The Anniversary

Ultraviolence Turns 10


Some album openers just have that special, secret thing. The first time you hear it, it feels inexplicably familiar and colossal. You feel as if you’re standing in a crowd at a stadium, under the spell of the musician standing on stage. You get chills and you know you’ll get them every time you hear that song. Radiohead’s “Planet Telex” introducing The Bends. Interpol’s “Untitled” leading the listener into Turn On The Bright Lights. More importantly, Lana Del Rey’s “Cruel World” opening the curtain on 2014’s Ultraviolence. The sinister, twangy guitars kicking off the song feel monumental, signifying the start of a Western epic, an action-packed, over-the-top melodrama, a promise on which Del Rey delivers.

But let’s take a step back. Ultraviolence came out 10 years ago today — a couple years after her major-label debut, Born To Die, an album that undoubtedly altered the landscape of pop music. Born To Die’s brilliance, though, was yet to be realized by critics; Rolling Stone gave it two stars. Pitchfork scored it a 5.5 (and referred to her as “a highly medicated Fiona Apple”). Our own trusted critic Tom Breihan wrote that it was “really bad” and later recognized how his own misogyny had informed that take. The A.V. Club described Del Rey’s role in Born To Die as an “outmoded imagining of the ultimate male fantasy” who “exists only to titillate.”

I, a Tumblr-using teenager at the time, knew the opposite was true. The character at the center of Born To Die is the Gen Z female fantasy of a woman, an early example of the unhinged female protagonist, which was pioneered by Gillian Flynn with her famous 2012 novel Gone Girl and further popularized by Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 iconoclastic bestseller My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. It was the beginning of an era of reconstructing girlhood, of wanting to be villains instead of victims. Throughout Born To Die, Del Rey proclaims devotion and insanity in the same breath, wearing her self-destruction on her sleeve. “Carmen” is a vignette of a 17-year-old “Coney Island queen” who gives boys butterflies and laughs like God. On the jaunty “Diet Mountain Dew,” Del Rey sings, “You’re no good for me/ But baby, I want you, I want you.” Desire is a life-or-death plaything through which she reinvents herself. To men, Del Rey was a caricature of a vapid, promiscuous woman; to teenage girls, she was an escape from stereotypical womanhood.

In the time between Born To Die and Ultraviolence, she released an EP entitled Paradise, an extension of the dreamy, cinematic universe of Born To Die, as well as the huge hit “Young And Beautiful” for 2013’s The Great Gatsby film. It was clear, at least to an emotional 14-year-old girl like me, that Del Rey’s place in stardom was solidified.

Del Rey writes unabashedly about love and its proximity to violence and pain. She captures anguish and isn’t afraid to show that it is both beautiful and grotesque. To this day, people still accuse Del Rey of romanticizing problematic subjects, such as pedophilia with Born To Die’s controversial “Lolita,” inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s iconic 1955 novel. The song reimagines Lolita as a girl who takes advantage of the power her youth holds, a heartbreaker instead of a victim: “It’s you that I adore, though I make the boys fall like dominoes.” It’s Del Rey’s instinct to navigate these tricky terrains that makes her so magnetic. Her songs are lawless; her music is a place to rummage through the dark, transgressive for curiosity’s sake rather than just provocation.

Depression has never been as alluring as it is on “Dark Paradise” or “Summertime Sadness”; being in love with a bad man has never been as enticing as it is on “Off To The Races.” She finds power in rebellion, especially sacrilege, which abounds on “Gods & Monsters” (“In the land of Gods and Monsters/ I was an angel looking to get fucked hard”). It works especially well when her aesthetic is bound in traditional American imagery. Taboos and symbols are fodder for a portrait of a deeply repressed country. This is all magnified by the fact that she has the voice of a classical singer, elegant and moving.

After releasing Born To Die, Del Rey didn’t think she would make another album because she “already said everything I wanted to say,” she told The Guardian. That’s not a reason to quit, though; someone once said that every novelist spends their life writing the same story over and over again. Ultraviolence was another examination of grandiose American tragedy. “Cruel World” unfurls with magic. Hazy guitars float and simmer in the air. She sings of bibles, guns, candy, heroin. She rhymes “bourbon” with “suburban.” She takes her time with each syllable, sedated yet severe. It’s an unorthodox breakup celebration: “And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone,” she exhales, relieved.

There are a lot of things about Lana Del Rey that wouldn’t work if she wasn’t Lana Del Rey. On the quivering ballad “Brooklyn Baby,” she paints a scene of singing Lou Reed while her boyfriend plays guitar, as well as “churning out poetry like Beat poetry on amphetamines.” These lyrics on paper are utterly pretentious. I consider myself an earnest person, yet I burn with embarrassment when thinking about my Beat Generation phase. But Del Rey still manages to be cool as fuck. She is sincere and impassioned, and this song is fucking massive, boasting over 600 million streams. The track was originally supposed to be recorded with the Velvet Underground frontman himself, but he died the day they planned to meet up.

“Brooklyn Baby” is probably so big because it’s the epitome of Lana — it’s her confessing she’s in love with a time she didn’t get to experience, an era she’s on a never-ending mission to capture with her music. Therefore, she pulls off lines like, “I get high on hydroponic weed/ And my jazz collection’s rare/ I get down to Beat poetry.” She seems genuinely untouched by the current world around her, too busy creating one of her own.

While confessing her love of ’50s-’70s Americana, Del Rey was also becoming the encapsulation of another era. Not to bring up Tumblr again, but this album was released in 2014, which is known as the Soft Grunge Tumblr Era. It’s been commemorated with many nostalgia pieces in the past few years; aside from Del Rey, other musical artists who were a part of this niche include Arctic Monkeys, the 1975, the Neighbourhood, and Marina & The Diamonds.Ultraviolence combines aspects from all those acts. It has the glamor and pop texture of Marina’s 2012 masterwork Electra Heart, the brooding, sultry energy of Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 opus AM, the mischief and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1975’s 2013 self-titled, and the trip-hop flirtation of the Neighbourhood’s 2013 debut I Love You. The trip-hop element peaks on “West Coast,” a sprawling, hypnotic masterpiece that boasts over 700 million streams.

In a 2012 interview with The Telegraph, she explained, “When I was very young I was sort of floored by the fact that my mother and my father and everyone I knew was going to die one day, and myself too. I had a sort of a philosophical crisis. I couldn’t believe that we were mortal. For some reason that knowledge sort of overshadowed my experience. I was unhappy for some time. I got into a lot of trouble. I used to drink a lot. That was a hard time in my life.” Her music is the soundtrack for this modern malaise — the endless search for intensity, mistaking it for permanence in an existence where everything is ephemeral. Even the title Ultraviolence conveys this longing for something more extreme. This is a turmoil I’ve struggled with throughout my life as well, and it culminated when, at age 17, I fell in love with a 22-year-old boy with a halo of blond curls, a heroin addiction, and the words “Born To Die” tattooed on his side inside a tombstone (that breakup was rough).

Each song on Ultraviolence details a different devastation. On “Money Power Glory,” Del Rey satirizes greed and the insatiable need for more; on the wonderfully jazzy “The Other Woman,” she laments the pain of being loved only in the shadows, using a biblical rhyme in the process: “The other woman will always cry herself to sleep/ The other woman will never have his love to keep.” The saxophone soars, woven in with her cathartic scatting.

In the studio, Del Rey was working with producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who said about the experience, “She impressed me every day. There were moments when she was fighting me. I could sense that maybe she didn’t want to have anybody think she wasn’t in control because I’m sure it’s really hard to be a woman in the music business. So we bumped heads a little bit, but at the end of the day we were dancing to the songs.” Auerbach’s participation in the process gave people a reason to take Del Rey seriously, but it’s clear that Del Rey ran the show as Ultraviolence stands out in his repertoire. Sonically, Ultraviolence is much less maximalist than Born To Die and more intentional with its crescendos. This could’ve been due to critics complaining that Born To Die was overproduced, but the shift feels natural. The slow-burning movement of these songs pedestals her voice and her words, while also contributing to the prevailing sense of emptiness she’s communicating.

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As with Born To Die, Del Rey was criticized for some of the themes on Ultraviolence, specifically with the title track’s lyric, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” a reference to the 1962 song by the Crystals, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” She made a statement about it: “I’ve been honest about the challenging relationships I’ve had,” she wrote on Instagram. “That’s just how it is for many women.” The fact that she upset many people — listeners and critics — evinces her genius. The fact that people accuse her of glorifying abuse by writing about abuse in a way that makes people uncomfortable is a testament to the culture of repression she’s shedding light on. People don’t want to hear about why women stay in abusive relationships; they want the black-and-white perspective that abusive relationships are glaringly bad and thus easy to get out of.

In Pitchfork’s Born To Die review, Lindsay Zoladz admitted that the scrutiny Del Rey endured in the music world was evidence of a prevalent misogyny problem, yet she added that “the sexual politics of Born To Die are troubling too.” This implied that the sexism Del Rey experienced was comparable to the complicated womanhood she expressed in her art. Critics held art made by women up to a moral standard while men never had their art viewed through a lens of politics or ethics. If men’s art questioned the status quo, they were were lauded for breaking boundaries while women were reprimanded.

The tide turned, and Pitchfork warmed up to Del Rey with Ultraviolence before eventually reassessing Born To Die, awarding it a 7.8. In 2019, her sixth LP Norman Fucking Rockwell! would be their best album of the year, and it would be Rolling Stone’s third. Del Rey has certainly honed her craft over time, but she had to fight to be taken seriously in the music industry, to be viewed as an artist instead of a woman who makes art. She is living proof that the music industry only reserves spots for good girls, girls who don’t take themselves so seriously, girls who are pure and innocent, girls who are victims instead of heartbreakers, girls who don’t stay in abusive relationships, girls who don’t seek out recklessness as a result of feeling doomed. Only men are allowed to act reckless, because only men are intelligent enough to feel doomed. Girls don’t get existential. Girls have to be responsible role models for other girls, and this cycle must remain intact.

Ultraviolence disrupted that cycle. It’s a brave record, an act of defiance, a refusal to be dismissed. If anything, she got dirtier and more unafraid, using her critics to her advantage: “Life is awesome, I confess/ What I do, I do best,” she speak-sings on the pulsating “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” before singing on the chorus, “I fucked my way up to the top/ This is my show.” Ultraviolence proved she was an implacable force and that she wasn’t going anywhere.

Soon she would finally be more than just a Fiona Apple comparison, and more women would be able to sing about sex, sadness, and destruction. Without Del Rey, it’s hard to imagine artists like Billie Eilish, Halsey, or Ethel Cain. When Eilish joined Del Rey during her Coachella set earlier this year, the 22-year-old star emphasized Del Rey’s legacy, saying, “This is the reason for half of you bitches’ existence, including mine!” Del Rey also earned a namecheck in Charli XCX’s recent song of the summer contender “Mean Girls,” which portrays the necessity of being a Del Rey fan in order to embody an indisputably chic aesthetic: “All coquette-ish in the pictures with the flash on/ Worships Lana Del Rey in her AirPods, yeah.” She paved the way for women who want to build worlds with sharp-edged pop music, worlds where women can do whatever the fuck they want. Del Rey continues building hers, and she’s not going to stop anytime soon.

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