June 23, 2014 4:00pm PT by Jason Lipshutz, Billboard
Lana Del Rey's 'Ultraviolence' Is a Hit. How Will It Influence Pop Music?
Here's another Lana Del Rey think piece! The authenticity of one of pop's most confounding…
No, wait, come back. I didn't mean to scare you. If you're reading this, you've probably digested one, two or two dozen online musings on Lana Del Rey's new album Ultraviolence over the past week. There have been takes on Lana Del Rey's embrace of contradictions, Lana Del Rey as a poster child for defiant gloominess, Lana Del Rey's disregard of feminism, and, of course, Lana Del Rey as the Urban Outfitters of music.
Whether you enjoy Lana Del Rey's fragile torch songs, their ability to provoke discussion has often felt refreshing instead of overwhelming, especially to those of us who are enthralled to overextend themselves in pop culture debates. Del Rey's transition from Internet joke to bona fide music star has not been seamless, but Ultraviolence has secured her status as a household name with the ability to outsell artists like Jennifer Lopez, Linkin Park and deadmau5 in spite of little self-promotion. Since she debuted with "Video Games" in 2011, her singular style has been scrutinized endlessly, but with the impending No. 1 debut of Ultraviolence, that aesthetic has proven to be unequivocally bankable. Her success has been noticed, and attempts to duplicate it will come. Lest we forget, for every "Bad Romance" video, there is an equal and opposite "Not Myself Tonight" clip.
So can we expect more pop artists to sullenly sway next to the Pacific Ocean in music videos while an older man menacingly chomps on cigars from afar? Maybe. Even if Ultraviolence does not launch a thousand black-and-white copycats, one can reasonably anticipate darker shades being mixed in to the mainstream bubblegum. Del Rey has cultivated a fan base with unrelenting gloominess in her writing and a beautifully despondent image; her downbeat style can be directly traced to artists ranging from Nancy Sinatra to PJ Harvey to Portishead, but compared to perky pop contemporaries like Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, her unapologetic sadness feels unique, an antidote to the perceived euphoria plastered on pop stations (Lorde has also helped bring disconsolate alternative music to the masses, although Del Rey was tired of being told to throw her hands up in the air a few years before the New Zealand teen arrived). Not every catchy song needs to empower, and not every pop idol needs to smile — these are the lessons that Ultraviolence and its tales of drugs, apathy and poisoned romance teach.
Unfortunately, female pop artists have too often had their bleaker impulses stifled for fear of alienating their fans. Remember when Katy Perry's Prism album was supposed to be a lot darker, but was then reshaped into a synth-pop escapade? Or how about Kesha's announced collaboration with the Flaming Lips being called off, reportedly due to the concerns of her label? Famously, Kelly Clarkson accused Clive Davis, then the head of Sony-BMG, of not promoting her 2007 album My December because "it didn't have 'pop hits'"… the list goes on and on. With Ultraviolence, Del Rey has proven that anti-commercial subject matter can be commercially adored. It will be interesting to hear the mopey anthems that inevitably result from this album's No. 1 debut.
Of course, Del Rey does not write anthems at all. Her songs are languid and eccentric, doused in a heap of dust and marked by choruses that wander into cobwebbed corners instead of stride toward center stage. Following the success of her debut album Born to Die, which crossed 1 million copies sold in the U.S. earlier this year, Del Rey scored a Top 10 smash with Cedric Gervais' remix of "Summertime Sadness," which propped up her alluring coos with a propulsive beat. Ultraviolence could have taken its cues from that fluke hit, but instead, Del Rey tapped the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach to produce her next album, flew down to Nashville and pivoted even further away from dance music.
Other pop artists have taken this approach — a decade ago, P!nk made an undercooked album with Rancid's Tim Armstrong right after her "Get the Party Started" phase — but have shakily toed the line between pop and rock without having the guts to sacrifice the juicy choruses. In contrast, the hooks on Ultraviolence go Full Rock: they lack immediacy, yet Del Rey's aesthetic is now defined enough that she doesn't need to craft earworms in order to beguile fans. It's a move that recalls Yeezus, which was less accessible than Kanye West's previous output but was honest in its commitment to rock bombast, and thus, admired. In a post-Ultraviolence world, could P!nk make an album with Rick Rubin that reveled in its complete lack of catchy melodies? It's much more likely now than it was back then.
But that issue of accessibility extends beyond the construction of hooks for Lana Del Rey. As an artist and person, the Artist Formerly Known as Lizzy Grant is a dedicated enigma, misdirecting interviewers with half-truths and setting up a musical persona that may (or may not) be more fiction than fact. On "Pretty When You Cry," she is "stronger than all my men/Except for you"; on "Fucked My Way Up to the Top," she is "a dragon, you're a whore." She is, at times, proudly powerful in her sun-drenched construct, and at other times she buckles to her powerless position in an abusive relationship. Outside of her songs, Del Rey neither offers explanations as to what is real in them, nor explains how her real life birthed the doomed bombshell in her music. And, more than anything, that mysteriousness is what so much of the Internet is talking about this week.
In the era of social media, being unreachable is an abnormality. Artists that have tried to concoct aura of secrecy around their music in the recent past — the Weeknd, with his shadowy early press photos, jumps to mind — but eventually let us peek under the curtain when they reach a certain level of fame. Del Rey is getting bigger and bigger, but is still shrouded in relative secrecy, as she tries to say everything in her music and nothing outside of it (or rather, take back the few things she did say outside of it). Is Ultraviolence a confessional or utter bullshit? As a piece of art, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that hundreds of thousands of curious listeners are picking up a copy this week to parse through the truth and lies, and other artists will take notice of those numbers. Del Rey is changing the game in real time, without letting her followers fully into her world. More than anything else, it feels as if Ultraviolence is the first step toward pop obscurity in the age of over-sharing.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.