Lana Del Rey, Failing
This is the wrong moment to comment on Lana del Rey, especially for a blog about contemporary culture. Her national infamy occurred nearly a year ago and was short lived after a widely panned performance on SNL. Even Brian Williams was tweeting about it. But my belatedness is, I suppose, fitting for what I want to say about her. That her lyrics are all about failing to meet expectations. They are about trying to inhabit a genre of femininity and failing, or rather, the genre of femininity failing her. Her music, a slow and fatigued dirge, is the symptom of this failure. And her out-of-tune performance on SNL? Well, it was both bad singing and exemplary of her entire persona.
Let’s take her first breakthrough single, “Video Games”.
The music video cuts back and forth between a close-up of a gaunt looking Lana standing against a white wall and a variety of old super-eight movies and clips of old Hollywood. Her lips are artificially enlarged. She looks like an undead pin-up girl. She sings in a low contralto voice: “Swinging in the backyard / Pull up in your fast car / Whistling my name / Open up a beer / And you say, get over here / And play a video game.” Here, a courting scene is evoked between a young girl, still on the swing set, and a careless man in a car, who simply whistles for her to come. These characters are rehearsing what has become one of the most clichéd scenes of Americana: a young innocent girl waiting to be taken away by a dynamic man in a muscle car. But by the end of the phrase, this scene of expectation becomes a tragedy of failed romance. The man drinks, yells, and ignores her.
The rest of the song is filled with the hollow expressions of sentimental romance: “I say you the bestest / Lean in for a big kiss, put his favorite perfume on.” Only to collapse the hope of expectation with, “Go play a video game.” Also, these scenes of failure are accompanied by the ideological supplementations of romantic self-help books and women’s magazines. For example, “They say that the world was built for two / Only worth living if somebody is loving you.” These cliches, however, always undercut themselves: “Heaven is a place on earth with you / Tell me all the things you want to do.” The image of romantic utopia, that this character is so desperately trying to cling to, twists into the acquiescence to a masculine will.
Most pop music is not cynical about love, but there are plenty of songs that sing the praises of tempering expectations. Songs about heartbreak sometimes take on this mode, but they rarely question the value of love in itself. What I find so strange about Lana de Rey, however, is the starkness of the irony, the large discrepancy between the flat fatigue of the music and the seemingly endless repetitions of romantic clichés and Americana icons. Her music expresses the affect of disappointment, while her lyrics bubble from the shattered desires of a feminine unconscious that does not know it’s broken.
She has recently posted a music video to a new single called, “Ride”, wherein she sings about “freedom,” all the while riding with a disgustingly old and overweight biker gang.
The video is nearly ten minutes long, and begins with her swinging on a giant tire swing in the middle of the desert (ahem, much like the beginning of “Video Games”) and then street walking in high heels in front of roadside motels. A long voice-over begins, in a quiet, babyish tone: “I was in the winter of my life, and the men I met along the road were my only summer, at night I fell asleep to visions of myself dancing and laughing and crying with them. Three years down the road … my memories of them were the only things that sustained me.” But mind you, these men are bearded, leather-clad bikers in their 50s. When the song kicks in, she sings about being on “that open road. She sings, “you can be my full time daddy” while wrapped in a dusty American flag. In one scene, she’s standing in front of a pinball machine, smoking and glassy-eyed, while one of these grisly bikers stands behind her. She leans forward on the table while he humps her. The song ends in an enormous bonfire, while Lana wears a Native American headdress and holds a pistol. The bikers drive their bikes in and out of the fire and swill whiskey.
The critical question is how do we read this irony and can we safely read it as such? One could just say that Lana thinks that old gross bikers are sexy. Or that the bikers are simply symbolic of freedom tout court and their fatness and their world of masculine insularity are beside the point. Maybe. After all, she ends the song by asking, “Have you created a life where you can experience your darkest fantasies?” But I’m not sure this changes anything. The point is not to expose the fantasies as illegitimate because of their origins, but to show what it means to be trapped somewhere in between the genres that sustain us and the world that refuses them. At one point in the voice-over, she says, “they [who have a home] have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people.” They who have a home have no idea what it’s like having to seek safety under the thin shades of romance and femininity.