Read with footnotes here.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: Lana Del Rey does not exist. No, since she is the character performed by the artist Lizzie Grant, whose uncritical approach to American nostalgia does more to invoke the helplessness of American apocalyptica than to make us yearn for simpler times. And just as Lana does not exist, neither does any depth to the project of Miss Del Rey. Between winged eyeliner, prairie dust photo filters, and an affected croon, Lana Del Rey manages to be both campy and pretentious, and does neither particularly well.
Looking at Lana Del Rey music videos, there are similarities which together comprise a Lana “image,” or a sort of aesthetic uniform which unites the Lana Del Rey Cinematic Universe. Often there are post-production filters which evoke old-school photographs of your mom’s cousin in the 60s, references to film and music stars of the 50s, and a misplaced fetish for the “good ol’ days” of America which turns grit into surface-level beauty.
Thematic focus is good, especially when the singer is a construction, like Lana is. Critics are quick to notice her sharp devotion to her bit, calling her music a “Southern Californian dream world constructed out of sad girls and bad boys, manufactured melancholy and genuine glamour,” or “a blown-out Hollywood production.” Lana has described herself as a “Lolita got lost in the hood” or even a “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” which critics have called straight “manufactured.”
While plenty of songstresses presently play with the heights of glamour that women are expected to summit in the spotlight–Lady Gaga, Cher, and Dolly Parton come to mind instantly–many of them inject irony or camp into their performances, their outfits, their presentation. Parton in particular loves to joke about herself, famously quipping “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blonde.”
It undeniable to say these three women also play characters in their music–Lady Gaga is not nobility, Cher’s Twitter is filled with political commentary, Dolly Parton is, of course, not even blond. Lana also plays a character, but why is the Lana character a failure compared to the others? It’s not for want of production–many women pop stars are over-, perhaps even hyper-produced to drive the point home about the disinfectant power pop music holds over artists. Lana is also over-produced, somehow giving her music an auditory sepia tone, as though it were a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
But perhaps that’s it–Lana, as a character, is reactionary. She invokes a time well-past, and one well-past for good reason. The 50s and 60s were not heavenly for all, certainly not for black people, not for gay people, nor political dissidents. Lana’s music draws on themes that attempt to highlight the teeming hate and anger of midcentury America, but ultimately fail when she refers to herself as “[y]our Venice bitch” and prides herself on wearing “his favorite sundress” but with a strange sincerity. Often times, Lana infantilizes herself, referring to her lover as “Daddy,” or worrying that he is so superficial he might not love her, perhaps most famously, when she is “no longer young and beautiful.”
That is not to say that Lana is vapid, but she has adopted the veneer of being so. She has unwittingly become a crooner for the past when her worth was tied to a sexual currency. Her uncritical love for glam and grand cinematisme is part of her pastiche act. But because she is nostalgic, and rarely, if ever, scathing when she sings about outdated courtship and relationship dynamics, she shows just how empty her actual songs are. In dying to know if she will be loved when her skin is no longer elastic, Lana never manages to find validation and closure in herself, instead tying her worth even tighter to a man she calls her “sun,” who plays with her “like a child.” Cool and normal. Newer songs follow this same trend, with cuts like “You’re beautiful and I’m insane, We’re American made” doing little to flatter herself, then listing off American inventions like “Hallmark” and “Norman Rockwell.” (The Norman Rockwell thing is especially weird when she follows it immediately with references to sex and then calling herself–again!–“your little Venice bitch.”)
There’s nothing many Americans love more than Americana and sincerely yearning for a time they never experienced. Lana, perhaps, is the most “I was born in the wrong decade” singer to grace our airways. Her songs make love, even uneven and abusive love, the ultimate goal. Letting summer–a time that is eternal in the LDRCU and, supposedly, California–wash over her and her lovers until the cocaine and ocean consume them.
Then, it’s no surprise this cheeky political compass places Lana in the libertarian right segment–she is made to sell, to hit some pleasure center in impressionable brains, to be a sweet spot in pop music that guarantees profits will be made from her work. Her songs are chock full of concrete imagery, which allows them to become realized in her audience’s mind, rather than relying on letting the listener make their own emotional connections. There is nothing wrong with that, but it shows why the Del Rey song formula is as successful as it is soulless.
Take, for instance, her famous “Summertime Sadness.” From the red dress she wears, to the pale moonlight, to the “telephone wires above… Sizzling like a snare” we can recreate the scene in our heads. These lines are so evocative, so palpable in what they describe, it wouldn’t be hard at all to envision yourself standing in her same pair of high heels.
However, there is a marked absence of irony or self-awareness in her discography. Her sincerity is her downfall. When she sings “Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain, You like your girls insane,” does she mean it. And she really means it. She prides herself on her lyrical tendency to degrade women.
This is not a new criticism of Lana. She herself has said “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, ‘God, I’m just not really that interested,‘” which is proof that Lana is so massively lacking in any self-awareness that her music becomes pointless, useless, and dumb. How is being interested in SpaceX and Tesla at all incompatible with the basic philosophy of women’s liberation and complete personhood? What about the women who were unable to be astrophysicists in the past, but are now writing the algorithms that take us to those “intergalactic possibilities”? How about the droves of young women who unironically listen to this schlock, call themselves insane, and then have no clue how to be a part of a functioning, normal relationship, because they think they have to be a crazy minx? Actually, even better, what about the bat shit insane way Elon Musk treats women, like when he famously pulled his bride aside and told her he was “the alpha.” It’s just bonkers how popular Lana Del Rey’s line of thinking is. That somehow feminism is incompatible with the fetishism of science?
Perhaps that’s where Lana Del Rey stands out. As soft rock and easy listening DJs give us “Fight Song” and “Firework” ad nauseum, we have grown weary of the female empowerment song. Any song that wasn’t “You’re So Vain,” is extraneous to the genre of girl power pop. Maybe this makes Lana appealing, if only because she shakes up our expectations. Her yearning is to be submissive, not to be dominant, a far cry from the way many chanteuses have embodied the lyrics of Patti Page’s “Conquest.”
If that were all, maybe it could be forgiven. It would be a sweet rebellion against the popular themes of the day, one that has its problems but isn’t overly regressive. Only, the more you dig, the worse it becomes. Not just the content of her lyrics, and her constant playing of the damsel, but the visuals she chooses to use in her videos and albums are beyond simply self-stylized misogyny. Lana has a nasty habit of racializing her character, trying to make simple the complex legacy of mid-century American counter culture.
For instance, in her epic three-song music video Tropico, Lana appears to us in several visions. Once as Eve, once as a sex worker, once as a woman escaped from the city to be with her lover. The first one is the color of the dream of a flower-crown-era-Tumblr aesthetic blogger, the last is similarly as harmless. But that one in the middle is an iffy exploration of the actual economic conditions of sex workers, but absurdly tone deaf in the light of her comments about feminism. And all of the above is extremely tone deaf within the LDRCU. Is she supposed to be the girlfriend of a gang member, styled in heavy eyeliner and bandanas reminiscent of cholo culture? Or is she, as is inline with much of the rest of her videography, an upper-crust, Jackie-O-esque trophy wife with a listless stare? Neither are particularly good characters to play, relying on stereotypes and hazy filters to get the point across.
But Lana has always had an issue with understanding the fundamental issues of her middle-distance gaze into American history. Yes, it’s cool Lana has A$AP Rocky play Kennedy, that’s pretty neat; but it’s also extremely uncool to do so while adopting a Cuban-sounding name while turning up the nostalgia factor on figures who, like Kennedy, did great harm to Cubans and Cuban-Americans. The conflict she creates within her own character is glossed over by her, and much of her audience. While critical pieces of Lana do exist, many fans–including myself at times!–get lost in her Venice Beach Baddie persona, and forget her self-awareness trends in the wrong direction.
With the release of “Norman Fucking Rockwell” on the horizon (at the time of writing), though, we’re going to have to ask ourselves–is that a normal name for an album, or are we all having a collective fever dream?
(Originally published: August 2019)