July was for swimming. It was for sleeping in, playing outside, going to the Alamo and the lakes and wherever you wanted because you had all the free time in the world now. It was for getting away with watching TV-14 National Geographic documentaries on sharks (it was Shark Week) and seeing The Little Mermaid II for the first time — both of which I watched in a fit of hazy boredom one otherwise unremarkable morning. July was for falling down a rabbit hole of melancholia and intoxicatingly tragic glamor. It was for coming across the album that will forever be engraved in my memory: Born To Die (2012).
I cannot overstate how strange the cover looks even now. The singer seems plastic, with her honey-brown hair set in perfect waves around her symmetrical face and a red bikini top underneath a white collared shirt. Her pink lips are pursed, and her eyelids are crescents of peach-colored skin among mascara-thick eyelashes and carefully-sculpted brows. There’s a barely-discernible car and some nondescript fences and trees in the background. Her name hovers in the cloud-dotted sky in white picket-fence letters — LANA DEL REY, while at the bottom, in smaller letters of the same font, is the album name. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s always disturbed me, too. I was twelve when I first laid eyes on it that July. She looks like an alien, I’d thought.
Born To Die. How do I describe Born To Die? The songs are dreamy and sentimental, bittersweet as summer. But it all feels right. Lana’s voice contains pure, soulful yearning, with an old-Hollywood, American-summer quality and pretty crying notes interspersed with smooth, swooning tones. She often sings about loss and hope, love and abuse, romance, friendship, fame, depression, and mortality. She knows that “sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough” and that ultimately we were born to die — but she also knows that the streets are paved with gold and that life is capable of being sweet like cinnamon.
Born To Die was the first record I ever bought. It was the entire reason I even got a record player. Opening it after returning from Target was like walking through the pearly gates — like unleashing the power of the universe.
In some songs she sounds like warm caramel, singing about her love, life, and American dreams. In others, she throws herself into the whole hopeless heartbreak-themed persona — she is, after all, the self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” She’s Miss Daytona, the scarlet starlet, Elvis Presley’s daughter (she says it herself: “Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother / Jesus is my bestest friend”). She sings miserably about how she wishes things were different (“Dark Paradise”), describes her underage escapades at boarding school (“This Is What Makes Us Girls”), and wonders why she’s unhappy even though her life is perfect (“Million Dollar Man”).
The album is partially autobiographical, too — in the same way some of Elvis’s last songs (“Moody Blue,” “Unchained Melody,” etc.) express the tragedy and depression that surrounded his final years, Lana sings about the experiences she’s had in her two-and-a-half decades of life. She knows what it’s like to be a rebel — to be in bad relationships, to be so emotionally drained that she just doesn’t care anymore, to be hurt by someone she sees as the Messiah, to have to leave behind everything she’s ever known. To get into trouble a lot, to be taken advantage of, to go through a philosophical crisis at a young age, to get famous when it’s least expected. Come and take a walk on the wild side, let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain . . . you like your girls insane.
During the summer of 2021, I was under the impression that I was cursed. All my best friends always ended up moving away and leaving me alone. I missed my people, my childhood. Nothing had been the same since I’d finished elementary school — in other words, I was mourning the past. And in Born To Die, so was Lana. I felt I was the sad queen of a bygone era, of a golden age that everyone but me had moved on from. And Lana felt that way, too. She and I were the same.
To me, a little twelve-year-old reminiscing on my old life, Born To Die was everything. It still is everything. It’s summer, it’s love, it’s nostalgia. It’s a reminder of the best time of my entire life. And so there will forever be a special place in my heart for the blessing that is Born To Die.