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The enduring legacy of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’

Five years on, the ethereal introduction to the singer’s ‘Hollywood Sadcore’ sounds even better when experienced without the early arguments of inauthenticity

It was five years ago that Lana Del Rey first entranced the world with her distinctive, dreamy brand of what she called ‘Hollywood Sadcore’. The first glimpse came in the form of “Video Games”, a simple yet brilliant ballad which stopped an EDM-obsessed music industry in its tracks. Its instrumentation is minimal; the song opens with church bells and slowly develops as harps, strings and a plodding piano swell underneath the beauty of Del Rey’s distinctive vocal. Lyrics seem to be sighed instead of sung; there are hints of melancholia as well as that sweeping, cinematic sadness with which Del Rey has since become synonymous. It’s aged incredibly well due to its lack of reliance on musical trends: “Video Games” is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime track destined for critical acclaim regardless of its release date.

Then, there was the video. It’s a moving collage comprised of archive footage – think Disney vixens, American flags and flickering clips of a faded Hollywood sign – interspersed with webcam videos of a doe-eyed Del Rey singing wistfully at the camera. The song lyrics themselves rely on a juxtaposition of fantasy and reality; the verses depict a doting Del Rey dressing up to distract her lover from his aforementioned “Video Games” whereas the cinematic chorus sees the starlet romanticise the concept of romance, cooing “Heaven is a place on Earth with you.”

The verse was about the way things were with one person, and the chorus was the way that I wished things had really been with another person, who I thought about for a long time”, she explained in a Dazed profile back in 2011. “‘Swinging in the backyard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name’. That was what happened, you know? He’d come home and I’d see him. But then the chorus wasn’t like that. That was the way that I wished it was – the melody sounds so compelling and heavenly because I wanted it to be that way.”

“Retrospectively, the contrast between the reality of a relationship and a wistful longing for old-fashioned love remain the perfect introduction to Lana Del Rey’s work”

Retrospectively, the contrast between the reality of a relationship and a wistful longing for old-fashioned love remain the perfect introduction to Lana Del Rey’s work; the same themes continue to permeate her more recent work, and her commitment to her singular aesthetic remains unflinching. Back in 2011, the commercial viability of that aesthetic was astounding – “Video Games” went platinum in Australia, Austria, Belgium and the United Kingdom as well as going double platinum in Switzerland and selling over 2.6million copies worldwide. To date, the video has been viewed over 128,000,000 times on YouTube alone and the song won a prestigious Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song in 2012. Her most recent work may have never have reached the same commercial peaks as “Video Games” but the reference points remain the same – even if the budgets are now bigger.

It’s undeniable that the timing of “Video Games” release was pivotal – its unique soundscape seemed even more unique in a mainstream increasingly dominated by identikit EDM. In an interview with T Magazine, Del Rey explained that record labels saw her downbeat, melancholy output as a commercial risk which deterred them from taking a chance. “I would play my songs, explain what I was trying to do, and I’d get ‘You know who’s No. 1 in 13 countries right now? Kesha. ‘Video Games’ was a 4-and-a-half-minute ballad’”, she explained. “No instruments on it. It was too dark, too personal, too risky, not commercial. It wasn’t pop until it was on the radio.”

The moment the song did hit the radio, the reception was unprecedented – and also extremely short-lived. There was a quick backlash following “Video Games” success which saw Lana Del Rey elevated and subsequently crucified by the media before she even released her first album. It seems the backlash started around the time that ill-fated debut LP was unearthed online; entitled Lana Del Ray a.k.a. Lizzy Grant, the album hinted at the sonic potential that would later flourish; much like “Video Games”, these were downbeat, lovelorn ballads rooted in grainy, lo-fi Americana. Media outlets were, on the other hand, more incensed at the discovery of Lana Del Rey as a pseudonym; shattered was the illusion that she had appeared from nowhere on YouTube, a revelation which sparked a subsequent mission to crucify the starlet for a supposed lack of authenticity.

This criticism was bolstered by a widely-panned Saturday Night Live performance which many argued as a demonstration of her lack of talent. Del Rey was forced to defend herself, explaining that she wasn’t yet a trained performer and was, in fact, finding her feet in front of a global audience. Articles were soon released attempting to expose Del Rey as a case of style over substance; headlines exposed a millionaire father and drew attention to claims that Del Rey had been pushed by managers and lawyers to create an alias name for her music. Things went to such an extreme that SPIN published an article entitled Deconstructing Lana Del Rey – a meticulous analysis of fact and fiction designed to clear up the facts and myths surrounding the star. 

From day one, Lana Del Rey was forced by press to deny rumours that she was the meticulous creation of a record label seeking success. She explained that her moniker choice stemmed from spending time with her Cuban friends, speaking Spanish frequently and eventually settling on Lana Del Rey due to it being exotic and beautiful. “Once you have a name, you expect certain things from it, so it was like something to aim towards,” she explained in the same Dazed profile. “I could build a sonic world towards the way the name fell off my lips. It’s helped me a lot.” Despite her honesty, the mainstream media was unsurprisingly reluctant to believe that Del Rey, a woman whose visual universe centred around archetypes and female sexuality, could truly have agency over her own image.

Still, the true legacy of “Video Games” lies neither in its commercial nor its critical success. Instead, it can be found on Tumblr. A quick search of ‘Lana Del Rey’ on the blogging site spews up thousands and thousands of gifs, photos and lyric quotes which draw from the same breed of cinematic melancholia so synonymous with Del Rey. Her lyrics have drawn criticism for glamourising death and depression, whereas “Video Games” seems to evoke a desperate longing for the affections of an unresponsive lover; it’s this distinctive juxtaposition of references that concisely encapsulates the self-coined term ‘Hollywood sadcore’.

“The mainstream media was unsurprisingly reluctant to believe that Del Rey, a woman whose visual universe centred around archetypes and female sexuality, could truly have agency over her own image”

On the other hand, the link between depression and Tumblr is well-documented; a combination of online anonymity, communal spirit and an endless well of content on sadness and struggle turned the site into a beautiful safe haven for sufferers to share their stories. Coincidentally, Tumblr was experiencing a boom in popularity around the same time that Del Rey emerged as a mainstream figure and immediately became a figurehead of what is still known as ‘sadcore’. A Dummy article written in 2012 succintly describes her appeal: “A beautiful woman with a curious voice, Lana portrayed a quasi-Perks of Being A Wallflower perspective on tortured young love with a wistfulness that appealed to an access-all-areas Internet generation desperately grasping for nostalgia.”

It’s perhaps this description that summarizes the enduring legacy of “Video Games”. Lana Del Rey did exactly what the Internet has allowed us all to do; she mined past decades for inspiration in a way that previous generations were never able to, pulling cinematic references, an idealised depiction of Hollywood glamour and the beautiful suffering perpetuated by films such as The Valley of the Dolls and The Virgin Suicides, mixing them together with her own life experiences to curate a disarmingly consistent aesthetic. 5 years later the song remains timeless; the juxtaposition of its blissful chorus, minimal instrumentation and matter-of-fact verses still resonates.

The argument that she is not the mastermind behind her own image, though, can now easily be picked apart; since Born To Die Del Rey has released Paradise, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon without deviating from the captivating world that she created for herself. Unsurprisingly, critics have warmed up over time – music review aggregator MetaCritic reveals that her latest release Honeymoon is her most critically-acclaimed to date, earning a score of 78. Comparatively, Ultraviolence earned 74, Paradise 64 and Born To Die 62. Following this logic, it’s fair to say that ‘Video Games’ is even more beautiful 5 years after its release – once removed from the debates of inauthenticity which surrounded its release, it now opens itself up to the unbiased listener as a brooding, cinematic portrayal of love and longing.