Lana Del Rey is the American dream reflected back at America, often in ways that Americans don’t like.
In 2012, sat atop a tower of strings, the artist known as Lana Del Rey transcended herself. “My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola,” she purred. “My eyes are wide like cherry pies.”
It’s not necessarily the best Lana Del Rey lyric — surely that title must go to, “Goddamn man-child/you fucked me so good that I almost said I love you,” the air-brushed poetry that splits open ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’.
Nor is ‘Cola’, the trip-hop anthem those notorious lines kick off, the best Lana Del Rey song: in the nearly eight years since Paradise was released, Del Rey has fiddled with her sound and style in increasingly inventive and inspired ways. Sometimes, her early material seems, while still powerful, a little direct; salt-stained tugboats compared to the elegant catamarans of Norman Fucking Rockwell!
But with those few short descriptors, Del Rey laid her project bare. It’s all there in those breathy words, her entire worldview compacted down as though by a car-crusher: the sepia-toned patriotism; the shivering sexuality; the fascination with metaphors so clean and sharp that they seem almost literal; the Jane Fonda-esque camp; the Lynchian innocence, gone sour like a pint of milk; the sheer, sickening sweetness of it all.
Most popstars require entire albums to explain themselves. Del Rey did it in just under 30 seconds on the third song of an EP designed mostly to capitalise on the success of a much bigger single, ‘Video Games’, tossing off an entire song of the self like it was a mere afterthought.
Not, mind you, that such self-creation was well received. ‘Cola’ kicked off the usual grumbling in the dankest, most socially conservative corners of the American media-sphere, as was to be expected. But it also prompted the ire of America’s critical class. Even back in 2012, Del Rey was igniting the most tiresome and belaboured of hot-take arguments. Was she for real? Was a song like ‘Video Games’ blind to the issues of class? Was ‘Cola’ exploitative; mere confectionary? Did her backwards-looking obsession with the ’60s bely a deep conservatism?
It wasn’t just the wet desire underneath ‘Cola’ that freaked critics out. It was Lana Del Rey’s whole deal. Reviewers fell over themselves in order to most quickly and efficiently dismantle her project.
Writing of her debut, Born To Die, Pitchfork‘s Lindsay Zoladz looked everywhere for sincerity, and found none. “It’s the album equivalent of a faked orgasm — a collection of torch songs with no fire,” Zoladz sighed. John Bush of AllMusic was harsher still, turning one of Del Rey’s own lyrics back on herself: “like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer,” he hissed from between his teeth.
Critics hate and desire Del Rey in equal measure.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because those who task themselves with understanding American culture still write about Lana Del Rey like social outcasts scribbling mean poetry about the Prom Queen — they hate and desire her in equal measure.
Cultural taste-makers such as Pitchfork might have decided that they now like her music, but they have moved their critical eye off her songs and onto her backstage behaviours: her decision to date a cop; her endlessly discussed mesh face mask; her politics.
On the surface, these seem like different concerns to the ones expressed by Zoladz and her ilk almost a decade ago. But they’re really just reformulations of the same old question: is Lana Del Rey for real? And which would be worse: that she is cloaked in shtick, or that she isn’t?
Indeed, this is a crucial part of the Del Rey story — not just the artist herself, or her music, but the way the culture that birthed her regards what she does. Watching Americans try to unpick Lana Del Rey is to watch a country unknowingly criticise and unpick itself.
No wonder Americans have a complicated relationship with Lana Del Rey. Americans have a complicated relationship with America. And she is America, and America is she.
The Artist Who Made Herself
For almost a decade now, critics have considered it a knockdown blow to call Lana Del Rey by her real name. You can see it in every bad review ever written about her, sometimes as a fleeting reference — they almost always make sure to call her “Lizzie” when they’re in the process of bringing the axe down — and sometimes as an extended riff on the division between public and private personas.
Paul Harris of The Guardian was one of the first writers to sketch the narrative of Del Rey’s supposed self-becoming-as-self-deception back in 2012. In an article that makes heavy use of the word ‘dupe’, he described the singer as a Jay Gatsby type, blinded by the allure of a green light; someone who willed themselves into being smart, socially-gifted and cool as a way to paper over a deep personal emptiness. Lizzy Grant, her first musical persona, had been shy and uncomfortable, Harris said, and so Del Rey had killed her and taken her place.
“Some people feel victims of an immense confidence trick,” Harris suggested, a claim glaringly missing a citation. “A few critics began to wonder if, far from being some organic wunderkind, the transformation from Grant to Del Rey had been planned all along.”
And yet the most interesting thing about Harris’ missive is that he could be writing about any popstar in the history of American music. Del Rey changed her name, Harris says. No matter that almost every popstar on the planet uses a stage name, even the ones we don’t think of as using a stage name.
Del Rey sang of herself as desired, and famous, and classically cool, and then she became those things.
Del Rey wanted to be successful, Harris says; perhaps even actively planned for it. No matter that considering oneself destined for bright lights is a part not just of the story of popular culture, but of America itself. Del Rey came from wealth, Harris says. No matter that nepotism isn’t so much as a distraction from normal proceedings in the Imperialist Empire, but its day to day.
Everything Harris wrote about Del Rey, he could have written about Madonna; about Miley Cyrus; about Beyoncé. But he didn’t write about those popstars, he wrote about Lana Del Rey, and he did it because the gap between persona and person seems so self-reflexive in case of Del Rey; so stark.
Achieving Lana Del Rey
There’s a story about Picasso in the latter part of his career, when the abstract artist had become one of the most famous creatives on the planet. So valuable were his sketches, that he need only draw something in order to own it — no house ever built could be worth more than Picasso’s scribbled version of that house.
So it went in the case of Lana Del Rey. She sang of herself as desired, and famous, and classically cool, and then she became those things through her songs. She wasn’t representing a reality that already existed when she sang ‘Cola’ or ‘Video Games’. She was creating it.
It is impossible to miss the transformation from Lizzy Grant into Lana Del Rey that Harris and his fellow critics so breathlessly pointed out, because that transformation is present in Del Rey’s music itself; because her songs are the self-perpetuating little machines that made her who she is.
Lana Del Rey and Bradley Soileau pic.twitter.com/GoDhyfKroZ
— best of lana (@aarchiveLDR) January 18, 2021
And so the question remains: why should we see self-perpetuation as a problem? Or indeed as an aberration from the course of pop music history?
In 2019, as part of one of the best evaluations of Del Rey’s career, Alex Abad-Santos and Constance Grady of Vox defended Del Rey’s artifice as being an integral part of the internet age. Everyone’s faking it, Abad-Santos and Grady wrote, so what makes Del Rey any different?
But it’s wrong, I think, to consider Del Rey a faker, even one who uses lies to produce the impression of honesty. Self-creation isn’t a kind of self-deception. It’s a kind of purity, and a particularly American one at that.
Why should we see self-perpetuation as a problem? Or indeed as an aberration from the course of pop music history?
In his book Contingency, Irony, And Solidarity, updating the work of Friedrich Nietzsche to a modern context, the philosopher Richard Rorty argues that the only true way to be free as an American is to resist others’ descriptions of oneself. There is nothing static about who we are as citizens, or our countries, he writes; nothing timelessly true about what it means to be a woman, or a New Yorker, or a popstar.
And so we can do whatever we want. We can generate our own descriptions. “The human self is created by the use of a vocabulary, rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary,” Rorty writes. We only fail when we allow other people to tell us who we are — when we write variations on the themes of others, rather than generating our own poetry.
Lana Del Rey has never failed in this way. She is the ultimate Rortyian popstar, always avoiding the words that others write about her, even when they are positive — her public Twitter spat with the critic Ann Powers over a largely warm review of her album Norman Fucking Rockwell! speaks to a resistance to having her story told by others, even when she is supposedly getting praised in the process. She’s not a liar. She’s not artificial. She is self-generating.
As a result, Del Rey is also the ultimate American popstar. For the project of making yourself is one of the foundational myths of that country; the backbone of the American dream. After all, singing who you are in your own clear voice is as American as a cherry pie, or a pussy that tastes like Pepsi-Cola.
In Which The Real World Comes Knocking
And so Lana Del Rey is the American dream reflected back at America, sometimes in ways that Americans don’t like. When Del Rey stumbled publicly during her much criticised 2012 Saturday Night Live performance, the cultural cringe away from her can be explained by how plainly she exposed the dangers of self-creation: sometimes, you can be unable to pull off the performance of your new persona. Sometimes, the real world can come creeping in.
On that stage, Lana Del Rey carried herself like Lana Del Rey. But too many at home still saw Lizzy Grant.
That same disconnect between who the singer says she is and who she sometimes appears has also explained the last year of Lana Del Rey’s life in the media cycle. America is falling to pieces, wracked by a pandemic and unsettled by violence. The process of re-writing America, or what it means to be an American, during such an upheaval will always seem like a kind of madness — like a way of ignoring the grim reality of the world as it is, and focusing instead on how one wants it to be.
Moreover, being actively blind to reality is a way of engaging in what we now endlessly call “post-truth.” Another person who resists the stories that others tell about him is Donald Trump, and existing in your own ideological bubble is always going to be seen as worryingly adjacent to a kind of fascism; a kind of self-delusion. The “Lana is a Trumpite” rumours have taken hold so deeply because the pair are individuals taking part in work that seems, on first glance, broadly similar.
It’s not actually similar, of course. Del Rey’s self-creation is poetic; suffused with hope; about wanting more and making yourself more for your own sake. Trump’s is necessarily bitter and cynical; self-creation for the sake of suffering and control. But in a culture that looks at every issue with squinted eyes, these two paths can be written as analogous. And have been, over and over.
A woman still can’t get mad right? Even when a mob mentality tries to *incite
— Lana Del Rey (@LanaDelRey) January 12, 2021
No wonder either that so many seized on Del Rey’s gold mesh coronavirus mask. It became, in its own way, a kind of metaphor for the ludicrous nature of what it means to tell your own stories. The mask was beautiful, sure. It fit with her persona, sure. But it was ineffective at the very task it had been designed to carry out, some argued. Lana Del Rey was trying to pretend the world was such that one could wear mesh and not spread disease, and the world is not that way.
These same people were not settled when Del Rey explained that the mask was sewn with protective coverings underneath the chain, because their issue was symbolic, not literal; grounded in ideas, not in epidemiology. Del Rey’s failure was the failure of the American dream — an inability to own up to reality.
She Contains Multitudes
Lana Del Rey resists reality as most of us know it — she doesn’t sing about it, and she doesn’t seem to live in it. Her critics are right about that much. She is captured in a burbling, twisted Pleasantville of her own making; a time capsule of an America that has never actually existed.
And yes, that means she can appear somewhat inconsistent, or disconnected — this is a popstar who rejected flying the American flag at her gigs, and then dated an influencer cop; who seems embedded in what it means to be American, but only when she chooses to be.
Yet such inconsistency, such freedom, is precisely what makes her special. Lana Del Rey does not take how the world currently is as being important. She frees herself from interacting with the material conditions of actual America, choosing instead to direct her gaze to her own stories, and to hope. That’s not the out-of-touch, self-denying move that it is sometimes described as. It’s a way of inducing change. After all, if you don’t take the state of America in 2021 as being important, you can re-draw it however you so like.
Of course, Del Rey has blindspots in the way that she redraws the country. She comes from a specific cultural and class background, and her stories are shaped by that. Yet such blindspots can be accounted for in ways that do not require Del Rey to stop the act of self-creation. Instead, we can democratise the music industry at large, and allow those from other backgrounds the freedom that we have afforded Del Rey, building an array of new perspectives in the process.
And so it would be a shame if Lana Del Rey got dragged back to the real world by those who want her to respond to America as it actually is. It wouldn’t be Lana getting real. It would be Lana losing something. It would be a kind of failure; a way of writing variations on the themes of others.
Luckily, she shows no sign of changing. Her defence of the front cover of her forthcoming album Chemtrails over the Country Club acknowledges material reality in a way that also preserves a kind of fantasy; that seems both real and unreal. “I’m not the one storming the capital, I’m literally changing the world by putting my life and thoughts and love out there on the table 24 seven,” she wrote.
Which is not to say that Del Rey will never be political — after all, wanting the world to be different, let alone acting like it already is, will always be a political act. Del Rey just won’t be political in the way others are.
Nor should we want her to be. Hoping that Lana Del Rey might come back to Earth with the rest of us is a way of trying to kill Lana Del Rey. And so she will continue to exist in her own space; telling her own stories; Walt Whitman screaming about multitudes from the back of an open-topped Corvette; making herself and making America in the same breathy promise.
It’s like she puts it in ‘My Bedroom Is A Sacred Place Now’, one of the stand-out poems from her debut collection. “I can do that,” she writes, an artist summing herself up once again. “I can do anything.”
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He Tweets @JosephOEarp.