The pop superstar backlash is in full effect. Within the past year, both Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift have been roundly criticized for new albums that either ignored what’s going on in the world (the latter’s solipsistic Reputation) or opted for clumsy self-reflection (the former’s Man of the Woods). The harsh reactions weren’t necessarily in proportion with the actual music—neither album deserved to be treated like a sonic disaster—although they did illustrate an interesting shift in the public’s mind-set: Today, listeners expect more from pop artists than apolitical commentary delivered from rarefied air.
Perhaps that’s one reason Lana Del Rey has grown into such a formidable musical presence. The pop star formerly known as Lizzy Grant has never been afraid to speak her mind, even if that has been to her detriment; witness the drubbing she received in 2014 after expressing a disinterest in feminism. And her songs are frank about serious matters—romantic violence, the downside of heroin—without pulling punches.
But Del Rey’s fourth and latest album, Lust for Life, is also her best yet. Besides boasting an array of impressive guest stars (Stevie Nicks, The Weeknd), the music often touches on earnest societal commentary that’s firmly pro-woman and pro-peace. Last year, Del Rey explained to Pitchfork that Lust for Life’s political bent emerged because “things have shifted culturally” from when Barack Obama was president.
“Women started to feel less safe under this administration instantly,” she said. “What if they take away Planned Parenthood? What if we can’t get birth control? Now, when people ask me those questions, I feel a little differently. The reason why I asked Stevie Nicks to be on the record is because she changes when her environment changes, and I’m like that as well.”
The idea that Del Rey is responding to the world around her, rather than isolating herself in a fame bubble, places her in good company; after all, there’s a long tradition of pop music being used to illuminate social and political upheaval. But it also illustrates her appeal to savvy modern audiences, who devour all styles of music and gravitate toward pop stars who exude authenticity and sincerity.
Accordingly, Del Rey’s music doesn’t see genre—or era—boundaries. In a recent interview with the French magazine L’Officiel, she name-checked a diverse array of influences: country stars (Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton), California legends (The Beach Boys), the Summer of Love (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix) and hip-hop pioneers (The Roots, Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G.). In a way, Del Rey is the perfect embodiment of internet culture, which has flattened time, fetishized nostalgia and emboldened people to slip between different personas.
From a business standpoint, Del Rey’s career also represents a very modern version of success. She only has three Top 40 U.S. chart hits—the most successful being the Cedric Gervais remix of “Summertime Sadness”—but she has received billions of Spotify and YouTube plays. Del Rey doesn’t have much radio support—among radio stations monitored by Nielsen BDSradio, her most-played song in a recent week, the “Summertime Sadness” remix, received only 95 spins—but all four of her studio albums have debuted at either No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Plus, she’s headlining arenas, and she frequently lands high-profile magazine covers.
Because Del Rey’s career health isn’t so dependent on established channels, she also has more creative and personal leeway than, say, Swift and Timberlake. In fact, Del Rey isn’t concerned about angering people with political directness. “You don’t negotiate when it comes to your work or your art,” she told Complex. “You stand totally firm and take the consequences. In terms of losing fans, I don’t care. Period.” She likely has nothing to worry about anyway: Del Rey is a modern pop star whose rebellious appeal seems to have made her bulletproof.
LANA DEL REY with Kali Uchis. February 16, 8 p.m., $60-$125. Mandalay Bay Events Center, 702-632-7580.