Culture Trips

Lana Del Rey and the struggle to be mysterious in pop

Impressively, though Del Rey is playing this “dark” game at a time when artists are subject to increasingly close scrutiny, she has maintained much of her mystique. Thanks to the shape-shifting flair of David Bowie and Madonna in particular, conventional wisdom states that pop stars must reinvent themselves to stay relevant. With such reinventions, the mechanics of pop stardom are often laid bare, because even a genius-level chameleon can’t hide every single contrivance. However, Del Rey has succeeded by doing the exact opposite. With each album, she doubles down on her aloof persona and refines a sound that is cinematic, languid and dreamy. It’s also instantly recognisable as her own. All the while, she has never made it any clearer where Elizabeth Grant ends and “Lana Del Rey” begins. 

In 2021, she doesn’t seem inauthentic – whatever authenticity is – at all. Rather she looks like a proper pop auteur – one who doesn’t try to be “accessible”, “relatable” or anything else that pop stars are supposed to be in the social media era. For years, we have had no idea who Lizzy/Lana might be behind closed doors. In this respect, she recalls old-school enigmas like Prince and Kate Bush: artists we can’t – and don’t want to – picture doing anything as mundane as making a cup of tea. This only enhances her appeal to intensely invested fans who don’t just enjoy streaming her music, but owning a piece of her art. In its first week on sale, Chemtrails became the UK’s fastest-selling vinyl album of the century by a female artist.

The pitfalls of social media

Yet, just recently, cracks have appeared in Del Rey’s glamorous façade, which beg the question: can a pop musician remain truly mysterious in this day and age? “The lack of privacy that exists for anyone with even a modicum of celebrity today makes it challenging to create a sense of mystique, much less separate your private life from your public life,” says Courtney Smith, music critic and author of Record Collecting for Girls. Another significant obstacle to fostering enigma in the 21st Century is social media, which allows artists to be more readily “called out”, then lets them reply to any criticism instantly. It’s this kind of dynamic which has disrupted Del Rey’s latest album release. Chemtrails is another critical as well as commercial hit, but its rollout got off to a bumpy start when Del Rey shared its cover art on Instagram in January. Soon afterwards, she seemed to be needled by comments insinuating that its black-and-white photo of 11 women gathered around a table lacked diversity.

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