The Deal with Lana Del Rey

I really thought 2020 was going to be it, the year that I let go. The year that I, despite our complicated yet substantial history, finally move on from Lana Del Rey. In high school I slept in my twin bed with a sheer poster of Lana hanging over my head. The first vinyl I was ever gifted was Born To Die and when my first boyfriend burned a mix CD for me, I made him one in return with “Brooklyn Baby” as the opening track.

It’s true that “Sad Girl” and “Norman Fucking Rockwell” were among the many melancholic ballads of my 2020, but I wanted so badly to be told that I had outgrown Lana, moved onto bigger and better, hand in hand with all of the other tumblr girls who had a bedroom wall that indefinitely looked like this:

Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, Spotify wrapped assured me that I was far from moved on (there’s always next year). Lana’s antics the past couple of years have been nothing short of exhausting and when she rolled up to the Grammys in grandma’s dress with her cop ass boyfriend, it felt like being stopped at a red light next to someone that you used to know.

But at the same time, I don’t know who I was kidding, because Normal Fucking Rockwell! is a beautiful, cohesive work of art that has aligned itself in my every day soundtrack since its August 2019 release. The introductory, “Goddamn, man child,” is so clean, simply and exquisitely insulting; it encapsulates an anger in me that I was never able to articulate myself. I remember the autumn following NFR!’s release, on my morning walk to the office, I’d cross the Seaport Boulevard bridge to “You’re just a man, it’s just what you do / Your head in your hands as you color me blue.” It was as if, at last, I had an answer to a question I never knew how to ask, unclenching my fists as the wind off the Boston harbor froze my stupid little face.

But the Lana fans really couldn’t catch a break last year. From her unsolicited problematic statements on Instagram to the Mesh Mask Fiasco, we all watched through our fingers as the question remained unanswered—who the fuck is her publicist? Many people have moved on from “the Lana Del Rey thing,” and while she is often out of touch, antiquated and stubborn, Lana Del Rey is far from vapid.

When Lizzy Grant began her musical career as Lana Del Ray (and later Lana Del Rey ) in 2010, her authenticity was regularly questioned. Of course, any female musician will be subject to irrational scrutiny in a male dominated industry in the greater patriarchal world that we all know and love. But the early criticism of Lana Del Rey seems exactly that—irrational and unjust. When the “Video Games” music video dropped in 2011 (which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully written and melodically executed tracks of the decade), the homemade, indie film style would contradict the corresponding full record, Born To Die (2012), that exuded glamour, power, and fateful tragedy. This soft spoken, physically striking woman who serenaded us with her songs of hopeless romanticism and fatalism surely had to shed this persona behind closed doors, right?

It is the image of Lana Del Rey, the vintage, pin up-inspired persona, paired with some questionable lyrics— “He hit me and it felt like a kiss”—that quickly becomes problematic and suggestive of a longing for female disempowerment. In Catherine Vigier’s essay, “The Meaning of Lana Del Rey,” she writes:

“One of the problems is that, after a decade in which women were told that they had everything it took to get ahead, and that the playing-field was somehow level in our new, post-feminist world, it was disturbing to many to see a woman recast herself as an old-fashioned male fantasy and to seemingly embrace submissiveness, and to dress as if she were nostalgic for the days before women’s liberation.”

This troubling image would perhaps raise fewer eyebrows if it were a clear reclamation within modern feminism, but Lana has chosen to shy away from this, claiming, “I’m not not a feminist.” But then it’s also like, as long as Lana is the creator and lyricist, and as long as agency remains, then who are we to evaluate her experiences and how she choses to express them?

Lana’s image is, for the most part, consistent, and only moderately matures across her following releases: Born To Die (2012) is her birth and assertion, Ultraviolence (2014) is the winter of her travels, Honeymoon (2015) is her hibernation, and Lust For Life (2017) is her flowers-in-my-hair era.

Ultraviolence, the darker, bleaker follow up to Lana’s debut, isn’t necessarily down to earth, but with a loop of melodic tracks like “Brooklyn Baby,” “Black Beauty,” and “Old Money,” Ultraviolence proves to be a far more profound creation with a somber, more psychedelic foundation. I don’t care much for Honeymoon, and Lust For Life feels like a matured, bona fide, yet lacking Born to Die. The only track that really gets me going off Lust For Life is “Cherry,” probably because it sounds like it’s a lost song off Ultraviolence.

And then, in 2019, we get Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Critically acclaimed and Grammy nommed, NFR!’s title track is my go-to lullaby and the transcendent, psychedelic “Venice Bitch” sets me in a villa in Northern Italy: “Back in the garden / we’re getting high now, because we’re older.” This record is tremendously matured beyond her prior, and it really feels like Lana is at her best, most comfortable self; she’s shed the layers of artificial glam, using a black and white, soft smile iPhone selfie as the cover for the single, “hope is a dangerous thing.”

But it wasn’t long after the release of NFR! that the conceit of Lana began to cloud this excitement. She rudely jumped to the defense on Twitter when NPR’s Ann Powers published her insightful and impeccably written album review, “Lana Del Rey Lives In America’s Messy Subconscious” (an artist should take compliment in having their art critiqued so thoughtfully). And her public frustrations only snowball from there. Last summer, she attempted to defend herself all while pitting other women in the industry against one another: 

The only thing that needed to be included in her message was this part: “there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me.” Totally, Lana, I agree. But, babe, you don’t need to bring others down with you. It’s not a competition, but if it were, I’m certain your struggle doesn’t compare to that of the women of color you named.

From here, Lana only continues to twist the knife. After one Instagram post comes the next, comes a video, comes maybe a series of tweets, and the very simple point that she is drastically failing to get across is now completely lost amidst her erratic and tone deaf discourse. And yet again, all the Lana fans come together and join in on another collective sigh.

At some point recently, a week ago if I’d have to guess (time is not linear), I was listening to Lana’s interview with the BBC Radio 1, the one that inspired clickbait headlines like, “Del Rey Doesn’t Think Trump is Responsible for Capitol Riots.” (Music journalist/writer/forever role model of mine, Meaghan Garvey, has a wonderful essay on this interview and Lana’s statements on narcissism and sociopathy.) I’m always rooting for Lana, because I don’t think she’s malicious, just painfully obtuse. I failed to unclench my jaw throughout the interview, and I found myself trying to understand how I could be so moved by her lyricism, but in so much pain trying to get through her ranting. Lana’s words concerning the capital riot were undoubtedly taken out of context, but if I have to watch her hop on Instagram and inarticulately defend herself one more time, I am going to disintegrate into thin air. 

When Lana’s sixth studio album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, is released in March, I’ll be holding my breath as I press play, desperate to be unsatisfied. But the Chemtrails single is already suggesting otherwise. “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” is a great example of the LDR spell: a track can be by and large predictable but with pockets of brilliance, and it is within those brief moments that she gets you. “You’re in the wind, I’m in the water / Nobody’s son, nobody’s daughter,” is what does it for me on that one—I’d twirl so hard to that part.

Lana Del Rey is one of the most publicly frustrated people I know. I’m not sure if we still care at this point, but it’s clear that Lana’s issue lies in a lack of awareness and her defensive instinct is surely a result of the years of heavy criticism surrounding her authenticity and personal narrative. “I’d love to get to the point one day where we can just talk about the music,” she said in her recent Instagram video. Lana, for yours, mine and everyone else’s sake, me too.

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