Go Behind Lana Del Rey's 'Summertime' Surge

Lana Del Rey
Nicole Nodland

A surprise success story even in a summer filled with them ("Blurred Lines," "The Fox"), Lana Del Rey is celebrating the first crossover hit of her career and a recent re-entry into the top 20 of the Billboard 200 thanks to a dark-horse dance remix of a song released in its original form nearly 20 months ago.

"Summertime Sadness," driven by a remix by the French DJ/producer Cedric Gervais, moves up the Billboard Hot 100, rising 10-6. But the song wasn't actually intended for release in America, climbing its way to the U.S. top 10 from an unlikely start in Germany seven months ago.

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Initially commissioned in January for Universal Germany, Del Rey's American and U.K. labels-Interscope and Polydor, respectively-at first passed on the remix, which by then was already a year removed from Born to Die, her 2012 debut on which the original "Summertime Sadness" first appeared. But after the song shot to No. 1 on influential electronic music digital retailer Beatport in the spring, a few radio programmers took it upon themselves to put the remix into rotation.

"One day I got a call from [Interscope president of promotion Brenda Romano] saying, 'Hey, what would you think if I started working this "Summertime" remix to radio?'" Interscope executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson recalls. "It had been picked up in two markets and we were seeing a real, unmistakable correlation in terms of airplay and sales."

All versions of "Summertime Sadness" have so far sold 1.1 million downloads, with 512,000 of those coming from the remix, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song's sudden penetration at radio is something of a tipping point for Del Rey, whose career to date has in many ways been defined by a lack of support at top 40.

A product of the Internet age, Del Rey first landed her deal with Interscope in 2011 after her homemade video for the song "Video Games" went viral and crowned her as a new obsession for the blogosphere. But what made "Video Games" captivating to online audiences-dramatic production, allegorical lyrics and an alluringly melancholic vocal performance-was anathema to radio, which at the time was focused on the dance-pop anthems of Ke$ha and LMFAO.

Following the success of the "Video Games" clip (47 million YouTube views), Interscope approved an elaborate production for "Born to Die," her debut's title track. In the video, Del Rey sits singing on a throne at the center of a palace wearing a white gown and floral reef while flanked by two Bengal tigers. At 120 million views, the clip is one of the most-watched of that year and remains her most popular. Del Rey has more than 330 million views total on YouTube and 1.3 million-plus subscribers.

"As with any artist, you pick and choose what their strengths are," says Ed Millet, Del Rey's co-manager with Ben Mawson, noting the artist's visuals and storytelling ability. "Lana has an incredibly strong visual identity, and that's sort of where we've put our focus."

It was Del Rey's potent imagery that led to her other 2013 breakthrough and the second-best-selling song of her career-"Young and Beautiful," the lead single from Baz Luhrmann's soundtrack to "The Great Gatsby." The filmmaker, known for his own romantic visual style, approached Del Rey about contributing to the project last summer. She agreed-despite momentary misgivings about whether to relinquish what Millet says she declared "the best song I've ever written"-in part because the movie represented another potentially crucial platform for an artist who had been shut out of radio.

"Young and Beautiful" has now sold 780,000 downloads, and is Del Rey's only song besides the "Summertime Sadness" remix to breach the top 25 of the Hot 100, peaking at No. 22. Renewed interest in the singer has pushed total sales of Born to Die to 774,000 and of the subsequent Paradise EP, released in November, to 253,000.

"How many artists can you point to that have had this level of success using purely online and alternative methods of exposure?" Jackson asks. "No top 40 play, no Grammy nominations, no MTV Awards ... We're only now starting to see the mainstream acceptance of this, and we have a lot more to come."