Photo by Mat Hayward | Getty Images

Last week, it was announced that NYU’s Clive Davis Institute will be launching a course titled, “Topics In Recorded Music: Lana Del Rey.” Since this announcement, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Lana Del Rey and her contributions to contemporary music and culture. More specifically, queer culture. Although Lana herself identifies as heterosexual, she’s had undeniable influence and impact on her young — and majorly queer — audience. 

Taking this idea all the way back to the beginning — where it’s only appropriate to start — Del Rey’s appeal to queer audiences is crystal clear on her major label debut, Born To Die. Almost immediately, she establishes herself as “different” and “not like others” through the sonic contents. Her gloomy demeanor (informed by her experiences) algins her with the circumstances most queer youth finding themselves in at one point or another — the struggle to find a place to fit in. A passion for freedom is also present throughout, and appears notably on “This Is What Makes Us Girls” as she sings, “And that's where the beginnin' of the end begun / Everybody knew that we had too much fun / We were skippin' school and drinkin' on the job / With the boss.” 

For those who may not understand why these themes of rebellion, loneliness, and hopelessness have stuck with young audiences, the answer is actually quite simple. In 2012, there was no equivalent to Del Rey. No contemporary artist was singing about the things Del Rey was, or was singing in the style she was, which allowed her to strike a chord with wide eyed adolescents navigating the new digital and social world. Of course, not all of her fanbase was in middle school like me when we became exposed to her music — but Lana continues to hold a special place in the hearts of my peers to this day. I’m a junior in college and 20 years old, and it seems like every other friend I make on-campus has had a “Lana phase” at some point or another. Whether or not they’ve continued to follow her career, Del Rey’s Born To Die album is synonymous with adolescence and tween-dom for an enormous demographic. Perhaps it was unintentional, but Lana Del Rey spoke to young kids figuring out who they were in a rare way that many artists couldn’t compete with. These young tweens/teens felt different than their peers as they were introduced to social media and some were coming to terms with their queerness, and felt understood through Del Rey’s lyrics.

“Ride,” and it’s accompanying ten minute video has become somewhat of a queer anthem as it takes the groundwork done on Born To Die even further. “I was always an unusual girl / My mother told me that I had a chameleon soul,” Del Rey narrates in the music video. Though she’s reflecting on her real experience of being a heterosexual woman who feels different from everyone else, the sentiment in “Ride” and more importantly it’s monologue hits queer folks with a deep sense of familarity. 

“Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people
And finally I did
On the open road
We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore
Except to make our lives into a work of art”

These words are authentic to Del Rey’s experience, and also echo many of the situations that queer people find themselves in. 

What’s most astounding about Lana Del Rey is her innate ability for consistently conveying nostalgia through her extensive catalog. I read an article — which I’m unfortunately unable to find now to cite, my apologies to the author — about Del Rey and queerness a while back and one line in particular jumped off the page at me. It was something along the lines of “Del Rey flourishes in nostalgia, and after all, what’s more queer than that?” At least in my own experience as a queer person, I can echo the sometimes unexplainable importance of nostalgia to me. So many young queer people miss out on a “normal” coming of age — one that includes romantic relationships, unashamed self expression, and navigating a school experience without being berated with questions about your sexuality. Because queer youth often experience these things later than their heterosexual counterparts, Del Rey’s romanticized tellings of lonliness, rebellion, love, and heartbreak are worlds that inexperienced queer audiences can escape to. Ones in which they still maintain their sense of “otherness” but get to assume the perspective of Del Rey and all of her trysts, late night drives, walks through Eden, and noxious relationships. Lana Del Rey sings from her own perspective, that of a heterosexual white woman who has “seen it all.” But somehow, the stories told in her music resonate with demographics much wider than her own identity, which is the beautiful thing about her work. Of course, not every person in the world may feel connected to her words or opinions, but her stories have a wide reach — which is the mark of a true artist. 

Since Del Rey’s debut, she’s been heavily criticized for her live performances, being “too sad,” and glamorizing drug use and domestic abuse — which has made her an outcast of mainstream popular music. It’s obvious she doesn’t “fit” into the clique of radio friendly pop stars, which has thus earned her the respect of a group of specific listeners. Lana Del Rey is by no means an “underground” artist in contemporary music, but because she’s often misunderstood and isn’t an active member in the popular music “club,” listeners feel an intense connection to her. Really, Del Rey refuses to be labeled and put into a box, and so do queer people. It’s also interesting to note that Del Rey has been something of a shape shifter throughout her tenure in the business. She’s been an all-American biker chick, a lush Hollywood starlet, and a Woodstock attendee with a “Lust for Life,” just to name a few. Not only is this exciting to watch as a fan, but it’s another prime example of not being able to be put into one box. To put it plainly, queer people love performance art. 

It’s unclear what exactly will be taught in “Topics In Recorded Music: Lana Del Rey,” but it’s obvious that Del Rey has spent enough time in the business to be studied on an academic level. Despite what misconceptions many have had about her, her creations are extremely authentic and artistic which shows that if anyone deserves a college course about them or their work, it’s Lana. 

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