(Austin Hargrave/AUGUST)

Lana Del Rey is real

The pop star says she never needed a persona. Now that she’s made one of the decade’s finest albums, are we finally ready to believe her?


Here’s a wild idea: What if Lana Del Rey is exactly who she says she is?

Her music keeps making us think otherwise. It’s still too elegant, too plush, too slippery to be real. Maybe that’s why, in concert, she likes to talk about a song after she sings it, as if to confirm that it wasn’t just a puff of Chanel No. 5 in our collective imagination.

At the Hollywood Bowl this month, she performed “Wicked Game” with Chris Isaak. “We can’t be in the middle of Hollywood and not hear the sexiest song of all time,” Del Rey explained as Isaak exited the stage. She wasn’t thanking her guest so much as expressing her gratitude to sexiness as a sound.

Has everyone heard “Norman F---ing Rockwell!” by now? It’s the greatest Lana Del Rey album, dizzying and precise, unknowable and lucid, unprecedented while still feeling like more of the same, genius all the way. She’s still blowing thought bubbles from the privacy of her mind into the slipstream of the American Dream, but this time around, she’s pared down the studio production and cranked up the paradox. The more beautiful her music becomes, the stranger it feels. It’s a triumph.

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For years, the easiest way to reconcile the strangeness of Lana Del Rey was to tell ourselves that we were listening to a persona. Here was a remote pop star dream-journaling from a perspective too fabulous to belong to an actual human being.

Del Rey has rejected that idea from the jump. When NPR published a deep, diligent, largely flattering review of her new album last month, Del Rey took issue with its mention of personae and blasted back on social media: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” Gawkers are still gawking at that retort, but why not take her at her word? Back in 2011, at the dawn of her fame, she told Pitchfork, “I’m not trying to create an image or a persona. I’m just singing because that’s what I know how to do.”

Now she has made an album where she’s patrolling the margins of her psyche and relaying her findings, whispering hyper-intimate lullabies that can feel as exquisite and disorienting as reality. She’s not a mirage. Her music isn’t a magic trick. She believes in songcraft as truth-telling. Why not believe her?

Singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey made her first big splash in 2012 with the polarizing album “Born to Die.” (Austin Hargrave/AUGUST)

Behind the lyrics

Two days after the Hollywood Bowl, Del Rey is in Santa Barbara to catch a Bob Dylan concert — partially to bask in mythological music alongside family and friends, partially because “it’s good to learn from everyone who’s been doing it for so long.” But before the Pacific Ocean can pull down the sun, the 34-year-old will spend an hour inside a conference room at the Four Seasons answering questions about the creative impulse in a tone of voice that’s bright, casual, searching and sincere.

She doesn’t sound embattled. “I, maybe at one point, thought of it as being on the firing line,” she says of the skepticism she has faced over the years. “But once you’re on the line, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not all bad.’ . . . There is kindness, and it’s not all speculation.”

That’s one way to explain the flood of hot and cold unleashed upon “Born to Die,” Del Rey’s polarizing 2012 album. As pop albums go, it was difficult to hear clearly at the time. The singer’s rise out of the New York open-mic circuit and up through the industry machinery, while not atypical, had been spun into a bogus media narrative about how she wasn’t operating on her own creative volition, as if her songs had been focus-grouped into existence. On top of that, “Born to Die” landed at a time when a pop hit was expected to double as a melodic affirmation, a self-esteem vitamin, a danceable pep-talk, Gaga-rah-rah-rah. Del Rey was different, and so was her music. “I have a more delicate sensibility,” she says. “It’s just my nature, the way I’m not fast or on fire.”

Instead, she wrote ballads about surrendering to romantic oblivion — songs that made many listeners bristle on principle, even if Del Rey was telling her truth. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you,” she gushed on her breakout single “Video Games,” a self-erasing love song about a distant lover who’s more concerned with the pixels on his computer screen.

“I remember when ‘Video Games’ came out, people were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so anti-feminist!’ ” Del Rey says. “ ‘You’re sitting and watching him play video games?’ I was like, ‘Well, I would play, too, now and then.’ And I had other stuff I was doing. I wrote a hit album! Can’t I take an hour to watch him play ‘World of Warcraft’?”

“I have a more delicate sensibility,” says Del Rey, seen in 2012. “It’s just my nature, the way I’m not fast or on fire.” (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

She continued to grow into her ideas while listeners demanded to know what her music meant, who it spoke for, what it stood for. Del Rey may not have answered directly, but she was listening. “What it taught me is that they saw more,” she says. “They thought there should have been more there. Like, a different path than maybe what I was laying down.”

Has her work been over-interpreted? Not necessarily. Listeners will blaze their own paths into and out of any piece of music. Del Rey does it, too. One of her most potent writerly devices involves recycling old lyrics from classic songs. Earlier in her career, it sounded like cheating off someone else’s paper, like she was spackling holes in her verses with mundane swatches of radio haiku — lyrics from Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Patsy Cline, David Bowie and dozens more. But across her discography, her commitment to the gesture has deepened its meaning. “Not intentionally,” she says. “I’m a bit of a muso. If we’re not at Dylan, we’re hopefully at another show. So, most stuff I just have on my mind.”

So she uses songs the way we all do. She lets them float around in her head space, inviting them to speak for her whenever a lyric syncs up with daily life. Still, she seems to be doing something extraordinary with them on this new album — especially during “The Greatest,” a dazzling slow dance about cultural exhaustion during which Del Rey references the death of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson: “I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go, Dennis’s last stop before Kokomo.” With breath-stealing efficiency, that line transforms Kokomo from an imaginary timeshare into the afterlife itself — which seems to transform the original ditty into a murder ballad. And that feels radical. Del Rey isn’t just nodding to her heroes. She’s using her own lyrics to change the meaning of their songs.

Sitting in the Four Seasons, Del Rey listens to this hypothesis politely. Then she explains how that lyric came to exist: “I literally went on a date [in Marina del Rey], and this dude was trying to impress me and was like, ‘This was Dennis’s last stop before he hit his head on the dock.’ ”

Del Rey and Chris Isaak perform at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles this month. (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios)

Del Rey conceived the Hollywood Bowl concert as “an old-fashioned variety show.” (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios)

Del Rey at the show. (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios)

Del Rey conceived the Hollywood Bowl concert as “an old-fashioned variety show.” (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios) Del Rey at the show. (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios)

Clarity and intensity

This is Del Rey waving away the mist that surrounds her music, deflating other people’s grand ideas without apologizing, the same way her new album does. She wanted her new songs to be as legible as they could be. “I think that’s what people like about this record,” she says. “There’s clarity to it.”

Which allows for intensity. You could feel it at her Hollywood Bowl concert, a zigzag fever-dream that Del Rey had originally conceived as “an old-fashioned variety show” that might channel the immense aura of California, her new home and main muse. There were high-concept duets with Sean Lennon (son of John) and Adam Cohen (son of Leonard), as well as a Joni Mitchell genuflection with Weyes Blood and Zella Day. But Del Rey always sounded best singing alone.

During “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have — But I Have It,” she was joined by her album’s producer, Jack Antonoff, a guy who has injected all kinds of fizz and zip into the music of Taylor Swift and Lorde but helped Del Rey reduce her vision to its essence. At the Hollywood Bowl, Antonoff sat behind his piano and let Del Rey’s voice do the heavy lifting. After the song was finished, she paced the stage, mulling it over. “Hmm,” she said, gazing into her footsteps. “It’s an interesting song to sing onstage.”

What did she mean by that? “I felt like it was meant to be written,” Del Rey says in Santa Barbara, “but maybe not meant to be sung onstage.” In her mind, it felt too intense for her audience — “or for any audience,” she says.

So then who is she writing this music for? She pivots to the album’s title track, a blunt-force piano ballad in which the singer tells her “man-child” boyfriend, “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news.” Does she write a song like that for herself? For the world? For the microphone? For the moment? “I felt like it was supposed to come out in a particular way,” she says. “So it’s more, like, for the song.”

Writing the song for the song. Without saying it outright, that approach seems to remove the notion of persona from her music completely.

Then Del Rey begins to explain a new journaling routine that she has been practicing toward the end of each day. “It sounds kind of hippy-dippy, but there is, like, a little process that reveals itself to me and is revealing to me about myself,” she says. “I just kind of write whatever comes to mind. ‘I didn’t do anything today, I didn’t do the laundry today, dah-dah-dah.’ And then, before you know it, you get a page in, and you start writing things, and it’s like, ‘Oh, who’s writing that?’ ”

Wandering around the margins of your consciousness can lead you to the center of your self. Jotting down things you didn’t actually do can tell you what you’re really doing. Ultimately, it “has to do with writing one’s own narrative,” she says. “How does one do that? One actually physically writes their own narrative.”

Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.

Del Rey, seen at the Hollywood Bowl, says that all of her best ideas arrive when life is calm. (Randall Michelson Photography/Raleigh Studios)

‘I’m not going to tell everybody everything’

A conversation with Lana Del Rey rearranges time the way a Lana Del Rey album rearranges time. She answers questions long after they’ve been asked, consciously or not, which makes her chitchat, as straightforward as it feels, as nonlinear as her music. Piece it all together, and you might start to understand her musical proposition.

She agrees that too many listeners reflexively hear the slowness in her songs as shorthand for sadness — what about patience, intensity, concentration? — and that her songs aren’t rebuking the speed of the information age. She just moves through her life at a slower pace.

She says that all of her best ideas arrive when life is calm. Lyrics appear. Melodies have to be searched for. And when she recycles her lines from her older songs, it might be because they express some consistent truth in her life, or “it might be because I forgot.” Or both. More than once, she tries to explain her approach to songwriting by singing a Gordon Lightfoot tune: “If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell. . .

As for the meanings of her lyrics, not all of them are up for discussion. Some of her most intimate and enigmatic phrases swirl alongside one another during “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing,” including the lyric, “Serving up God in a burnt coffee pot for the triad.” Would she explain what the triad is? “I will not,” she says, smiling and shrugging. “I’m not going to tell everybody everything. . . . There’s so much to be treasured [in a song], just keep to yourself so that nobody can trash it.”

She does concede that this new album tells a story, but she’ll only lay out the contours. “It starts with being able to laugh, and it ends with crying again — but knowing there’s more laughing in store. It’s a very feminine cycle,” she says, twirling her manicured fingers in a figure-eight, conjuring the shape of infinity. “I’m hot. I’m cold. I’m mad at you. I love you. I’ve got hope.”

She knows listeners will complete that picture countless different ways, but she mostly agrees with the critical consensus that, on this album, her songwriting has reached some kind of peak.

“I felt that way when I finished ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing . . . ’” — then she stops and raises her index finger, pointing at the music that has suddenly entered the room.

Squinting her ears, she catches the melody as it seeps in through the window. It must be coming from the wedding ceremony in the adjoining courtyard. Yeah, it’s a Lana Del Rey song. “Young and Beautiful.” Or maybe it’s not a Lana Del Rey song. She’s not singing it. She’s right here.

“It’s a wedding singer,” Del Rey says, confirming that this wasn’t just in our heads. “What was I saying?”


Chris Richards

Chris Richards has been The Washington Post's pop music critic since 2009. Before joining The Post, he freelanced for various music publications.

Additional credits:

Lettering by Made Up for The Washington Post; photo editing by Moira Haney; copy editing by Emily Morman; art direction by Eddie Alvarez.