I’m not going to pretend to have a new angle on what Lana Del Rey represents, or her disastrous SNL debut, or her sustained popularity in the aftermath of all that hate to close the decade as one of the most widely admired artists in pop. That story is an interesting one. Her music is great. Good takes, for once, are plentiful.
I do have a few thoughts on “Video Games” specifically. This was Lizzy Grant’s debut single as Lana Del Rey, and it captured enough attention upon its release in 2011 that she received that infamous SNL spot before the album was even out. It was probably too much too fast, and SNL went the way it did (not as disastrous as I’d remembered, FWIW, but still very uncomfortable). Many assumed she’d had her 15 minutes and that was that.
Instead, she stuck around. Her first properly released album, Born to Die, sold well. She had a hit on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, and an even bigger hit with the “Summertime Sadness” remix. Then another hit album in 2014, another in 2015, and 2017, and 2019. No one else has had this kind of sustained prolific output throughout this decade. And it’s all been increasingly well-reviewed, to the point that the swooning over her most recent LP, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, leaves it the clear consensus choice for Album of the Year per Metacritic.
So why, all that being the case, are so many of us inclined to go back to the beginning with “Video Games,” the song most associated with Lana’s rushed missteps out of the gate? Because it’s her best song. And it’s a perfect song. It’s so good that it made a contemporary tidal wave of public shaming completely irrelevant, and now that we’re in the age of universal Lana adoration it’s clearer to see.
Like so many of her songs, it can be read both as a straightforward modern love ballad and as a deeper feminist elegy. Lana got a lot of criticism at the time for leaning in and out of a baby voice affectation, but who in this song is being infantilized? Is it the narrator, performatively submissive, saying “you da bestest,” or the guy she’s giving permission to play postcoital Xbox?
“Video Games” describes the settling-down options Lana had on the table, enticing in their romantic serenity, foreboding in their shallow execution of 21st century gender roles. The alternative life choice was to sing songs like “Video Games” on SNL by herself and get publicly roasted for it. It may not have been so clear in 2011, but in 2019 it’s safe to say Lana Del Rey chose right.