kristen Wiig, in full LDR getup, her duck lips comically pursed as she apologizes to America for the war crime of shakily singing two of her songs: “Based on the public’s response, I must have instead clubbed a baby seal while singing the Taliban national anthem.” Kristen-as-Lana owns up to not meeting the high SNL musical-guest bar set by Bubba Sparxxx, the Baha Men, and Shaggy, and caps it off by bantering with Meyers in a harsh parody of the frothing internet discourse Del Rey had long inspired.
“Lana, just so you know, I stood up for you, and I think you’re great,” he tells her.
“Wow. Seth. I’m totally gonna sleep with you now,” she replies.
That was internet discourse in 2012, which could be every bit as terrible as you remember, and looks better in retrospect only if you compare it with, yes, internet discourse here in good old 2019, where even the refrain “Go play your video game” lands quite differently. One of the precious few people who are arguably better off now, in fact, is Lana Del Rey herself.
On Friday, Del Rey will release her fifth album for Interscope, the fantastically titled Norman Fucking Rockwell, whose delicate and fantastic pre-release singles have ranged from “Fuck It, I Love You” to “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have — but I Have It” to an endearingly earnest cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.” She is thriving, and mutating, and improving such that the spotty but occasionally excellent Born to Die is probably, in retrospect, her worst album.
But it is also, as a new Billboard cover story reminds us, a nearly unprecedented success, one of only three albums by a female artist to spend 300 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart. (The other two are Carole King’s Tapestry and Adele’s 21.) When Born to Die finally came out on January 27, 2012, after months of beyond-tiresome discourse about name changes and plastic surgery and nefarious industry connections and the merit of the phrase “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” it felt far more like the end of something than the beginning of anything, let alone a sustainable career. But surviving a pitched internet shaming back then turned out to be good practice for surviving in the real world now.
Del Rey’s homemade video for “Video Games,” released in summer 2011 and the catalyst for all this calamity and ignominy, justifies the hype even now, an alarmingly great song wedded to a nauseous mix of predatory Old Hollywood glamour and vacuous Apple-billboard New Hollywood grit, beaming and innocent teenage girls intercut with wobbling paparazzi-hounded starlets. The harps trill, the synths groan, the reverb shimmers like a wildfire mirage, and Del Rey gazes into the camera with a hypnotic somnambulance. Who is she? (Lizzy Grant.) Where did she come from? (Lake Placid, New York, and/or the extravagant digs of her web-entrepreneur father, and/or a trailer park.) Are those her real lips? (Oh, shut up.)
Her early interviews only heightened the intrigue and the absurdity. She described herself to The Guardian as “Lolita got lost in the hood.” In a Q&A with The Quietus, she responded to the sort-of Q “There’s a theory that the archetype you portray plays to male sexual fantasies?” with the reasonable A “In the video for ‘Video Games,’ I was trying to look smart and well-turned-out, rather than ‘sexy.’ Of course I wanted to look good, but ‘smart’ was the primary focus.” To Pitchfork, asked if she’d been cajoled into changing her name or image, she averred, “People have offered me opportunities in exchange for sleeping with them. But it’s not 1952 anymore. Sleeping with the boss doesn’t get you anywhere at all these days. Nobody cared about wanting to change the way I looked or sounded because no one was interested in the music.”
The music was indeed a secondary focus of much of the early LDR discourse, which fixated instead on the Lizzy-to-Lana transition, the industry machinations, the persona-swapping fraudulence of it all. Hipster Runoff, the biggest and thorniest blog of this indie-boom era, vacillated from denouncing her image change in a breathless exposé to indulging a full-blown existential crisis under the headline “Lana & Me: Our Dark, Abusive, Co-Dependent Relationship on the Content Farm.” Born to Die was still not out yet, at that point. Much of this agonizing over a young artist changing her name or tweaking her persona was amusingly quaint even at the time (shout-out one of the best rap songs of 2010) and is ridiculous to even contemplate now, but it led to Born to Die inspiring some of the most overwrought album reviews of our young century, though maybe I’m just thinking of my own, though I do stand by the sentence “Calm down.”
Born to Die, as a purely musical experience, lays it on pretty thick, too. Produced by a modest wrecking crew led by Kid Cudi and Eminem cohort Emile Haynie, it is committed to its trip-hop-via-film-noir aesthetic, nauseatingly lush on principle and eerily vacuous by design. Part of Del Rey’s trouble on SNL boils down to how many femme fatale archetypes a single song requires her to embody, from the sultry low-register croons to the coquettish Olive Oyl yelps, which makes wildly stylized anthems like “Off to the Races” (this very unofficial video works a little too well) or, yes, “National Anthem” hard to deal with. (“National Anthem” is the one with the gigantic chorus that ends with the very silly declaration “Money is the reason / We exist / Everybody knows it, it’s a fact, kiss kiss.”)
I will ride hard for the gorgeous “Radio,” which finds a way to both fear her impending theoretical commercial success and revel in it, but Born to Die got worse the more songs Interscope steadily added to it. The album’s various bonus tracks, many hailing from Del Rey’s November 2012 Paradise EP, are self-parodic in the extreme, from the one called “Lolita” to the one that starts “Everything I want I have / Money, notoriety, and rivieras” to the other one that starts “Elvis is my daddy / Marilyn’s my mother / Jesus is my bestest friend” to the other one that starts “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola.” There were perhaps too many males involved, at this point, in her deconstruction of the male gaze. (“If there’s a man in the room when you write,” she’d told The Guardian, “he gets 50 percent.”)
A notable exception: In 2013, the French DJ Cedric Gervais released an uncommonly perceptive remix of Born to Die’s “Summertime Sadness,” a sublimely discordant mix of packed-dance-floor ecstasy and Del Rey’s trademark intimate fatalism. That remix is, to date, her only top-10 hit, and seemed to portend countless craven EDM crossover moves to come. But what’s impressive about Del Rey’s albums since is how bizarre and insular and singularly her they are: Even if you regard her as an industry plant, whatever that means, you can’t say she’s taken the easy way out musically or aesthetically. The eerie Ultraviolence, from 2014, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and includes a hilariously biting tune called “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”; the video for “High by the Beach,” the lead single from 2015’s Honeymoon, ends with her blowing up a helicopter with a rocket launcher. The sweet and swooning “Love,” from 2017’s Lust for Life, is the closest she’s ever come to a conventional pop single, but you won’t mistake it for anybody else, or suspect that she’s trying to rip anybody else off.
Conversely, listen to even 30 seconds of Taylor Swift’s quite splendid new jam “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” and you’ll know exactly who’s getting ripped off. Del Ray’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, from that title on down, does not much seem interested in setting the world aflame, though it might wind up being 2019’s clearest and wisest and most humane snapshot of a world that is, in fact, already aflame. The chorus to the delicate “Looking for America” goes as follows:
I’m still looking for my own version of America
One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly
No bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide
It’s just a dream I had in mind
Nightmarish as the discourse surrounding her early years could be, it’s always been Lana Del Rey’s dream we’ve been living in, and not the opposite. Born to Die endures as a monument both to what she created and what she endured, and even if the endurance overwhelmed the creation for quite awhile there, she got over the vicious Internet Ingenue era a long time ago, even if you never did. “The culture is lit / And if this is it / I had a ball,” she purrs on a new song called “The Greatest,” splitting the difference between the deer-plus-headlights glaze of Old Lana and the quiet, savvy conviction of New Lana. I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she were faking it, but somehow I just know she’s not.