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The Church of Lana Del Rey

We got to her know fans at her Hollywood Forever Cemetery two-night residency.


All photos by Shannon Cottrell

Lana Del Rey is mid-Jesus pose, surrounded by a dozen candelabras and the tombstones of George Harrison, Johnny Ramone, and Jayne Mansfield, when the words “Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn's my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend” roll out of her mouth. Her audience sings along in unison like they’re reciting hymns at midnight mass. A screen behind her flashes charred black-and-white images of psalms and a bible. The location is Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the setting couldn’t be more fitting for an artist who’s built up a fatalist, nostalgic persona that longs for the lost eras of icons—many of whose graves sit near her stage.

Three hours earlier, Saturday at 5:30 PM, when Lana arrived at the cemetery—“one of the few places I come to for solace,” as she later explained on stage—her disciples, who arrived as early as 8 AM for the show, had already filled the grave site’s grassy front yard on Santa Monica Blvd in a snake-like line that extended several blocks. Pandemonium struck as her black SUV pulled up to the gate and hundreds of teens waved their flower crowns, homemade art, and vinyl copies of her records, screaming with all of their shrill might, “I love you Lana!” They wear their flower crowns “for her,” as one 15-year-old floral dress-clad fan tells me. When I identify myself as an editor at Noisey, a fan responds that she “love[s] VICE because Lana loves VICE.” They’re quick to pull out selfies they’ve taken with her and share anecdotes about how sweet she is to her fans. They’re “obsessed with her.” Watching the scene in awe, I asked around what it is exactly that they love about Lana.

“I think she embodies and represents a culture. She’s more of an idea and she has a talent too,” says a late-teen guy clutching a copy of her second album, Ultraviolence, who had been waiting since 10 AM. That culture—which conjures the mystery and grandeur of America’s first youth-driven era—both feeds off and is perfectly primed for the era of digital scrapbook sites like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest, where your online persona is a meticulous curation of your interests and, more so, a projection of how you want others to see you. No other recent artist has better embodied that than Lana Del Rey, the self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” (though human re-appropriation machine Katy Perry has tried time and time again).

Anyone who’s watched a Lana Del Rey video knows that the persona she’s crafted reads like a flipbook of cool images (vintage-filtered shots of icons, Hollywood, skate parks, old film clips). “I like that she cultivates the past a lot,” says one girl, wearing a pair of throwback cat-eye sunglasses that could have come out of Lana’s wardrobe. “She has a vintage soul and when I listen to her songs, I feel like I’m going through nostalgia and like I’ve liked through the 60s.”

In many ways, it’s a smart and brave move for Lana to market herself as a relic from the classic rock heydey. Those years are so far behind us, especially for 90s-born millennials. Not only does her retro-obsessed sound and style make her singular amongst today’s pop artists, it also ties her to the collective history of those legends in a way that Perry, Rihanna, and their contemporaries don’t approach.

But can a culture that’s grounded in aesthetics have a message? For one fan, Lana’s work does; her melancholic waltz-pop is a more relatable alternative to the other artists she shares radio time with. “She’s super real with her music and words—I can really relate to them,” says a flower crown-topped early twentysomething, standing 10 people deep into the line. “And she swears, which I think is dope. You hear all that stupid shit on the radio and there’s no passion in it without swearing.”

Even though it’s undetectable in her voice, there’s an irony in using the word “real” to describe Lana Del Rey. After trickling out her early singles “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” in late summer of 2011, LDR threw the internet for a loop when news surfaced of her earlier, failed career as a pop singer under her birth name Lizzy Grant. Journalists who first posted the chanteuse’s smoky songs and grainy visual counterparts felt duped. Thinkpieces on the importance of “authenticity” rained down. Writers, finally, started picking at her anti-hero persona and seemingly anti-feminist lyrics. If there’s one thing people love in post-internet times, it’s the feeling of discovery and claim—like you were early to something and therefore have ownership over it—and the LDR debacle exposed the icky side of that impulse.

But by now that chapter has almost been forgotten—none of her fans seemed to mind, and it’s since been scrubbed from her Wikipedia page. If anything, it adds to Lana’s mystique. “She has an air of mystery,” says the friend of the girl who likes Lana for her realness. LDR’s story is now one of reinvention. She’s an artist who quite literally has invented and projected the lifestyle she wanted, and, with a compelling aesthetic and infectious songs, willed it into existence. Looking at her career arc and the way she saunters around on stage—kneeling down while singing like those lyrics are just for you—you get the sense that LDR studied to be a star. You believe she calculated her path to musical stardom—an approach taken by both Lady Gaga and her cohort Kanye West. She may look like a 1967 pinup but she is living the post-Kardashian American Dream.

Which is all to say that, over her three-year rise, Lana Del Rey has become the quintessential Los Angeles pop star. There’s her precocious celebritydom; her references to old Hollywood players like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean; the fact that she created one of the Golden State’s best-ever anthems, “West Coast,” where—if you need a primer—she sings, “Down on the West Coast/ I get this feeling like/ It all could happen.” Los Angeles is her playground and the Hollywood Forever shows felt like Lana’s homecoming.

In truth, they were: The Friday and Saturday night shows marked the end of her Ultraviolence tour, which she reminded the audience of on both nights. “It feels like we’ve come full circle,” she said, before diving into “Body Electric,” a song that couldn’t have been more appropriate given its lyrics and the venue. But the “full circle” Lana Del Rey mentioned could also apply to how much she’s grown as a performer. Her vocals, especially on Friday night, were as silky as her floral wing-sleeved babydoll dress. Lana didn’t falter once, not even when performing “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” the songs that relegated her to a meme and skit after botched, breathy 2012 performances on “Saturday Night Live.” Even more impressive was her delivery of her latest album’s title track—filled out by guitars and drums, achieving power-ballad status—and the live debut of “Shades of Cool” the next night.

For all of the criticism she’s received about her song characters placing their fates in the hands of undeserving male counterparts, Lana herself doesn’t seem to lack agency. On Friday night, she paused the show to soundcheck and, in the process, sang a few improvised lyrics a cappella, before going into “Million Dollar Man,” one of the more underrated songs from her debut album Born to Die. Her fans loved it, just like they cheered when Lana quietly dipped off stage to take a puff of what many in the crowd assumed was a joint (it was far more likely a cigarette)—which she did a few times on Saturday night, as her band would finish off each song—and roared when she dropped ultra-confident lines “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” and “Let me fuck you hard in the pouring rain.”

Other than the addition of “Shades of Cool” (and subsequent subtraction of “Ride”), the setlist didn’t change from Friday to Saturday night. It didn’t have to. Lana Del Rey’s fans didn’t place any demands on her. (Except for one who shouted “Lana sit on my face,” which resulted in Lana losing her cool for the only time all weekend and cracking up.) Some even paid up to $275 for a re-sold ticket, and a handful attended both nights. When she did perform “Ride” on Friday night, as the song’s opening chords played, an emotional male fan nearby me declared, “I was waiting for the right time to cry,” and started bawling. I watched another guy, within arms length, who was wearing an American flag muscle tee, sway and sing along word for word. The fans upfront lost it even more.

At a Lana Del Rey show, if you arrive early enough to snag a front row set, you will be rewarded with ample selfie, cheek-kissing, and gift-giving opportunities. On both nights of her Hollywood Forever residency—as well as when I saw her in May—a significant portion of the show was devoted to directly engaging with her fans. As her band jams on the outro of a song, LDR descends a staircase, waving and smiling, and then works the crowd. LDR usually has two of these breaks in her set, each time ending in her walking off stage with arms full of bouquets, handmade drawings, and flower crowns. On paper that might read as self-indulgent, but it lends her show more old-world charm and her fans are grateful for even a chance to briefly connect with her. Even those who don’t get that opportunity seem happy. It’s as if they’re simply thankful for Lana’s generosity to them. The willingness to make herself available to her fans seems to magnify their bond. As one person in line said, “She has a very big heart and she loves her fans—you don’t find many people like that.”

Friday Setlist:
Cruel World
Cola
Body Electric
Blue Jeans
West Coast
Born To Die
Ultraviolence
Old Money
Summertime Sadness
Million Dollar Man
Video Games
Ride
National Anthem

Saturday Setlist:
Cruel World
Cola
Body Electric
Blue Jeans
West Coast
Born to Die
Ultraviolence
Old Money
Shades of Cool
Summertime Sadness
Million Dollar Man
Video Games
National Anthem

Marissa G. Muller is a Lana Del Rey convert. She's on Twitter - @marissagmuller.