The ‘Born To Die’ Fantasy Lives On

born to die lana del rey staring in mirror

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Lana Del Rey’s major-label debut album Born To Die has officially spent 500 weeks on the Billboard 200 — making it the first-ever debut album by a female to do so; just the second album by a solo female artist (after Adele’s 21); and only the 19th album in history to cross the 500-week milestone. It’s an achievement that many in the industry never would’ve predicted, but fans of Lana know that the power of Born To Die is stronger than any critic’s pen. 

Back when Born To Die spent 300 weeks on the Billboard 200, Lana was asked what it felt like being one of only three women to reach that milestone (Adele’s 21 currently sits pretty at 580 weeks and Carole King’s Tapestry is at 318 weeks, while Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon holds the title of the longest album to ever stay on the Billboard 200, at 981 weeks.) She responded “how about that?” (a very Lana response) followed by “that is crazy, what is that?” Here’s the deal: Billboard ranks the 200 most popular albums weekly based on multi-metric consumption, meaning that traditional album sales, track-equivalent albums, and streaming-equivalent albums are all combined to create a ranking. It’s all pretty confusing but the takeaway is: Born To Die has been listened to enough times to to stay in the top 200 albums every week for 500 weeks. I have to say, I’m not surprised. 

Born To Die entered a world it didn’t belong in. Cast your mind back to 2011: ‘Rolling In The Deep’, ‘Firework’, ‘Party Rock Anthem’, ‘Born This Way’, and ‘Super Bass’ were topping the charts; it was all about music that dripped with the same infectious pop coating. Yet there Lana was, stepping in with sweeping orchestral flourishes, crooning about an American ideal long gone and a deep, passionate love. 

The album was dragged over the coals upon its release in January 2012 and was relentlessly made fun of by critics and the wider public alike for being too sexualised, out of touch, and boring. Lana told The Guardian that she never “felt any of the enjoyment” from the commercial success of first single ‘Video Games’ because the backlash “was all bad, all of it”. In 2012, Pitchfork rated the album a 5.5 out of 10 — they later rescored to 7.8 — writing that “The ultimate disappointment of Born to Die, then, is how out of touch it feels not just with the world around it, but with the simple business of human emotion”. They also likened Born To Die to “the album equivalent of a faked orgasm” and as a “collection of torch songs with no fire”. Critics obviously couldn’t predict the future but I highly doubt they imagined one where Born To Die would stay in the Billboard 200 for 500 weeks. 

My take? People just weren’t ready for an album that wasn’t based in Lana’s reality. And they especially weren’t ready for an album where a woman expressed her sadness without making it a gimmick or lifting the mood by throwing a dance beat behind it (cc: Katy Perry’s ‘The One That Got Away’). When she was doing promo for the album’s launch, Lana told MTV that her goal was to “try to re-create myself in song form” and that the way she makes music is “different from the way some people make music, in the way that I write for myself”. 

I often think of Born To Die as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that Jay Gatsby stares at every night in The Great Gatsby. Jay, much like Lana, is reaching out for something he can’t have and something that doesn’t exist: the American dream. The light is meant to be symbolic of Jay’s undying love, desperation, and the unattainability of power and money. These themes are Born To Die to a tee. Lana would go on to write ‘Young and Beautiful’ for the soundtrack of the 2013 film

Born To Die has an allure that transcends explanation, but if you get it, you get it. And those who do were just as captivated as Jay Gatsby was to that green light. Sure, Born To Die depicts a world we’ll never be able to inhabit, but Lana makes it feel so real. When I listen to the album today I still feel like a character in the world that Lana has created. It’s a form of escapism that never gets old. 

It’s no secret that Born To Die ushered in a new age of pop and alternative music. One that allowed women to express their melancholy without having to make excuses for it and one that encouraged artists to build rich worlds with their songwriting. One that helped foster artists’ creativity like Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lorde. Many credit Lana and Born To Die as reference points for their music. Billie herself said that Born To Die changed music for girls” and that Lana “created us”, while Taylor said that despite being “ruthlessly criticised” in her early career, Lana has become the most influential artist in pop. 

Lana has never strayed from the person who made Born To Die all those years ago. She’s always maintained her own image — albeit a controversial one at times. She makes her music the way she wants. It might not have been celebrated at the time, but Born To Die found its home among the Tumblr flower crowns and lost souls in 2012, and it continues to find a home in people’s hearts 11 years later. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Nicole Nodland