“What if her pussy tastes like Pepsi cola? And if all she wants it dope and diamonds, so what? What if the most radical – fuck it, feminist – thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?”
In her essay “The Fake As More”, reproduced here from a supplement in The New Inquiry, July 2014, Sarah Nicole Prickett asks us to consider the idea that, despite endless accusations of affectation and fakery, Lana Del Rey might be extremely real indeed. This bootleg collection pursues that premise.
Lana Del Rey embodies many things that women are not supposed to be. Like Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she’s tragic and banal. As Ariel Levy describes, “Moshfegh’s characters tend to be amoral, frank, bleakly funny, very smart, and perverse in their motivations, in ways that destabilise the reader’s assumptions about what is ugly, what is desirable, what is permissible, and what is real”. Lana is ugly and desirable. In her lyrics and self-conceived music videos, she reinforces a range of problematic, outmoded and damaging female stereotypes. Her narratives glamourise objectification and the accumulation of wealth, alongside female financial disempowerment, assault and abuse. She prioritises boys on bikes and ignores her friends, if she even has any: while she might, in Video Games, describe “watching all our friends fall in and out of Old Paul’s”, she definitely means “his” friends. Her protagonists don’t run the world, they are not independent women and they are not doing it for themselves. Instead they defer to a selection of fathers and boyfriends, drug addicts and pimps, priests and police officers; being held down is a turn on.
Lana is variously lethargic and confrontational, vulgar yet deeply sensitive. Her contradictions are rehearsed and precise. She also represents a nuanced, vulnerable and flawed femininity rarely explored in contemporary pop, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of sloganistic corporate feminism, of the arbitrary codes of sisterhood, and the regime of empowerment and keeping it real. She’s both obvious and ambiguous, campy and earnest; her metaphors are as grandiose and predictable as a self-conscious freshman. She constructs a visual language of images that have been sold to us for decades, twists them round her little finger and throws them back at us, with a wink reflected in the wing mirror of her boyfriend’s truck. Maybe we’re giving her too much credit, but maybe we’re not giving her enough?
As “empowerment” and “authenticity” have become the default message of the female pop star—from the Spice Girls’ Girl Power, to Beyonce’s, well, everything, through to Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift—instead Lana’s plaintive “God knows I tried” somehow feels less barren than the promise that “We run this motherfucking world”. Lana exemplifies the contrariness of empowerment under capitalism. In Pretty When You Cry, Lindsay Zoladz writes of Katy Perry’s Roar: “I like the song, but I also sort of feel like a Pavlovian dog for liking it… [it] feels like it was drawn up from focus groups and genetically engineered in a laboratory for the sole purpose of EMPOWERING ME.” She argues that Ultraviolence provides a sort-of antidote, “a fantasy of leisure” that explicitly rejects wellness and self-betterment: “The people in Del Rey’s musical universe do not strive or believe that things will get better, they lounge around all day manicuring their nails and then drink and smoke themselves into a glamorously inert stupor by night.” Lana doesn’t offer a solution, but she does offer an alternative that involves getting high. She’s not unlike one of the other great female misanthropes, Jackie Brown’s Melanie:
Ordell: I’m serious, you smoke too much of that shit. That shit robs you of your ambition.
Melanie: Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.
Of course, misanthropy and morbidity have long been the preserve of white, male authors and white, male characters – flawed and dissociated, reprehensible and adored. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield hopes to hell “that when I die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something”. In The People look like Flowers at Last, Charles Bukowski claims that “You have to die a few times before you can really live”. In On the Road, Kerouac describes how “My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realised no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad”. It’s a wonder Lana del Rey has never sung “I’m not brave any more darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.”
It’s Lana’s dream logic that provides the closest thing to clarity; her use of repetition, of tired cliches, disordered timelines and mixed messages is consistent, and reminiscent of the confused narratives we construct in our subconscious and retell with the static fuzz of days-old news. Her vision of California, of glamour and love, fame and anguish—like her use of clumsily try-hard references, to Vladimir Nabakov and David Bowie—is evocative of Cher-Horowitz-dumb: “Duh, it’s like a famous quote!” But Clueless, too, was written and directed by a woman, and Horowitz, like Lana, is self-satisfied and clever. Sex preoccupies both, yet feminism is arrived at almost accidentally.
When Lana was accused of only getting successful because of an industry boyfriend, she doubled down and wrote Fucked My Way Up To The Top. While pushing sexuality through a range of passé stereotypes, she ended up presenting as more empowered than ostensibly feminist pop stars proclaiming full emancipation over an off-the-shelf backing track. Sure, she’s a mess of smokescreens, but tell us what isn’t? Lana’s feedback loop of lacklustre imagery—taking her red dress off, putting her little red dress on, wishing she was dead, wishing she was dead already—adds up to a sort of refreshing shamelessness: fresh out of fucks forever.
Written with Lillian Wilkie, 2019
Originally published in Dope and Diamonds: A Lana Del Rey Reader, Chateau International