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From Lizzy to Lana--The Evolution of Lana Del Rey

By Abby Paterson--Eagle Staff Writer

Elizabeth Grant, known commonly by her stage name Lana Del Rey, was born in Manhattan, New York on June 21, 1985. Following tumultuous relationships with her parents and struggles with addiction throughout her early teen years, the singer was sent to boarding school in Kent, Connecticut; this experience came to inspire her early works, most notably in her unofficial debut album, Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant.

Lana Del Ray AKA Lizzy Grant, often referred to by fans as simply “AKA”, is the often-forgotten predecessor to Del Rey’s lengthy career. Due to issues with changing record labels, Lana Del Rey has almost completely wiped this album from her record; it is unavailable on streaming platforms, her stage name was changed, and no physical copies of the album were ever released, meaning fans have had to resort to illegal streaming in order to hear the album only three months after its release.

Lana Del Rey stuns at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, adorned in the vintage glamor that was characteristic of the Born to Die era (Photo Used under Fair Use Provision of the US Copyright Code).

Del Rey’s AKA era featured the humble performances with which she made her name in small, local scenes. She could often be found in a t-shirt and jeans performing at dive bars for audiences in the early 2010s. There was a surprising innocence which, despite often heavy subject matter, gave the album a lighter tone, with lyrics such as, “Say I make you feel like Christmas Time,” and, “Dance me all around the room,” in track twelve, “Smarty”. However, Lana Del Rey’s image began to transform from her humble reputation to one of glamor and luxury in 2012 with what is now considered her debut album, Born to Die.

In her music video for the album’s title track “Born to Die”, Del Rey posed on a throne surrounded by tigers and flowers, a stark contrast to her previous image. Continuing this contrast to her previous album, the lyrics take on a more outward darkness: “Choose your last words/This is the last time/’Cause you and I/We were born to die,” in “Born to Die”, and, “Dark and lonely/I need somebody to hold me,” in “National Anthem”.

Despite the outward luxury, Del Rey still kept her faux-small-town charm in the Americana image that she kept throughout the era, particularly in the EP attached to her debut, Paradise. The artist returned to her playful tone, singing, “Be young, be dope, be proud/ Like an American” in “American”.

Even with the album's commercial success (reaching #1 on the US Billboard 200), Lana Del Rey was yet to be respected in the music industry. She was critiqued for portraying herself as an “ice-cream-cone-licking object of male desire” by author Lindsay Zoladz of Pitchfork, a major music-reviewing publication. With her next album, Del Rey critically stepped it up; fellow Pitchfork writer Mark Anderson went as far to say, “Gone are annoying trifles like Born to Die’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘Diet Mountain Dew[.]’”

The simplest explanation for the critical turn on Del Rey is her delving into even deeper subject matter, this time not sugar-coated by pop beats and European dance remixes. Her sophomore album, Ultraviolence, is filled with the same sadness as previous works, this time with jazz-inspired instrumentals to match. In track seven, “Pretty When You Cry”, Del Rey plays off of the criticism against her: “Don’t say you need me when/You leave and you leave again/I’m stronger than all my men/Except for you.”

Ultraviolence also brought in lighter songs, though few and far between. One of her most popular songs, “Brooklyn Baby”, is a breezy, borderline satirical song in which she writes, “I’ve got feathers in my hair/I get down to beat poetry.”

Del Rey keeps consistent thematically with Honeymoon, this time adding instrumentals described by Jacob Robinson of the Daily Review as “grand, cinematic baroque pop.” In the title track, she hauntingly sings, “Everything you do’s elusive to/Even your honeydew.” With this, she further romanticizes an image of an unapproachable, dangerous man.

This image somewhat transforms in her fifth album, Lust For Life. She does keep an imagined man to fawn over in some songs, such as “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems,” where featured artist and legend Stevie Nicks sings, “Blue is the collar of the shirt of the man I love/He’s hard at work, hard to the touch.” However, the album overall is much more centered around Del Rey’s own struggles, especially in comparison to her previous albums.

In the concluding track, “Get Free”, Del Rey writes perhaps her most positive lyrics yet: “I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone’s game, or live my own life/And now I do/I wanna move/Out of the black/Into the blue.” Despite the usual connotations surrounding the color blue, Del Rey contrasts it with the color black, typically associated with the deep, inescapable sadness that the artist used in her early works. This bright blue happiness continues into her next album, which will be referred to in this article as NFR!

NFR! is arguably her most critically acclaimed album, receiving a nomination for Album of the Year at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. The happiness manifested in NFR! is shown most aptly in track 8, “How to Disappear”, where she imagines her future life free of trivial relationships described in the first two verses: “I watch the skies getting light as I write, as I/Think about those years/As I whisper in your ear/I’m always going to be right here/No one’s going anywhere.”

Her next albums, Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Bannisters, feature somewhat of a return to form. Chemtrails Over the Country Club consisted of multiple songs that were scrapped from previous albums, such as “Yosemite”, which was described by Del Rey as “too happy” on BBC Radio.

Blue Bannisters, despite being closely associated with Chemtrails Over the Country Club, strayed from its predecessor in its production. While Chemtrails Over the Country Club included many uses of stylistic voice modification, the production of Blue Bannisters was incredibly stripped back. Songs featured raw vocals from Del Rey, such as her repeated screaming of “Why?” in the outro of “Living Legend” meant to imitate a guitar solo.

Del Rey’s most recent album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd? is possibly her happiest and most retrospective yet. Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd? includes multiple references to her previous works, particularly in her self-sampled song, “Taco Truck x VB” where the second half of the song is the bridge of NFR!’s third track, abbreviated “VB.”

Additionally, the introspection that appears in this album is unlike any of Del Rey’s previous work. “The Grants”, the intro of her recent album, emphasized both the value she places on her family as shown in the song’s title, and her own battle with mortality: “My grandmother’s last smile/I’m gonna take that too with me/It’s a beautiful life/Remember that too, for me.” In this way, she shares a raw vulnerability that has not been previously explored by the artist without disguising it with the kitschy melodrama for which she was known.

Lana Del Rey has truly come full circle. After beginning at open mic nights and small clubs in 2005, Del Rey is performing her fifth concert tour eighteen years later, donating the funds from the concerts to the mid-sized cities where she performs. But the musician has not just evolved fiscally; there is a clear distinction between the happy and self-accepting, albeit downbeat, songs of her recent albums, such as “Sweet” and “Violets for Roses”, and the edgy, melancholic songs of some of her first works, “Shades of Cool” and “Video Games”, for instance. With artistry on a plane unmatched by any other musician, Del Rey has cemented herself into the music industry as a profoundly unique songstress.

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