Exploring Eastern Europe’s obsession with Lana Del Rey

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Her music conjures images of a dreamlike America, but the singer is the most streamed ‘pop girl’ in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, and more

here was a time when being a “real fan” of an artist meant buying their music and perhaps going to see them on tour (maybe even getting yourself some cute merch at the show?). But now, the most devoted stans have an encyclopaedic knowledge of charts, records and streaming statistics, which they debate (or fight about) on social media until their fave comes out on top. It’s become a numbers game. 

Earlier this summer, Swedish bop generator Zara Larsson ignited a Stan Twitter debate when she shared a map of the most streamed “pop girls” on Spotify. The map was made by About Music Charts, an account that shares music stats and graphics, with a focus on female artists. The global map, based on available weekly Spotify streaming data, shaded countries in various colours to represent Taylor Swift, Shakira, Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and Larsson. Most parts of the map were expected: Taylor Swift dominated America, the UK and other countries where English is the first language. Larsson was queen of her native Sweden. Shakira reigned supreme in South America, except Brazil, where Beyoncé pipped her to the post. (In fact, Beyoncé, Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa enjoyed steady popularity across the world. Eilish has a lot of Kazakh-stans — who knew?)

But there was one cluster of popularity which stood out: the dominance of Lana Del Rey in Eastern Europe.

Yes, America’s Main Sad Girl came out on top in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. This raises the question: why? We know that Del Rey is the queen of waiting for daddy in a little vintage dress and red lipstick. She sings about love and heartbreak, being a little Venice bitch, drinking and getting high, blue jeans, and having her kindness taken out of context in the Mariner’s Apartment Complex. Her music conjures images of a dream-like America, one that probably only exists in movies. So why is she so popular in Eastern Europe? 

Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Although this viral graphic is accurate, it doesn’t tell the entire story: Del Rey might be the most-streamed international “pop girl” in Eastern Europe, but she’s not the most popular artist overall. If we look at Poland, for example, for the last four weeks, Del Rey has been floating around number 30 on Spotify’s weekly streaming charts. The artists above her are either men, other genres or local pop acts — a pattern that is repeated in neighbouring countries. 

But even if she’s not the most-streamed artist in Eastern Europe overall, it’s still noteworthy that Del Rey consistently ranks higher than her “pop girl” contemporaries, like Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa. And even looking at physical album sales, she is clearly popular in the region. In Poland, for example, there were three of her albums in the top 50 last week — more than any other artist, despite the fact that she hasn’t released any new music this year.

The social media reaction to this map focussed on the melancholic side of Del Rey’s songs. After all, her discography includes ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘Sad Girl’. BuzzFeed even compiled a list of 86 of her lyrics which make for the perfect moody Instagram caption. “The Eastern Bloc has seen pain,” writer Kate Demolder quote-tweeted. “Whole of eastern europe is depressed,” joked another user. The “depressed Eastern European” stereotype is a fairly hammy trope which, according to a global study, isn’t true. But going back to the original viral map, it’s worth noting that, in most of the countries where Del Rey came out on top, Billie Eilish — whose music is also described as “sad girl pop” — was the second most-streamed “pop girl”. And according to local culture journalists, the idea that Eastern Europeans have a particular liking for sad, romantic music is more than just a lazy stereotype.

It seems that, in this part of the world, sadness really does sell. “Romanticism is probably the most important epoch in Poland,” Polish music writer Artur Wojtczak tellsRolling Stone UK. “Poles identify very much with Romantic heroes and this has been our nature for centuries.” He thinks Del Rey’s success in Eastern Europe is down to the region’s love for vocalists who are expressive, emotionally intense and distinctive. “We like cinematic music videos and the romance in the heart of Lana’s songs.” 

“We like cinematic music videos and the romance in the heart of Lana’s songs” 

Bartek Chacinski, culture editor in Polityka, a weekly Polish news magazine, thinks that Del Rey’s songs are similar to the European “golden oldies” format, which has been “shaping the taste” of the region for decades. “This continental tradition was founded on French Chanson and winners of Sanremo in Italy,” he tellsRolling Stone UK. (A chanson is a lyrically-driven French song, and the Sanremo Music Festival is the world’s longest-running TV competition, which inspired the Eurovision Song Contest).  

Lukasz Warna-Wiesławski, manager of Polish record label Tańce, agrees that Del Rey’s popularity in Eastern Europe might be driven by her music being similar to local acts who are currently popular. Polish singer sanah, for example, is one of the region’s most-streamed artists. She is often described as the “Polish Lana Del Rey” and one of her songs, ‘kolońska i szlugi’, even mentions her by name. “I dreamed about you listening to Lana Del Rey, talking until the morning,” she sings, which is in itself reminiscent of Del Rey frequently name-checking other artists in her own songs. 

“There is this movement right now called ‘męskie granie’, which would roughly translate to ‘manly music’ or ‘manly playing’ in English”, Warna-Wiesławski tells Rolling Stone UK. “It was an alternative rock campaign by a huge beer company (Żywiec Brewery) that started around a decade ago. Now it’s a festival and concert tour that features top Polish artists who are more alternative in their sound.”  

Open’er Festival, which was founded in 2002, is Poland’s biggest music festival. In recent years, Warna-Wiesławski tells me its headliners have become more alternative and it is increasingly viewed as a “hipster” festival. Del Rey headlined in 2019, suggesting she has found a sweet spot of mass appeal and credibility. It also implies that her label, Universal Music Group, is actively seeking ways to promote her in the region. “Lana Del Rey definitely might seem more credible here,” Warna-Wiesławski says. “We love sad songs and ballads, whereas pop diva music and dance music is often viewed in a bad light.” 

Del Rey’s popularity in Eastern Europe, just like other artists with a more alternative sound, is likely a result of her music sounding current and high brow in the region. But this isn’t just a passing trend: it’s driven by decades-old political and cultural shifts. “In the communist times, we had journalists importing Western rock records to play on the radio,” Warna-Wiesławski explains. “When the 1990s came and communism fell, the same radio stations were viewed as a must-listen to everyone who would consider themselves cultured.” 

Wojtczak also cites political undercurrents behind Del Rey’s popularity. He thinks she is the “personification of the American Dream”, which has been present as a “myth” in Polish culture since communism was imposed after World War II. “The USA was the embodiment of luxury, unsurpassed wealth, access to consumer goods such as cars, sweets, alcohol, world cuisines,” he explains.  

Poland hasn’t been communist for 30 years and living standards are much higher now, but Wojtczak thinks US culture is still put on a particular pedestal. So easy to see, then, why an artist like Del Rey — who is seen waving an American flag and conjures a nostalgic, airbrushed vision of the USA, often directly referencing American icons like Norman Rockwell and James Dean in her work — would seem appealing. (She even spends her spare time “talking shit in Starbucks”, like an all American girl). 

“In the communist times, we had journalists importing Western rock records to play on the radio. When the 1990s came and communism fell, the same radio stations were viewed as a must-listen to everyone who would consider themselves cultured” 

Writing for Vice, Emma Garland argued that Del Rey has always been “tricky to pin down” as a narrator because she often performs inside a “vortex” of reference points. “The identity of each of her albums is created by cherry-picking material cues (beaches, peaches, cars, guns, wine) and cultural icons (James Dean, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Iggy Pop) and arranging them into a mood board,” she wrote. It’s true that Del Rey (born Lizzy Grant, the name she started performing under) has been a shapeshifter in her life and work. But even when her aesthetic, subject matter and sound changes, there is a  vibe that makes her particularly stannable to some people. 

Reflecting on the popularity of the viral map — and the much-meme’d reaction to Del Rey’s popularity in Eastern Europe, which started this deep dive — the creator of About Music Charts tells Rolling Stone UK that their images are designed to be eye-catching and sharable. “People really seem like when we visualise stats, it’s something that is easy to read and full of colours,” they write in an Instagram DM. “When people see familiar faces and colours, it attracts them to interact with the post.”

But social media engagement-aside, it seems that there are deeper cultural reasons why Eastern Europe might rate Del Rey’s music highly right now, some of which go back decades. It is hardly surprising that a region which has experienced such political upheaval — including war once again this year — might gravitate towards music that is innately escapist, combining sadness and cinema-like fantasy with a sense of hope. Like her stans elsewhere, Lana Del Rey’s Eastern European fans know that hope is a dangerous thing to have, but they have it.

Source: Rolling Stone