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FILTER 46: Vapors and Mirrors: A Character Study of Lana Del Rey

By Lauren Harris; photo by Nicole Nodland on November 29, 2011


FILTER 46: Vapors and Mirrors: A Character Study of Lana Del Rey

“I think that’s a really understandable question,” says Lana Del Rey, when asked if she is real. “It’s an interesting story—where the original star began, and what she turned into.”

The 25-year-old singer who has wrought the scrutiny of discerning audiences—and the publications who love to tell them what to listen to—is trying to address the issue that lays at the center of her ascent and the response to it: Where does the persona stop and the person start? “I’m interested in those stories,” Del Rey says, by way of understanding the curiosity that has been heaped on her, but also perhaps as some sort of admission. “They’re some of my favorite reads.”

Here are the facts of Lana Del Rey. Born Elizabeth Grant in tourist mecca Lake Placid, New York, Del Rey started singing at an early age. She sang in school. She sang in church. She turned 18 and moved downstate, and began singing at open mic nights, still under the name Lizzy Grant. From the start, Del Rey maintains, her plan was to build a world around a name, a complete sensory immersion under the heading of the luxe, silver-screen-tinted alias. “It could have been anything,” Del Rey says when asked about the specific choice, evocative of Hollywood glamour, ’50s beach clubs and anesthetized ethnicity. “It could have been anything. Just something beautiful.” She began to work on the songs that would comprise her debut, sweeping orchestral arrangements anchored by beats. In addition to the songs themselves, Del Rey made videos to accompany the tracks. “I was making even fucking creepier versions of music videos than I am now, making videos for every song with less of a narrative than I have now,” she says of her earlier visual works. That debut, lacking money and interest, sat shelved for two years, was released for two months, then returned to the ether from which it had come.

To understand Del Rey’s next step, it’s important to recognize she is as much a visual artist as she is a sonic one. “I love to write and sing, but I’m usually struck by something—if I see something beautiful, I internalize it. It usually makes more of an impact on me than something I feel.” With no clear intention in mind, Del Rey set to work putting together a visual complement to “Video Games,” a woozy, five-minute love song wherein she sounds like a vampier Cat Power, or a less-tranquilized Hope Sandoval. It tells the tale of a past relationship of Del Rey’s, told in the present tense and yet laden with nostalgia as it is happening. “I’d get home, he’d get home, too, and he’d play video games,” she says of that time in her life. “And nothing was wrong, and that made it right. It felt romantic to not have any severe ambitions, to just enjoy being in someone’s company.”

The video itself is a series of people hurtling and falling—in love, to the ground, through the air. “I didn’t really think it would be the one to help things,” says Del Rey of what happened next. In short order, she found herself with a following, a record deal and a level of analysis she could never have anticipated. Her statement of the song being about a time that lacked ambition is interesting; she is becoming aware, with every interview and interaction, that what started as an art project could read as just that. Interviewers have latched on to the outlandish facts of her life that she seems to love to give: she had lived in a trailer park; she is the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Del Rey’s name change seemed central to the question of her authenticity: Was she person or persona? Solid or vapor?

“People just assumed that there was a jump from 2008 to now, that I assumed a different identity and character. It was more like an art project to me, not a shift in persona,” says Del Rey. What has been misconstrued as a calculated ploy might be the furthest thing from it: an artistic expression. She has decided to use herself as an extension of her music, choosing a name thick with nostalgia and an image that seems shot through a Vaselined lens. Maybe it is because of the pillowy lips and saucer-sized eyes, maybe it is because there is too much space left on the canvas that Del Rey had only started to fill in, maybe it’s because she has a penchant for sound bites, but people have struggled to place and solve her.

With the release of her album Born To Die, Del Rey hopes to settle such questions. Written over the past two years, Del Rey describes the album as representative of her twin polarities: Hollywood beauty shot through with emcee swag. “I’ve always naturally seen the beauty in everything. I think that’s where my sweeping cinematic influence comes from. But also, it hasn’t been easy, and I relate to certain emcees—the way they tell their stories over a heavy beat. I relate to having to fend for yourself, and that’s where I need the support of a heavy street beat, to stay underneath me and support the beauty. Something strong and really hard—it’s an important juxtaposition for me.”

With the release of an entire album, there will be even more scrutiny, more trading on the currency of Lana Del Rey’s origin story, a further winnowing down to sound bites, less space for grand art projects. But at this point, Del Rey isn’t concerned. “I know everything’s going to be fine,” she says. And as for where the original star began, and what she’s turned into, Del Rey has already answered that question, even if no one else has. “I’m exactly the same person. I take myself wherever I go. It doesn’t really change.” F