Six Degrees of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 01.31.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Born To Die - Bonus Track Version

Lana Del Rey

It's rather amazing that someone can stir so much excitement simply by sounding above-it-all. At this point, Lana Del Rey's backstory is well-documented. She was born Elizabeth Grant in upstate New York and began to carve out a pop career as Lizzy Grant in the late '00s before changing her name, going more or less trip-hop, and delivering the surprise the Internet had apparently been waiting for with a song called "Video Games" that sounded like a young woman who couldn't wait to go to L.A., move into a mansion and die of misery. Of course it's an archetype. (Why else would people get so inflamed whenever people make fun of Joan Didion?) The moment when Del Rey sang, "Honey, is that true?" and her voice broke every damn time was the giveaway. One, she obviously romanticized this shit way too much, and that's what gave the song its edge. And two, this woman had training. She wasn't just some YouTube accident. Boom, controversy yawn. Born to Die arrives freighted with a weird admixture of hype and scorn. It isn't great, but it's hardly a disgrace, either. Just think of it as a singer-songwriter record that's equally rooted in the kinds of soundscapey stuff '90s kids were born into (you know, to die). Del Rey's got some distance before she masters her subjects bad-underside-of-the-big-city type of stuff, largely, the lyrics brooding the way the strings and rumbling beats are. She's not Steely Dan, she ain't the Doors, but she's onto something. "Diet Mountain Dew" (whose refrain actually goes, "You're not good for me/ But, baby, I want you" very '90s of her to title it that, no?) has a languid surf guitar a fetching verse melody (particularly on the line, "Do you think we'll be in love forever?") that overcome the banality of its incident. She does herself no favors with "National Anthem," either via the chanted verses or the "soaring" chorus it sounds like an old Martika reject. So no, it's not an album full of stuff as compelling as "Video Games." But it's a start. And you know how showbiz lifers are tenacious.

The Inspiration

Lana Del Rey has cited Nancy Sinatra as an early influence, and once it registers, a lot of things click into place. It helps to not be thinking of the Nancy that made "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," her world-conquering 1966 single though even there Frank's daughter was slinging her words coolly against the horns' pep. But "Bang Bang" was another story. Against heavily chorused guitar, Sinatra quietly nurses a metaphor for breaking up that sounds rather literal, an undercurrent brought out by Quentin Tarantino when he utilized it to prologue Kill Bill. Like her dad, Sinatra strove for a conversational singing style that didn't sound like acting. That's what Del Rey goes for too.

The Fake Soundtrack


Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi

As much as anything, Born to Die sounds a lot like it wishes it were produced by Danger Mouse. His big-screen production style owes a lot to '60s and '70s Italian soundtrack-music orchestration rich, widescreen, looming more than attacking. Working with Italian soundtrack composer and arranger Daniele Luppi, Danger Mouse took a rare full-moniker cover credit for Rome, and it's easy to hear why it's one of his better albums. It's mostly instrumental, but he gets terrific vocal cameos from Jack White and Norah Jones.

The Real Soundtrack

Pulp Fiction

Various Artists

Quentin Tarantino's second movie placed "indie cinema" right in the dead center of pop culture. The Pulp Fiction soundtrack, compiled by a director who loved music as much as cinema, was as iconic as the movie it shared its moment with the Beastie Boys' fanzine Grand Royal and RE/Search's Incredibly Strange Music books, making 1994 a watershed year for obsessive record collectors. And somehow the OST managed to take on a second life: It's a coffeehouse staple, the ultimate cool-friend mixtape, juxtaposing stuff you might have heard with stuff you probably haven't in any event, you haven't heard it sequenced this well before. The low-down guitars Tarantino favors in Dick Dale's "Misrlou" and Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" have a peculiarly Hollywood glow to them, the mist coming in over the sunset and clouding it color-saturated noir.

The Downtempo Exemplars



Portishead (producer Geoff Barrow, musician Adrian Utley, vocalist Beth Gibbons) are obsessive musical micromanagers, taking 11 years between releases two and three. Their 1994 debut, though, is the locus of what became known as trip-hop: breakbeats flaked with vinyl dust, enormously low bass frequencies now available thanks to the compact disc, and speaking of technological upgrades higher-grade weed than ever in '90s Bristol, which inspired producers both to try new things and take their time doing it. The album peaks with "Wandering Star," in which the jazzy horns interrupt a bass lope that's obsessive in its intensity.

The Studio Pros

Absolute Garbage


The rock-group version of Portishead, kind of, Garbage were a female singer, Shirley Manson, who was brought in to front some studio screwing around that a trio of male producers were doing. Those producers included alt-rock majordomo Butch Vig, who'd produced Nevermind and Siamese Dream; with Manson on board, he got to play a bit of pop star himself. Only a bit Manson clearly relished the frontwoman role, especially live. Garbage weren't trip-hop, precisely, but they built on that basic template, especially on their self-titled 1995 debut. Absolute Garbage is this natural singles band's inevitable best-of. Perhaps Ms. Del Rey would like to try out "Only Happy When It Rains" for herself?