entertainment

'Look At You Kids, You Know You’re The Coolest’: How Lana Del Rey Became A Queer Icon

James Hodge takes a look at the enduring appeal the American songstress has for the LGBTQ community.

2022-05-05

Words by James Hodge; pictures: Lana Del Rey (Born To Die)

2012 was a memorable year in British pop music.  

Emili Sande and Ed Sheeran rose to fame as singer-songwriters who proclaimed that they wrote their own lyrics and played their own instruments. One Direction was reaching global fame during the golden era of X Factor-manufactured pop, their heartthrob aesthetic appealing to the teenage masses.

DJs Calvin Harris and David Guetta came into the limelight, collaborating with a host of established artists to release a series of internationally successful dancefloor bangers. Coldplay and Mumford and Sons continued to finesse their brand of light rock.

And of course, the female icons of the decade – Adele, Jessie J, Paloma Faith – continued to dominate the charts.

Yet when investigating the bestselling albums of the year, there is one oddity amongst these now pop staples. In at Number 2 was Lana Del Rey’s album, Born To Die.

Del Rey, an American songstress, not only capitalized on the best assets of her musical peers but created a fresh aesthetic and sound that established her as an original and talented artist.

A decade later, having released 8 albums, won 31 awards, and sold over 5.5 million albums, Del Rey has established herself not only as a prolific music artist but as a queer icon.

Del Rey first captured the queer eye when she released homemade videos for singles ‘Video Games’ and ‘Blue Jeans’. These videos were a stark contrast to the big-budget video productions of record labels at the time.

A then-unknown songstress, striking with big lips, shadowy eyes, and a messy beehive, sings to the camera – no elaborate set or costume, just a beautiful girl-next-door stood in front of a white wall.

The video is intercut with a sense of contrasting remixed visuals – clips of homemade family videos, classic cartoon images, shots of American landscapes, and iconic film moments – all delivered in monochrome and sepia tones.

This didn’t feel like yet another generic pop music campaign – this felt like art synonymous with LGBTQ icons such as Kate Bush and Bjork. The video’s popularity and influence are reflected by its viewing figures – over 289 million views in 2022 and still growing.

Del Rey’s first live performance on Saturday Night Live only cemented her queer following. The appearance was fueled with anticipation. Who was the enigmatic artist in the viral music video, and would she live up to expectation?

As the lights came up, Del Rey appeared in a white lace dress and bouffant auburn hair like Nancy Sinatra, mic in hand. As she began to sing, the song from the video felt different from that which viewers were listening to now – the key veered dramatically, lyrics were hummed through, and the style was stiff and distant.

Unsurprisingly the performance was lambasted by critics, one blogger hailing it as "one of the worst outings in SNL history".

However, queer people love an underdog, and the performance was appreciated by many for being so different from the typical SNL fare. Del Rey’s off-the-cuff staging felt raw, fresh, and rock-n-roll, her refusal to stick to the musical playbook demonstrating her rebellious nature as an artist and musician.

This wasn’t another pop princess ready to walk through the motions, but a rockstar from another time and place who wanted to shake up the contemporary music scene.

She had the dreaminess of the Ronettes, the ethereal vocals of Julee Cruise, and the defiance of Amy Winehouse. That she was so publicly derided only made her all the more an outcast relatable to LGBTQ people.

Seven albums later, Del Rey fans are still fascinated by the woman behind the persona. Born Elizabeth Grant, she had limited success on the lounge singer scene and with her initial EP. In her teens she struggled with alcoholism, eventually leading to a stint in rehab.

However, she swiftly reinvented herself, following in the footsteps of queer icons like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Prince, creating an exotic stage name: a moniker that inspired Del Rey’s new sound and direction.

Grant has always identified as a writer first, singer second. If Grant is the all-American girl, Lana Del Rey is a vehicle that allows her to tell stories about womanhood set against a heightened, fantastical, and timeless American backdrop.

The creation of said persona is very relatable to queer life. Del Rey is a shapeshifter, able to transform herself into someone glamorous and powerful in a manner that is almost like drag.

Her visual aesthetic is key to this – her ability to change from album to album - girl next door becomes red carpet starlet becomes flower-laden hippy and back again. Visuals are key to her storytelling.

She is the epitome of a postmodern artist, offering camp references and playful pastiches to the queer viewer through her costume choices – old Hollywood, Studio 54, Malibu Beach. Lana Del Rey defies time and place.

Divas have always been a sure-fire hit with the LGBTQ community and Del Rey channels female characters from throughout America and its history. Rather than writing from a fixed perspective, Del Rey brings to life dramatic characters (both real and imagined) with elements of the diva figure.  

Often, she plays to the trope of the femme fatale. In the track ‘Ultraviolence’, Del Rey summons a woman nicknamed ‘D’ for ‘deadly nightshade… filled with poison but blessed with beauty and rage’ – a Hitchcockian villainess whose sense of danger is seductive.

In ‘Money, Power, Glory’, the self-proclaimed ‘bitch’ narrator ‘wants to take you for all that you’ve got’ – a woman using a man for gain.

Elsewhere, Del Rey embodies troubled and vulnerable figures. As the eponymous ‘Other Woman,’ Del Rey is a ‘lonesome queen’ who ‘will spend her life alone.’ As the ‘Cinnamon Girl’, she plays someone vulnerable who proclaims ‘If you hold me without hurting me, you’ll be the first who ever did.’

These melodramatic figures are offset by Del Rey’s more playful heroines. Lolita ‘makes the boys fall like dominoes’. The narrator of 'Off To The Races' begs ‘I’m your little scarlet starlet singing in the garden – kiss me on my open mouth.’

Thus the listener is left with a complex image of the songstress, an embodiment of all forms of American women. What unites each of these women, however, is a preoccupation with intense and passionate love.  

The theatricality of Del Rey and the sense of tragedy that emanates from her music appeals to a queer community used to navigating the complex world of identity and relationships. Love is at once something powerful and overwhelming, something to aspire to, something to struggle for – and for Del Rey, the course of it never runs smoothly.

Whilst Del Rey has never alluded explicitly to her LGBTQ+ audience, her lyrics do allude to queer love too. In 'Doin’ Time', there is ambiguity as the narrator laments that her girlfriends ‘spreads her lovin’ all over, and when she gets home there’s none for me.’

All sexualities and genders are equally tormented according to the world of Del Rey.

If Del Rey’s broad representation of women has great appeal to queer women, her exploration of masculinity appeals to queer men. Her male characters tend to be bad boys – gangsters, mafiosos, players, and heartbreakers alike.

Any person spurned by a man will empathise with Del Rey, who revels in her emotional pain. In ‘Million Dollar Man’ she mourns ‘I don’t know how to get over someone as dangerous, tainted and flawed as you’.

The mobwife of ‘Off To The Races’ fears for both herself and her lover: ‘I pray for him til the end… I would die without him’ – a passionate and tragic prayer.

However, as much as men may hurt the heroine, she equally recognizes the challenges of being a man.

In ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, Del Rey accepts that her partner is troubled and needs support: ‘You’re just a man, it’s just what you do’ – there is recognition here of the masculine struggle. In ‘Old Money’, she reaches out to her man to remind him that she is there for him – ‘When you call for me you know I’ll run to you.’

It is as though Del Rey is speaking directly to her listener, reassuring them that they will always find reassurance in her music amidst the melodrama and theatre.

Del Rey also isn’t afraid to express her sexuality and relishes in feminine sensuality.

‘Fuck It I Love You’ sounds like the utterances made during a sexual climax, ‘Fucked My Way To The Top’ demonstrating the power of sexuality over men. At her most playful, she is graphic and unashamed.

‘My pussy tastes like Pepsi-cola’ she purrs in ‘Cola’, unabashed and seductive. Del Rey tells the listener that sex and sexuality are something to be enjoyed, to be open about, and to be celebrated.

Another recurring element of Del Rey’s music is her sense of reference – often, references that resonate with queer listeners. Beyond the overt Americana lie lyrics that signpost some of history’s best queer figures:  Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Tennessee Williams.

She also frequently references influential queer musicians – David Bowie, Elton John, Patsy Cline, and Lou Reed – breathing new life into classic lyrics and making them relevant for the modern-day.

She has written songs for popular LGBTQ movies including Maleficent, Euphoria, and Charlie's Angels, and teamed up with fellow divas Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande to release a chart-topping mainstream pop track, much to the delight of fans.

So queer adjacent is Del Rey that she has even featured LGBTQ icons in her music videos. In ‘National Anthem’, she plays Jackie O, iconic first Lady of America and fashion hero; in ‘Tropico’, she dances with Marilyn Monroe.

If Del Rey never directly addresses her queer audience, she constantly nudges through her lyrics and visuals as though to say, ‘this is for you.’

Perhaps the most popular of Del Rey’s tracks, ‘Summertime Sadness’, demonstrates the artist’s influence over current popular music.

At the start of her career, her music immediately stood out because of her tendency to combine traditionally structured American songbook-style pop songs and added fresh hip-hop elements.

‘Summertime Sadness’, at first released as a melancholic ballad about saying goodbye to a lover, was Del Rey’s first remix. Working with Cedric Gervais, the euphoric house rhythms and beats provide the perfect complement to the downbeat lyrics of a desperate woman pleading a lover to stay.

As the song climaxes with a hallucinogenic repletion of the eponymous title phrase, Del Rey finds power in her melancholia – ‘nothing scares me anymore.’

The track became her highest-selling solo single in the UK and a queer dancefloor classic. It rejuvenated the sad core genre – music considered deeply sorrowful and downcast – setting it against modern house beats, and influenced the popular phrase ‘sad girl summers’ – the sense of tedium and boredom felt during the long holidays, epitomized by Del Rey’s distant and disinterested delivery of her music.

A decade after the release of Born To Die and Del Rey continues to go strong with her individual brand of retro-vintage alt-pop. Her unique combination of aesthetics, artistry, and originality has cemented her as one of the greatest musicians of the 21st century.

However, where before she has used her persona to take the listener to other times and places, in the recent single ‘Love’ she addressed her fans directly. ‘Look at you kids with your vintage music’ she sings adoringly, reminding them of what they should value most of all in life – ‘to be young and in love.’

We are all Del Rey’s children here, with love being the ultimate aim for all. Del Rey’s rebellious nature, her uninhibited self-expression, her melodramatic exploration of human emotion, and her celebration of sexuality speak to the queer community and have made her an icon – and that’s why we, as a community, love her so much.