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Why Lana Del Rey is more than a popstar

13 July 2023, 09:00
Words by Dani Ran
Original Photography by Sebastiano Toma

From Tumblr to TikTok, Dani Ran traces the genesis of Lana Del Rey's lore and fandom as she plays an iconic Hyde Park performance.

Last Sunday, hordes of white flowy dresses, satin ribbons, and Lost Marys descended upon Hyde Park and made it the chicest its looked since Pavarotti’s seminal performance there over 30 years ago.

The sun is beating down, and, as a gentle breeze picks up, the dreamy fabrics and vape clouds swirl and dance with the wind. But the #coquette girlies are not here for an opera performance, or even a TikTok meet-up. They are here for Lana Del Rey.

At her core, the music of Lana Del Rey explores themes of broken dreams, unfulfilled fantasies, and the reality of a life lived when one’s girlhood has been stripped far too soon. It struck a chord with young people using Tumblr in the 2010s, – a time, or rather, a continuation of a time, of socio-economic crisis, mass austerity, and political uneasiness – and has consistently garnered the lasting attention of the global youth, retaining long-term fans and followers from the early Tumblr days and finding a well-suited home amongst a new generation of young people on TikTok.

It was on Tumblr - amidst the grainy images of packets of Marlboro Reds, wilting roses in wine bottles, and far too-thin girls in ripped fishnets - that I also discovered Lana Del Rey. She pouted glamorously before an American flag while she waxed existentially on unrequited love, troubled relationships with men, and recurring self-destructive behaviours. As an angsty teenager, I was hooked, even though I was far too young to really grasp what she was singing about; I hadn’t had sex, a serious relationship, or even tried drugs at that age. But her guidance seemed as good as any into navigating my girlhood and upcoming adulthood.

Tumblr in the 2010s was a haven for young women and queer people to share their innermost thoughts and feelings and connect with one another over a mutual love of music, TV shows, or other subcultural media. Famously, as a viral tweet once observed, Tumblr was a place where teenage girls had the kind of life-altering revelations in their bedrooms that many men don’t until they drop acid for the first time. It was a space to figure out who you were, what you liked, and form communities through fandoms. Though many fandoms existed on the platform – and very much still do – Lana's is one that was and is perhaps the most enduring and time-defining.

Enter: TikTok. Though this may seem like a somewhat obvious or empty platitude – of course, time goes on, technology advances and new social platforms inevitably arise – Tumblr is integral to understanding the vast cultural impact of Lana Del Rey, who has pervasively permeated both online spaces since she first emerged a little over a decade ago.

It’s no wonder her music also resonates with Gen Z users of 2023's most divisive social network as a recent report in the US found that 57% of teenage girls had reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless”, up from 36% just a decade prior. Lana’s all-too-honest admissions of pain felt and hope lost are a familiar comfort when you’re sad as shit. The girls that get it, unfortunately, get it.

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Though, Lana’s appeal to sad young people is only part of her fangroup. The crowd at her Hyde Park show spans a range of ages: standing behind are were a pair of fresh-faced, teeth-braced teens with DIY LDR patches sewn to their jackets, and in front of me is an unassuming middle-aged straight couple day-sloshed on White Claws grinding and snogging whilst Lana serenades them. Both demographics – and everyone in between – scream-sing all of Lana’s lyrics back to her, to themselves.

To understand Lana Del Rey is to understand girlhood, womanhood, and the all-too-often embarrassing involuntary attraction to shitty men. She’s not for everyone; she’s notoriously messy and has a string of controversies under her belt, many of which fans turn a blind eye to or forgive her for (though I’m still working on forgiving her for dating a cop: ACAB means ACAB, Lana). Though, maybe it's precisely because of her public blunders that her fans love her even more; life is messy and people do fuck up. She wears her complicated, chaotic past with pride, and seems to say, you can, too.

She’s aware of this perception of her. After arriving on stage in Hyde Park fifteen minutes late, she performs two songs before sitting down for an instrumental break where she gets her hair fixed and combed by a hair stylist on stage, a wink and nod to her Glastonbury performance. The crowds cheer as she sits there before us demurely being groomed, and she smiles out to us, breaking the fourth-wall, acknowledging the hairy elephant in the room. It's an undeniably camp bit, self-aware in its absurdity and pettiness, the kind of which you’re only able to really get away with if you’re at her level of success. And we love her all the more for it.

Watching Lana at BST, as the speakers blare the spoken-word "Ride" intro and sepia-tinted footage of clips from the era project behind her, I am suddenly 15 again, holed up in my bedroom scrawling Tumblr and passionately mouthing the lyrics I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy, a sentiment I will still resonate with a little over a decade later. Lana has shepherded an entire generation of hopeless romantics, disillusioned depressives, and daydreamers into adulthood like no one else. As she has learned and reflected over the span of her nine studio albums, we have, too. We’re right there beside her, and will be for her entire career.

So, what’s next for LDR? The Hyde Park show feels like just the beginning of her enduring, stadium-level global success. Though tickets sold out for the show within an hour, soon enough it’ll be within minutes, across multiple show dates, akin to Taylor Swift’s Eras tour-level fame. When reflecting on the show with my friend, culture writer Daisy Jones, we both mention that the set feels short-lived, that there are still so many songs we longed to hear live. Daisy says she’d love to see Lana do full sets of each album, and honestly, I can see it - and I’ll be there, nine nights in a row.

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