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Saturday 21 April 2018

Femme fatale's mystique....popstar Lana Del Rey

The success of pop icon Lana Del Rey was about more than just a name change for the girl from Lake Placid

Contradiction: Lana Del Rey, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant, has released her third album. Photo: Chelsea Lauren
Contradiction: Lana Del Rey, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant, has released her third album. Photo: Chelsea Lauren
Doomy: There’s nothing to suggest Del Ray will go the way of Amy Winehouse. Photo: Carlos Alvarez.

Tanya Sweeney

A year ago, Lana Del Rey appeared at Dublin's Vicar Street with an eye-popping melee of onstage bells and whistles.

That wasn't the most curious aspect of the night. Near the end of her set, she disappeared into the pit and spent 20 minutes posing with fans for selfies. It was a bizarre, if modern, end to her Irish live debut. Yet it proved that Lana is an artist of two halves. There's the mysterious Technicolor throwback and the star playing to the Instagram generation. But then, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant has long had contradiction in her DNA.

At the outset of her career three years ago, Lana spoke of the times she lived in a New Jersey trailer park; putting in hours with a deadbeat boyfriend who did nothing but play Xbox (hence the hit Video Games). Just like Adele, Del Rey channelled her heartbreak into a juggernaut hit. Without a major label (though eventually she signed to Universal), she created a video for Video Games, put it on YouTube and got half a million views in weeks. Unlike every other viral video, this was no gimmick.

Rewind to 2011 and folks hadn't seen or heard anything quite like her (well, since Nancy Sinatra). She was a smoky-eyed, Bardot-style vision; a world away from the endless parade of bump'n'grind, in-your-face gunslingers coming down the pipe. She looked like the love-child of Priscilla Presley and Angelina Jolie. Best of all, she had the musical goods to back it all up. A star was born.

As is the case with most overnight successes, the hard yards had happened years before. Born in Lake Placid in upstate New York, she was sent to boarding school in leafy Connecticut (her dad is internet millionaire Rob Grant). Her first forays into the pop industry, as plain old Lizzy Grant, were a damp squib. After moving to New York at 18 to become a singer, she trawled the city's thankless open mic circuit. She did put time in at a New Jersey trailer park, but it was a smaller chapter in her narrative than originally suggested.

"I wanted to be a band but the label I was with and the team I had around me absolutely wanted me to be a solo artist," she says. "Lana Del Rey came from a series of managers and lawyers who wanted a name that they thought better fitted the sound of the music. It's the same person, just with a different name. The songs came first, then the name and probably a lot more hair and make-up after that."

Still, the bloggers that championed her reportedly felt duped. "There was definitely a sense among the blogs that had covered it: 'this is Lizzy Grant the popstar? This can't be right'," asserts Paul Stokes of Q Magazine. But as 2fm presenter Paddy McKenna points out, taking on a new name as an artist is as old as the hills.

"Whether it's because you don't want to be confused with a Monkee – Davy Jones changes to David Bowie – or the realisation that Mary Catherine O'Brien won't cut it in the case of Dusty Springfield, changing your name is a legitimate part and parcel of the industry," he says.

It's hard to keep a good girl down, and in Lana Del Rey's case, the slightly wobbly start did nothing to slow the musical juggernaut. As of June 2014, her second album Born To Die (an eponymous debut was released in 2010) has sold in excess of seven million copies. Her third album Ultraviolence, released last month, sold 880,000 copies in its first week.

The move from obscure artist Lizzy Grant to pop icon Lana was about more than just a mere name change. According to Stokes, the brilliance of Video Games did much of the spadework, and her palate-cleansing pop package did the rest.

"In recent years, pop has had immediate, bright production, so to have this kind of femme fatale show up was a real contrast from her contemporaries," says Stokes.

Ultraviolence comes good on the promise of Born To Die, yet there's still more than a sniff of the canny marketer around Del Rey. Just last month, Del Rey became tabloid catnip when she reportedly told journalist Tim Jonze, "I wish I was dead already". She took to Twitter to complain the quote had been taken out of context, but by then, the press inches has stacked up.

As it stands, there's nothing to suggest she will go the way of her heroes Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain (although she was sent to boarding school at 14 to kick an alcohol habit). For now, her noirish glamour continues to enthral fans, but for how long?

"The problem is, when she tells an interviewer that she wishes she was dead, your natural instinct is overridden by a suspicion that it may all be part of her manufactured, doomy image," says McKenna.

"Both albums are interesting, but she has yet to deliver an album that knocks it out of the park," adds Stokes.

For now, Del Rey's career is in a purple patch. Next week, she returns to Ireland to play to a larger crowd than for her Irish debut. In an era where mystique in popstars has fallen by the wayside, Del Rey remains an unknowable and polarising figure. And her legion of fans wouldn't have her any other way.


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