Around this time two years ago, the mysterious singer Lana Del Rey played Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery, setting off a hype cycle that, at the time, littered the Internet with thinkpieces and garment-rending. Del Rey was either the next coming of Feist or the harbinger of indie being fully co-opted by major labels; she was either playing with calcified ideas of femininity or playing into them; she was either a master stylist or a singer slightly less talented than the Shaggs’ Wiggins sisters. As with most online debates of two years ago, it all seems a little bit silly now. And it seems even sillier this week, Del Rey’s third with a song in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. “Summertime Sadness,” a wistful ode to a lover who’s on the verge of dissipating like the quicky fading season, inched up from Number 10 to Number Nine on the big chart, receiving 94 million radio impressions.
In some ways, the song’s fate isn’t too much of a surprise: “Summertime Sadness” was co-written by Rick Nowels, who’s racked up hits from Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” to John Legend’s “Green Light.” It originally appeared on Born to Die, Del Rey’s highly ambitious second album; her vocals, multiplied, swirl over militaristic drums and strings, as she sings of romance so sweetly doomed that it could propel her into a happy afterlife. (There’s also a lyric that might be a slightly garbled reference to Jack Nicholson’s “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” taunt from the first Batman movie.) It’s one of the album’s better tracks; Del Rey’s voice, with its implied permapout, meshes beautifully with the Angelo Badalamenti-recalling music, even when it slips into her weakier, breathier upper register.
As of September 15th, “Sadness” had sold 1.1 million downloads, making it Del Rey’s best-selling song. (Number two? “Young and Beautiful,” her contribution to The Great Gatsby soundtrack.) But even those who were skeptical about Del Rey when she first crashed into the Internet music world might see the current success of “Summertime Sadness” as somewhat bittersweet. Although given Del Rey’s propensity for showcasing tragic heroines in her lyrics, this fate might be appropriate. Previous Del Rey singles like the sing-songy “National Anthem” and the frenzied “Off to the Races” got enough airplay to have limited success on Billboard‘s Rock Chart; they also fully showcased Del Rey’s singular aesthetic, from baby-talking interludes to flip lyrics about materialism. Meanwhile, the version of “Summertime Sadness” making waves shaves off many of the track’s weirder edges, particularly the Lynchian unsteadiness that characterizes so much of Del Rey’s work, in favor of EDM-by-the-numbers bombast. Del Rey’s voice is oddball enough that she’s in little danger of becoming a faceless presence, but you can’t say that house producer and “Sadness” remixer Cedric Gervais, who gained notoreity for putting together a track centered on a double-entendre about looking for a woman named Molly, doesn’t do his damndest to try. (The remixed version was responsible for 512,000 of the aforementioned sales.)
Born to Die came out in January 2012, and for a singer whose earliest appearances were at a Williamsburg hole-in-the-wall, it has to be seen as a success; since debuting at Number Two on the Billboard 200 it’s been certified gold (500,000 units shipped; 774,000 sold this week, according to SoundScan) in the United States. It’s sold even more in other countries. The version of “Summertime Sadness” currently ruling radio doesn’t even appear on either that album or its expanded Paradise Edition. But Del Rey’s brooding, atmospheric music could still, after all this time, cross over to the pop world in its non-remixed form. Holding steady at Number Three on this week’s Hot 100, behind Miley Cyrus’ love-lorn banger “Wrecking Ball” and Katy Perry’s up-from-the-ashes anthem “Roar” is “Royals,” the spare anti-bling track by the New Zealand prodigy Lorde, whose devotion to mood music recalls Del Rey’s aesthetic. Could this be Del Rey’s cue to revive Born to Die with one last single release? Perhaps, although she’s teased Tropico, an imminent short film with music by her and “the poetry of Walt Whitman,” as her “farewell project.” Which means that “Summertime Sadness,” after so long, turning Lana Del Rey into an accidental pop star might be one of the final beats in the tale of her American Gothic dream.