Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’ turns 10 – a look back on the once-divisive, now massively influential LP
Lana Del Rey has become such a universally loved, consistently rewarding artist that it's almost hard to remember how badly critics wanted you to hate her breakthrough album Born To Die. The artist born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant started putting out music under the name Lizzy Grant and regularly playing small NYC clubs on the Lower East Side in the late 2000s, before choosing the stage name Lana Del Ray (later changed to Lana Del Rey) for her quietly-released 2010 debut album. After selling poorly, the album was pulled, and Lana got out of her deal with her record label 5 Points. The following year, she digitally self-released the songs "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans," the former of which quickly stirred up buzz all across the music blogosphere. Within months, she signed to Stranger Records to give the single a proper release, followed quickly by the news of her major label deal with Interscope. Before she could even release a second single, the backlash began, but Lana was still on her way to becoming one of the biggest new artists on the planet. The entire music industry's eyes were on her "official" live debut, of which reviews were mixed. And after dropping two more singles before the end of 2011 ("Born To Die" and "Off to the Races"), she was booked to perform on SNL before even putting out her album. Famously, she tanked. Two weeks later, with criticisms still coming at her from all directions, Lana released her major label debut, Born To Die, to mixed -- but largely lukewarm and negative -- reviews. It currently has a 62 on Metacritic, the lowest score of any Lana Del Rey album by quite some margin. At the time, people were calling Lana the fastest crash-and-burn that the music hype machine had ever produced.
Did Born To Die deserve at least some of the backlash? I think so. It's clearly front-loaded, with almost all of the singles stuffed into the first half (save for the world-conquering "Summertime Sadness" as the second to last track), and it felt like Interscope rushed its release to capitalize on the buzz. Compared to Lana's subsequent albums, this one is a little unfocused and uneven, and some of the production choices felt subpar compared to what the lush, blissful "Video Games" had offered. But most of the criticism that surrounded this LP 10 years ago has aged like milk. Those who called her "inauthentic" were usually sexist at worst and holding on to soon-to-be-outdated indie rock ideals at best. The people who criticized her image failed to see the sarcasm in it. And for those criticizing her actual music, most were probably too distracted by all the chatter surrounding the album to really listen to it. But music criticism only goes so far; Born To Die went further. The album reached an entire generation of music fans who likely spent more time on Tumblr than on AV Club and Tiny Mix Tapes, and those fans latched onto Lana and crowned her the new queen of alternative pop, critics be damned.
Lana knew how to brush off the criticism too. Instead of letting any of it deter her, she responded to it by releasing even better music as her career went on, and her influence continued to manifest itself within some of the biggest and most loved artists of the past decade. Do we get Lorde, Billie Eilish, folklore, and Olivia Rodrigo without Lana Del Rey? Probably not. Seven years and four albums after Born To Die, Lana put out Norman Fucking Rockwell, widely and deservedly considered one of the best albums of the 2010s. It was a long time coming for Lana, but it wasn't a drastic step up from her previous work; the world was just finally ready for her. Listening to Born To Die in a post-Norman Fucking Rockwell world, you don't hear the Pablo Honey to NFR's Kid A. You hear an album that defined a moment and inspired a generation. You hear a classic.
Born To Die may be front-loaded, but it's front-loaded with some of the most enduring songs of the modern alt-pop era. The sweeping strings and honeyed hooks off the opening title track are as affecting as any of the best songs of Lana's most highly acclaimed albums. "Off to the Races," with its cinematic lyricism and shapeshifting vocal work, is some of Lana's best character work and one of her most influential songs. "National Anthem" mixes classic pop balladry with hip hop in a way that feels like it's part of pop's DNA in 2022 but was revolutionary ten years ago. "Diet Mountain Dew" and "Blue Jeans" perfectly capture the type of alternative pop music that Lana helped popularize. "Video Games" sounds as majestic today as it did the day it shook up the internet in 2011.
The second half of the album does fall short in comparison to the first, but cultishly loved deeper cuts like "Radio" and "This Is What Makes Us Girls" rival Lana's biggest hits, and of course the aforementioned "Summertime Sadness" ended up surpassing "Video Games" and becoming Lana's signature song, which it probably still is. And even on the less memorable songs, Born To Die never really lulls the way so many people said it did ten years ago. The songs not only hold up, they've become so influential that they actually now sound ahead of their time.
Critics re-evaluating albums is a practice as old as music criticism itself, but Born To Die doesn't feel like an under-appreciated gem in need of a re-evaluation; it feels so widely appreciated, that the people behind her nastiest reviews have simply been outvoted. It's fascinating to look at the disconnect between how the majority of music critics reacted to Born To Die in 2012 and how the album inspired a generation, and I suspect that this disconnect will become a footnote over time. No matter what any individual person thinks of the music, the significance of Born To Die is bigger than the music itself. It helped push the last decade of pop music in a direction it may not have ever gone in, it launched the career of a generation-defining songwriter, and its several hit songs feel even more widely loved today than they did ten years ago. It feels hard to believe how old the album actually is, but at the same time, the ire it inspired upon release could never happen in today's world. The way "pop" and "alternative" are discussed today is nothing like it was ten years ago, the sound of both descriptors is entirely different, and the lines between them are blurrier than ever. There are a lot of reasons for that, and one of those reasons is the lasting impact of Born To Die.