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Welcome To The Life Of Electra Heart

How retro fashion, American archetypes, and Tumblr shaped the complicated legacy of Marina’s cult-favorite sophomore album.

by Hannah Ziegler

Scroll back to the very first blog post on electraheart.tumblr.com, and you’ll see a photo of Marina Diamandis, then 25, perched in front of a webcam. With a Jane Henderson-esque wig framing her face and eyes cast downward, she adds the caption: “I believe in me.” As tongue-in-cheek as it might sound, there was a significant truth to the statement. In the early 2010s, superstar success was generally found through a traditional, formulaic path. When Marina, as she now goes by professionally, then known as Marina and the Diamonds, released her 2012 album, Electra Heart, she deliciously poisoned that path with her own unique and thoughtful vision. Created with all the bells and whistles of pure pop thanks to a team of hitmaking producers, her second record employed an intricate, eponymous persona who dazzled many a Tumblr feed via campy portraits with cheeky descriptions. Peel back the layers of Electra Heart’s shiny exterior, however, you’d behold a darkly rich universe — songs like “Teen Idle” shed light on adolescent existentialism, while “Starring Role” detailed a tumultuous relationship wherein “the only time you open up is when we get undressed.” Whew.

Despite its best efforts and many commercial achievements, Electra Heart didn’t quite propel Marina to Global Pop Stardom like her label perhaps had hoped. What she wound up with was a lot more nuanced than that: a highly distinctive era featuring a cast of troublemaking characters (or "archetypes"), bleached hair gone awry, and a passionate, loyal fan base with perpetually heart-stained cheeks. Three albums and creative evolutions later, it’s only been within the past couple years that Electra Hearts’ songs are being heard by the masses again (just try scrolling through your TikTok For You Page without hearing “Primadonna”).

In honor of Electra Heart’s 10th anniversary on April 27, NYLON is looking back at the beloved album’s complicated legacy — its cult following, complex commerciality, and of course, Tumblr’s impact. Hear from a producer, record label publicist, photographer and music video director, a Tumblr user, and Marina herself, about Electra Heart’s stubborn pulse and newly found glory.

The cover of Electra Heart.

After a brand new start: The Electra Heart recording sessions

The Family Jewels, Marina’s acclaimed 2010 debut, introduced the world to Marina and the Diamonds, a refreshingly honest songwriter and magnetic vocalist. At the time, music genres were arguably not as loosely defined as they are now, and for some, Marina’s straddle between indie and pop left her challenging to categorize. In 2011, her label, the now-defunct 679 Records (a subdivision of Warner Music Group), saw potential for worldwide domination, and arranged for songwriting sessions with mega-producers like (the now-disgraced) Dr. Luke, Stargate, Cirkut, and Rick Nowels. This is what unfolded.

Marina Diamandis: I was working in LA, starting to co-write with people, particularly pop people, for the first time. I remember I was staying pretty close to Hollywood Boulevard, near these really tacky vintage shops, and I started to buy these ‘60s and ‘70s, very feminine articles of clothing. So it's actually tied to fashion — that's how it began.

Christina Kotsamanidis, senior vice president, publicity at Atlantic Records: This was a new process for Marina, so in many ways it felt like an exploration period in her career, a time to try new things. I think ultimately this is why Electra Heart evolved into more of a concept album with a character that Marina felt more comfortable sharing these stories through.

From very early on in Marina’s career, as early as The Family Jewels, we saw that she had this incredibly dedicated fan base. She was making a real connection with her fans, and with every release and tour, that fan base continued to grow in size and passion. Our main goal was really to help her continue to reach a new audience.

Rick Nowels, producer: My family was living in England in 2010 and we traveled to Barcelona for spring break. I saw the video for “Hollywood” on Spanish MTV — I thought it was fantastic and I wanted to work with Marina. I think Marina said yes because I had written with Madonna on her Ray of Light album. We got together in my studio in Los Angeles in 2011 and wrote really well together. She’s so brilliant it was easy. We were able to do about five days of writing together; a song a day.

M.D.: [Working with pop producers] definitely changed how quickly I wrote. If I'm writing on my own, it can take probably a week to two weeks to finish a song, but with Rick, for example, I pretty much finished “Bubblegum Bitch” in a day.

R.N.: We were having lunch and the topic of bubblegum came up. So we of course had to write a song called “Bubblegum Bitch.” It was completed in an hour right after lunch.

M.D.: Rick had a book in his library called Bubblegum: The History of Plastic Pop and again, that led to the hyper-feminine imagery that I was being attracted to at the time, so that's how that song came about. Even the lyrics like, “Queentex, latex, I’m your wonder maid” — Queentex, latex, and Wonder Maid were manufacturers of the shift dresses that I kept buying in the vintage stores. It was really just playing on my love of American branding and how good America has been at advertising since the ‘50s.

R.N.: Marina had a strong vision for her Electra Heart album and lots of concepts she wanted to write about. Her songs are always melodically and lyrically very intelligent — she’s an iconic singer and songwriter.

M.D.: I do find with co-writing, it's not all one and the same. It really depends who you're writing with. My process with Dr. Luke or Stargate, who were the biggest pop writers of that time, was just incredibly different to Rick. That was a huge learning curve for me. With Rick, you have to be a really strong songwriter, because he sits you down, he's on his piano, and he'll just start playing chords. You basically have to start saying something on the spot, there's no, “Oh, I'll go and work on my lyrics for 20 minutes.” You have to come up with goods, and I really flourished with that kind of process. With Luke or Stargate, I would go into a backroom for two hours on my own, and then I would go back to them and basically play them on my laptop what I had done, and then they would help me edit it. They were just so hugely successful and talented at the time, that I knew that my label really wanted it to work with them. And it did, we produced some really great songs. But I don't know if I would say that it was as natural a fit of say with Rick, where you're creating from scratch — you're not getting played beats and then sent to write on your own in a backroom. But, it all really informed my process as a writer and it definitely made me a better writer in the long term.

An (Internet) star is born: Electra Heart’s visuals and Tumblr’s impact

If Tumblr is the unofficial historical gallery of the early 2010s, then Marina’s Electra Heart blog is its pièce de résistance. Moody, hyper-feminine portraits of Marina in silk robes or plaid skirts, haunting kitschy motel rooms and prowling the streets at night became an aspirational fantasy and omnipresent aesthetic on the visually-driven platform — not to mention a breeding ground for endless fan art.

M.D.: I started to become really excited by creating this super feminine character. From there, that started to influence the types of lyrics I was writing, and that fed into the types of images I was looking at on Tumblr.

I was just having so much fun creating it — and enjoying living in that fantasy myself, particularly when I actually had white-blonde hair and didn’t have to wear a wig. That was the ultimate freedom. When you're in your early 20s, or mid 20s, you get a radical new haircut, or you suddenly decide to change up your whole look… you have this period where you just feel like you're able to exist as another person, and for multiple reasons at that time, that was alluring to me.

“I literally created [the album] via Tumblr, that’s no exaggeration.”

C.K.: The beauty of Marina as an artist is that even in those early days she had a strong sense of who she is. With each album she comes into the label with her vision completely mapped out — not only the themes and narrative of the music but also the ideas for the actual visuals that would accompany the music. With Electra Heart, she came in with the concept of the album being written about female archetypes: the suburban housewife, celebrity, youth, the homewrecker. Beyond writing the music, creating the character, wardrobe, the pastels, hair, makeup, it all came from Marina. There was always so much excitement at the label to see what she had in store for us next.

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Casper Balslev, music video director and photographer: I think I was sent some photos from her manager. Marina referenced this movie by Wim Wenders called Paris, Texas where the protagonist had this wig on and was in a process of changing her personality, visually. So that was kind of the starting point for the [“Radioactive”] video. I suggested we do a road trip [in California], and I wrote a script based on this character she wanted to portray. We did all the photography for the record sleeve and all the press photos in LA a couple of months later.

Lia H*., fan and creator of fuckyeahelectraheart on Tumblr: It was right around the time Marina created her Electra Heart Tumblr account that I created my fan account. I was 26 at the time when The Family Jewels came out, but it kind of spoke to my angsty former teen self. She had a really unique sound, and I was excited to hear what else she would do.

​​I became friends with MarinaDNet, who was a fan website, and MarinaNewsNet, because they were on Tumblr as well. We were kind of the three active fan sites, people that were actively following what she was doing and posting about. It was a way to connect with other fans from places all over the world and just come together and talk about this artist that we really loved. Some of us would speculate about what her songs would sound like, or what visuals she would do for a video.

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M.D.: I was very aware that on Tumblr, there was this trend at the time that wanted to pair these almost sickly feminine, or hyper-feminine images with darker material. And I found that interesting. That had significance in terms of what young people were communicating at the time about how they felt.

C.B.: Marina and I looked into a lot of Cindy Sherman's work for inspiration. We did one really big photo shoot [for Tumblr], like four days where we basically just played around with all these stylings and hair and makeup; all these American archetype characters that she wanted to portray on the album. We just were going around finding cool locations, shooting on Hollywood Boulevard and all over LA. Ultimately, we ended up with probably 15 different characters from that first photo shoot.

For the “Primadonna” video, both Marina and I wanted the video to be quite sarcastic. We shot it in Copenhagen for two or three days at various locations, primarily in an old house. We just really just wanted to have this kind of art-underlying, wacky humor attitude.

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L.H.: The stuff that she was posting at the time was very 2012 Tumblr, like grainy black-and-white photos with tongue-in-cheek captions. I thought it was interesting because I didn’t know where she was going with it… When she explained the concept of her album, I thought, “OK, that's pretty cool.”

M.D.: I literally created [the album] via Tumblr, that’s no exaggeration. I would troll Tumblr for hours. At that time — not that it was a brand new platform, it had been around for a few years — it was kind of coming towards its peak as this subversive platform that underground kids or non-mainstream kids would go on. I utilized that hugely, because I thought it was so interesting that I had access to essentially what other people are thinking about. I was also obsessed with how the zeitgeist has informed pop culture for so many years, so it really was an internet album, to the highest degree.

L.H.: With the concert in the desert that she did a year or so ago, there was a video chat that sold out really quick. I got one and I told her that back in the day, I ran a Tumblr for her. She said, “Oh my God, I know exactly which one that was, you’re my favorite Tumblr.” I was like, “Wow, you really are paying attention.” I don't think artists are obligated to reply to people or whatever, but I just thought it was really cool.

C.B.: I love the photograph where she's holding a shotgun, kind of guarding the night. I have that one hanging in my hallway; now it’s guarding my house.

Casper Balslev

One critic’s pan is another fan’s darling: Release and reception

Upon its release, Electra Heart received mixed reviews from critics. Some lauded its lyrical content and glossy production; others were not as favorable, dismissing it as vapid. Meanwhile, the well-attended 2012-2013 Lonely Hearts Club Tour took Marina across North America and the U.K., as singles like “How to Be a Heartbreaker” and “Primadonna” enjoyed radio play and considerable international charting. The dichotomy between fan dedication and lukewarm critical reception created some internal tension in Marina.

M.D.: My hope was that people would enjoy this fantasy or this character that I created, and that they would enjoy delving deeper into it, because it's so multilayered. I don't think that really matched the reality for what the press thought. I know on a fan level, a lot of fans were intrigued by it, and whether they liked it or not, they were interested. But with press, I think because the people who were reviewing the album and talking about it were a generation above me, they just didn't get it. That created a lot of negative feelings in me. Because, obviously, for anyone in the public eye if you're criticized and you're not really used to it, and you're quite new in your career, it can feel quite difficult.

R.N.: I thought all of our songs had hit potential, especially in the U.K. and Europe where more adventurous songs get played on the radio.

“I felt like if I didn't get that kind of commercial success, then that would somehow be a failure.”

M.D.: At that time, because I was so intentionally going for commerciality and that was also part of the tongue-in-cheek character that I was creating, I felt like if I didn't get that kind of commercial success, then that would somehow be a failure. The weird thing is, I did get that. I got the #1 album in my home country. I sold over a million singles in the U.S. So all of those normal “markers” of success were there, but I just didn't feel that.

Strangely, only recently, maybe two months ago when I was on tour in the U.S. 14 years into my career, I just had this feeling where I was like, “Oh, I made it.” I just thought that was such an unexpected feeling to have because it wasn't based on anything. It was more like an internal feeling that I am happy and content with what I created somehow. I exist as an artist, and I think that's just so different to how I would have related to things on Electra Heart. That was more based on external validation, I suppose, and how I actually felt internally about myself.

L.H.: She gave us ballads, she gave us bangers, she gave us a cohesive story through the perspectives of different archetypes… it’s a heartbreak album, so I think that’s universal. I don't think the critics were scouring her Tumblr to understand the archetypes and what she was trying to portray. I think they just said, “Oh, this is her sound from The Family Jewels. This is her sound for Electra Heart. She's selling out.” To me, it was a very successful album because of what she set out to do with it. I think she accomplished that.

C.K.: Marina was on an amazing trajectory and established herself as a career artist. I believe she exceeded any expectations.

M.D.: The industry was really different, even just wanting to do a conceptual pop record was so analyzed and criticized for being inauthentic. Now, a lot of artists have the freedom to do whatever they like, and it's not an attack on their authenticity as a human being. I also think on an infrastructure level, you don't have to go the radio route anymore. There's so many different ways to make a living as an artist and have a fan base. It’s so much better now.

Don’t call it a comeback: Electra Heart gets her flowers

What once felt like a best-kept secret of pop is now blooming rapidly thanks to, you guessed it, TikTok. Nine years after their original releases, “Bubblegum Bitch” and “Primadonna” were certified Gold and Platinum, respectively, by the RIAA just last June, reviving them from modest circulation on one internet platform to another, this time on a massive, global scale. It’s safe to say that while it’s very much a product of its time, Electra Heart maintains a timeless, seminal sensibility. And really, does it get much more pop than that?

M.D.: In 2019, “Hollywood” and “[I Am Not A] Robot” started to pop off and then with Electra, I think it was from last year, but I wasn't super present on TikTok. So I was just like, ‘Oh, that's cool, whatever.’ And then I think in the last six to eight months, I realized how it just won’t stop! It just keeps going and going, which is a joy to watch. It’s a lovely surprise that after 10 years it’s found a new life.

The weird thing is, I never ever come up on my For You Page. I've never heard any of my songs that have gone viral on TikTok on my For You Page. Isn’t that f*cked up? [laughs] My friends say they see me all the time, but I haven’t seen myself once. Maybe they’re just like, “We don’t need to push stuff to her because she already is it.”

R.N.: I’m really happy that “Bubblegum Bitch” has a second life. It’s crazy that it became a hit for Marina 10 years later! It now has more streams on Spotify than my song [with Belinda Carlisle] “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” That’s a big deal.

M.D.: I think it's because it's tapping into this coquettish, innocent, but also devious side of femininity that all young women and non-binary people can relate to, or can at least observe and enjoy. I think that's a timeless appeal. So it doesn't really matter how the tracks’ production sounds or any of those kinds of things, I think it will just always appeal to young people. That's something that I definitely didn't consider up until really this year, but I think that's why those two tracks [“Bubblegum Bitch” and “Primadonna”] have had such mass appeal on a platform like TikTok. They’re playful, and they’re fun, and that's what that app is about.

C.K.: Marina has definitely inspired me with how I work with other artists, to empower them to be their true selves and to help bring their ideas to life.

C.B.: I was quite surprised that [the photos and videos] became such a cult phenomenon in a way and all these people still talk about it. I could feel it in the years after the campaign. I was approached by so many fans through my website or social media, like, “Show more of the videos and photos.” People are really into these characters that she portrayed, and could really relate to them.

Casper Balslev

L.H.: I went to a show in February, and people are still dressing like the Electra Heart characters. There was a photo of her on Tumblr in a pleated skirt and white top, and I saw somebody wearing that. I still see people wearing the pink ribbon bows in their hair, and the heart on the cheek. It’s funny, the images that have stuck with people. I think that I’ll listen to it 10 or 20 years from now and still be transported back to that time in my life, and feel like I did back then.

M.D.: I definitely want to stay connected [to Electra Heart]. I think of the album very joyfully and it's really down to my fan base, old and new, that have changed that for me. It honestly took me a while to feel emotionally OK about it. The harshness of the press response had really shaken me; it took honestly, maybe two or three years to reverse out of that. But now, it just feels like ages ago.

Marina’s Electra Heart: Platinum Blonde Edition will be released digitally on April 24, and on vinyl on September 23.

Photos courtesy of Casper Balslev.