“It just sounded so dynamic and unique."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
In 2011, Lana Del Rey didn’t just introduce us to a signature sound, style, or swagger -- she drove us into a new universe. Del Rey turned the key to a world of glamorous sadness and the lungs of Old Hollywood began to rise and fall again with every note, lyric and melody on “Born to Die,” released in January 2012 as the title track of her major label debut.
The sweeping string arrangements, brilliant storytelling and hip-hop flavor makes the track one of the most standout musical moments on the album. “When I first heard the demo, it just had this moment where I almost had to gasp for air,” John Ehmann, then an A&R at Interscope Records -- whose first signing was Del Rey -- tells Billboard. “It just sounded so dynamic and unique, I knew at that point that it was really going to cut through. We just knew exactly where this was going to go -- and that it was going to explode.”
Justin Parker, who co-wrote the track, recalls Del Rey’s DIY approach to sessions. “She sang it without a pop shield -- she just had this microphone,” he says. “It was so delicately recorded, because we almost didn’t have the tools to do a proper vocal. But when she sings it and she’s happy with it, that’s it.”
Larry Gold, who arranged the strings on “Born to Die,” was also stunned by the early magnetism of Del Rey’s vocals. “Right away, I was enchanted by the sound of her voice,” he says.
That voice would eventually grace five albums to reach the top five of the Billboard 200 albums chart this decade, including two No. 1s in Ultraviolence (2104) and Lust For Life (2017), and most recently, this year’s universally acclaimed Norman F--king Rockwell (No. 3).
Del Rey’s rise in the early ‘10s came with perfect timing -- she was speaking directly to a generation who had grown up in front of a television and raised on Tumblr reblogs. Prior to her arrival, the alluring sadness and melodrama of her cinematic, beat-heavy alt-pop was something largely associated with male-fronted, lightly raging emo bands. But Del Rey developed a cult-like following just the same, one that consistently waits for hours outside of a venue for a chance to be front row at her shows to snap a coveted selfie or get their vinyl signed. She took sadness and vulnerability and made them sexy and mainstream.
With it came a sonic shift that completely changed the pop landscape. Vanguard-pushing, genre-blending artists like Billie Eilish, Fletcher, Kevin Abstract and Lauren Jauregui (who once tweeted about Born to Die, “This album helped me through many a lonely night when my whole world changed at 15/16. It has as much magical potency today listening as it did back then”) have all acknowledged Del Rey’s impact on their own sound. This mood that so many artists have been inspired by can still be seen today, spread across Spotify playlists ranging from “Sad Bops” to “Lush Lofi.”
“I think she just changed the way pop music felt," producer Emile Haynie says. "It was a little darker and deeply personal...that connects with people [more] than anything. This was pop music that wasn’t getting played on the radio, that didn’t sound like anything that was popular at the time, but it slipped through the cracks and became its own thing. She developed the sound that continues on to this day.”