It’s exactly one month to the day since Lana Del Rey played a short afternoon slot on the main Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury – and I’m still reeling from her performance. You know when you’re not sold on an artist and then in one moment – it might be a mind-blowing gig, track or interview – you have a complete volte-face, the doubts dissolve and they become one of your favourites? It’s a pretty rare experience.
Lana at Glastonbury wasn’t just my highlight of the festival. NME writers who were there – bar one – came back to our bus raving, zealously converted. The crowd, too, were hanging on to her every drawl and languid movement. By the time the first song finished, I had become a super-fan. It was an enormous crowd, as large as for the weekend’s headliners, and probably the biggest show of her career (Coachella festival, another big show she played earlier in 2014, has half Worthy Farm’s capacity). Although footage from her recent gigs had sounded good, reports of earlier shows didn’t give me the confidence that she’d be able to pull off the main stage. But doubts about her ability to sing live were immediately refuted. Live, the ‘narco-swing’ of her new album ‘Ultraviolence’ was electrifying. Since that show a few weeks ago, I’ve had the album on repeat every day.
‘Ultraviolence’ has definitely helped the re-assessment of Del Rey as ‘The Real Thing’, both critically and commercially. Del Rey’s debut ‘Born To Die’ has sold seven million copies since it’s release in January 2012. ‘Ultraviolence’ has sold over a million already and it’s been out for just over a month. First-week sales saw ‘Ultraviolence’ sell over double ‘Born To Die”s. And on Metacritic – a website that aggregates reviews – it gets an overall score of 75, while ‘Born To Die’ languishes at 61. It has, in the main, won over the pundits who thought ‘Video Games’ was her one trick. Those detractors that failed to see past the reinvention from Lizzy Grant to Lana Del Rey and her perceived falseness, and the listeners who quite liked the album but couldn’t imagine anything special to come.
I was one of those sceptics. I reported on the ‘Video Games’ backlash and called her background into question at the beginning of the furore. Now I find the obsession with authenticity that comes off the page cringe-worthy, particularly when two of my favourite pop stars are Robert Zimmerman and David Jones. But I wasn’t alone in finding Lana Del Rey confusing. Her contours seemed so negotiable that it wasn’t clear if, in fact, the whole act was fictitious. And, crucially, it wasn’t clear whether the ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ character was her own or engineered by the suits at her record label. Post-‘Video Games’, the artist previously known as Lizzy Grant’s lot appeared affixed, as unmalleable as her influences (Cobain, Dylan, Eminem) and marked by the Scarlet Letter of Hipster Runoff and other blogs that trampled on her quick success. After the criticism died down, Del Rey announced she was going to leave music and focus on modelling. It seemed she had been beaten by the hype.
So what changed? While ‘Born To Die’ is girlish, ‘Ultraviolence’ is dark and adult. It is brave in its slowness and ultimately more interesting. And even on a boiling hot afternoon in a Somerset field, the themes of death, possession, violence, sex and the American Dream-Into-Nightmare, translated. Del Rey’s self-immolation is powerful both on stage and on record. It is her USP. Fans study her lyrics in detail, feeling that she is giving them something tangible: her pain, her passion, her litany of torture, which has been ramped up for the second album. As I wrote in my blog about the show, men who looked like they should be moshing to Royal Blood sang along in a dazed stupor, connecting with the superstar on stage. The Glastonbury experience was heightened by a sense of anxiety about her mental state and whether she’d be able to get through it. A couple of weeks previous she was quoted in national newspapers saying she wanted to die. She retaliated to the Guardian’s article on Twitter and sounded confused and distressed, even though she’d said “I want to die” to the New York Times as well.
The relationship between a fan and a pop star is always complicated and human psychology can turn particularly nasty when hype comes into play. It’s easy to ride the wave of the backlash – a girl with an embarrassing past and pictures makes for a good story – though it doesn’t feel very edifying. While we are happy to draw characters like Blanche DuBois or King Lear or Herzog near to our chests, investing in them as if they were real and allowing them to mark our understanding of life accordingly, pop stars are held to much stricter account. The Glastonbury performance proved to me that, even if her doom-core is manufactured, it doesn’t matter.
So perhaps this is my amend to Lana Del Rey. Sometimes you just need one thing to happen to completely change your mind about an artist, to allay any suspicions or realise your distrust was foolish. She is, actually, everything I want in a pop star.
Have you ever had your opinion of an artist completely changed? Let us know in the comments below