She seems so carefree — bubbly, even — that within 10 minutes, it seems safe to break the ice: “So, on a scale of one to 10, how much do you wish you were dead right now?”
Her big, brownish-green eyes widen even further. Then she lets out a delicate snort of amusement. “Ten being dead?” she says. “You’re funny! Today is a good day.” Today she chooses life? “Yeah, today I choose life.” So, like a one? “Ten. Ten!” she says, in a daffy sing-song, not unlike Diane Keaton murmuring, ‘la di da’ in Annie Hall. “Seven. 12!” She throws back her head and laughs, possibly beginning to enjoy herself.
But when it comes to Lana Del Rey, who can tell anything for sure? She’s a baffling bundle of contradictory signifiers, a mystery that 10,000 tortured think-pieces have failed to solve. David Nichtern, who signed her to his small indie label when she was still in college, saw her as “the outer aspect of Marilyn Monroe with the inner aspect of Leonard Cohen”: She may look a bit like Nico, but she’s her own Lou Reed. She’s nervous and self-conscious onstage, but fearless in her lyrics (“My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola”; “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard”). Her consistently viral videos are id-infested pageants of creepy-nostalgic Americana, good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies and the occasional make-out sesh with an old dude. Just try to figure out what’s going on in her 2012 clip for “National Anthem,” where she plays both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, dares to riff on the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination, and casts rapper A$AP Rocky as JFK.
She’s an American pop superstar with hardly any actual radio hits in the US, just a remix of her song “Summertime Sadness” that she never even heard before its release. And, perhaps more than any other pop star of this century, she’s been misunderstood, even hated. She was the subject of a savage indie-nerd backlash — a pre-lash, really — before most people had ever heard of her. (Among other complaints, music bloggers felt somehow duped when her online hit “Video Games” led to a near-instant major-label deal.) Her shaky, slightly dead-eyed Saturday Night Live debut was treated like a national emergency, inspiring weeks of debate. She had her change of name from Lizzy Grant presented as evidence of deception rather than showbiz-as-usual. She had to deny surgically enhancing her lips’ poutiness (up close, for what it’s worth, they look pretty much like lips).
Released in the wake of the SNL performance, her 2012 debut on Interscope Records, Born to Die, got skeptical reviews. The songs, and her mannered, multi-layered vocals, seemed to be drowning in lush, trip-hop-y production. But with the help of strong, cinematic new tracks on the bonus EP Paradise, it all turned around. The album sold more than one million copies in the US (and more than seven million worldwide); her Great Gatsby soundtrack single, “Young and Beautiful” went platinum. Kanye West, who takes matters of taste seriously, enlisted her to play at his wedding to Kim Kardashian. “It was beautiful, just being there,” Del Rey says. “They seemed very happy.” Earlier, over lunch, West had told her “he really liked where I was coming from, visually and sonically.”