January 14, 2012: the day the music industry showed its true colors. That evening was Lana Del Rey’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live, where she performed two songs from Born to Die—her major-label debut album that was to be released just two weeks later. The singer came under fire for the performance that many were calling the worst SNL showing of all time.
Critics, fellow celebrities and casual TV viewers alike, who previously pimped her for months following the viral success of "Video Games," soon ripped the artist to pieces. The commentary was so furious that it was almost impossible to put Del Rey back together before Born to Die arrived five years ago this week on Jan. 30.
That negativity followed the singer once the album was out for the world to listen. The same reviewers who currently praise her music littered her debut LP back then with a measly two-star rating, or swiftly dismissed the effort to be “as puffy as the singer’s oft-debated lips.” There were shouts of plastic surgery accusations, questions of how authentic this Lana Del Rey person was (who went by her real name Lizzy Grant just a few years prior) and the incessant need to know how much the record label manufactured her artistry.
We were too busy worrying about the frivolous details of Lana’s image, something a male equivalent wouldn’t dare be questioned about, that we didn’t realize the future of sad girl pop was standing before our very eyes.
Straight from the opening title track, Born to Die grabs you by the throat with its sweeping orchestral strings combined with the immediately captivating trip-hop drum beats. We are quickly introduced to Del Rey’s hopeless character, who dips low with husky vocals and rises high with Betty Boop squeals. She willingly drags herself to the ends of the earth just to be with her old man with the cocaine heart. “I'm not afraid to say that I'd die without him,” she whimpers on “Off to the Races.” "Who else is gonna put up with me this way? I need you, I breathe you, I'll never leave you...”
Through the hazy mirrors of the Chateau Marmont and heart-shaped sunglasses, Del Rey manages to make timely social commentaries. On “National Anthem,” the album’s most clever song, she uses a triggering moment in history as a parallel to our modern world. Her cynical version of the American Dream is filled with excessive spending, slim necks draped with diamonds and relationships driven by wealth rather than love. The video amps the message even more, as Del Rey portrays both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy Onassis while A$AP Rocky stars as John. F Kennedy.
If the assassination reenactment in the “National Anthem” video wasn’t enough, Born to Die drifts into more sorrow with standout track, “Carmen.” It tells the story of a 17-year-old Coney Island queen who makes a living as a prostitute. The song’s haunting baroque melodies almost drowns you before the imagery of the Lolita stuffing herself up with drugs to mask the pain takes you on a euphoric ride.
The album continues to explore the lost soul of Del Rey’s character, with the chilling somberness of “Summertime Sadness,” accepting one’s demented flaws on “Million Dollar Man” and creating the illusion of a perfect relationship on "Video Games."
Del Rey emerged into the industry by proclaiming herself as the “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra" and "Lolita lost in the hood," a '50s persona that floated atop a pool of tears brimming with sugar daddy innuendos and plucked heartstrings. With Born to Die, the singer painted a fragile image of that misty-eyed coquette whose head is too clouded with cigarette smoke and broken promises to find the strength to leave a no-good lover behind. She exposed the other, much darker side of feminism that was frighteningly dependent on a man’s approval.
"For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept," the artist later brushed off to the Fader in 2014. “I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.”
Five years after the release of Born to Die, its influence remains as a subtle undercurrent in the new round of contemporary pop music singers. Del Rey's proud declaration of "A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens" on "This Is What Makes Us Girls" soon became more than just callback to her boarding school days.
The album's themes ripple in the confident sultriness of Selena Gomez, the Lolita allure of Melanie Martinez, Halsey’s hazy reflection on pop culture, the “come hither” nature of Niykee Heaton and the breathy California cool of Alina Baraz. It is seen amongst the ever-rising sea of flower crowns at music festivals and the emotionally-fueled Tumblr posts of teenage girls.
Del Rey created a character to express her torch music, much like the Stefani Germanottas, Katy Hudsons and Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connors of the pop world. Yet compared to her counterparts, it seemed to appear weak on its scratched surface. But the way that woman sauntered around in its red dress in the pale moonlight, to a dance of helpless devotion, was admirable.
Lana Del Rey has since dropped two albums following her debut: 2014’s Ultraviolence and Honeymoon the following year. Yet still nothing comes close to the transitional shift that Born to Die accomplished. “I have taken my music to labels for years, and everyone just thought it was creepy...they thought the images with the music were weird and verging on psychotic,” the singer once said in a 2012 interview a few days before her album’s release. “And then, one day, it’s like people decided it wasn’t actually too strange, it was actually too perfect. The fact that it could even be considered pop is a revelation to me. You know what changed? It got played on the radio.”
Funnily enough, the only song on Born to Die that was written after Del Rey signed with Interscope was "Radio." She broke it down to Australia's News.com:
"Talk to any of the producers I've worked with in the last 18 months. You can talk to Rick Nowels, Justin Parker, Emile Haynie, they worked with me because they loved me. The only reason Interscope and Polydor signed me was because I already generated interest. What people don't realize is that record labels don't have money to sign you anymore if you're a new artist, unless you're really young and they can help you mould your career"
On "Radio," you can almost hear Del Rey wink as she sticks it to her critics ever so charmingly while singing, "Now my life is sweet like cinnamon / Like a fucking dream I'm living in / Baby, love me cause I'm playing on the radio / How do you like me now?”
Now, let’s raise a toast to the tragic Americana.
Below, watch a throwback Fuse interview where Lana Del Rey discusses her "Born to Die" music video and live performances: