Lana Del Rey is out to make a big splash. And so she has.
From her evocative stage name ("I wanted a name I could shape the music towards," the woman born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant told Vogue UK in 2011), to her affected, breathy vocals (she name-drops David Bowie, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as influences), to her dramatic backstory (she began treatment for alcohol addiction at the tender age of 14), to her often pouty facial expressions (much discussion has revolved around whether her lips are natural or surgically enhanced), to her disastrous January 2012 performance on Saturday Night Live (she could barely sing during her set), to provocative lyrics and videos mingling harsh profanity with bloody violence and bizarre sexual imagery, every element of Del Rey's dramatic career so far has been dissected … and criticized.
Is she for real? Or is her entire career some kind of winking, Warhol-esque bit of performance art? These are questions Del Rey herself would likely answer, "Yes." Indeed, Lana's lightning-rod approach to music resembles a script for some tragic indie movie about a struggling, talented and misunderstood singer striving to navigate the perils of fame. So much so, in fact, that she's gone so far as to label her cinematic style "Hollywood sadcore."
No surprise, then, that when movie director Baz Luhrmann was looking for emotionally minded artists for The Great Gatsby soundtrack, Del Rey more than made the cut: "Young and Beautiful" became the mournful musical centerpiece, wherein swelling orchestral strings provide a lush, melancholy backdrop for Del Rey's haunting style. It's a combination that sounds more than a little like a James Bond theme song from yesteryear.
Paralleling The Great Gatsby's juxtaposition of opulence and existential emptiness, Del Rey contrasts a world of material plenty with a heart of aching insecurity. "I've seen the world," she begins. "Done it all/Had my cake now/Diamonds, brilliant/ … Hot summer nights, mid-July/When you and I were forever wild."
But how does a decadent, indulgent tendency to live only in the moment translate into a foundation for lifelong love? Del Rey isn't so sure: "Will you still love me/When I'm no longer young and beautiful?/Will you still love me/When I got nothing but my aching soul?"
She answers those plaintive questions affirmatively, insisting, "I know you will, I know you will/I know that you will." But one gets the sense that her repetition of that phrase is actually an attempt to convince herself of its truth rather than a statement of confident belief in her man. No wonder she feels compelled to ask one more time at the end of the chorus, "Will you still love me when I'm no longer beautiful?"
The ultimate answer seems very much in doubt. And those disquieting doubts are reinforced further in a video featuring Del Rey wandering through an extravagant mansion, singing sadly and … alone.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter focused on the film's soundtrack, The Great Gatsby's executive music supervisor Anton Monsted described the song's thematic resonance with the film:
"There is certainly a connection between Lana and the character of Daisy. As a musical motif, it's repeated and developed throughout the film much like it would be in an opera. The lyrical development of the song helped to ground it in the world of the film. Lana chose a very clever way of wrapping universal pop lyrics around universal themes, but somehow her lyrics fall in beautifully with the themes of the film. Musically, I think it's an unusual song, because on the one hand, it has romance and tells a love story, but at the same time, it's filled with real yearning and melancholy, which I think is at the heart of the story, whether you're looking at it from Gatsby's or Daisy's point of view. There's a real sadness in the story, and that's reflected beautifully in this song."
That makes Lana Del Rey's biggest hit thus far a memorable and even instructive one—if not exactly a happy or inspiring one—filled as it is with yearning hope yoked to the disturbing doubt that the lifelong love a woman desperately longs for may not, in fact, last.
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Reached No. 3 on Billboard's rock singles chart and No. 22 on the Hot 100.
April 23, 2013