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The Cultural Space Occupied By Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey seems to be an artist whose music provokes overly long dissections like these, while paradoxically being an artist who wouldn’t read them if payed. She’s our closest modern example of Led Zeppelin, in that her borrowing is explicit enough to become an entirely new art. I named my hypothetical band Ana Yell Red, an anagram, which isn’t news in and of itself, but the compulsion to even share that information strikes me as odd. She can wear Indian headdresses in music videos without coming off as painfully offensive or pseudo-indie. (Tautology, I know.) Her early love songs are about alcohol. Her later love songs, in the absolute least rock and roll trope ever, are about a label executive. As an imitator she has drawn countless imitators, though few besides Lorde exhibit much staying power. But perhaps the most remarkable thing is this: in a day where the mom behind you in a grocery store is soon likely to be on the tabloid she’s holding, when image has never been more totally understood and deployed, and when we the netizens are positioned far enough above the clown show to mostly outmaneuver it, Lana Del Rey does not come off as a calculated brand of mysterious. She’s a genuine mystery.

It would be easy to do the culturally appropriate evisceration of what she’s shilling. You could do it just with four of her six tattoos: “trust no one”, “die young”, “Whitman Nabokov”, and “Nina [Simone] and Billie [Holliday]”, a veritable Google search of pretentious+edgy. Except, much like the sneered-at works of my favorite author, a weird thing happens when you embrace sentimentality, inspiration, and all the things you like… they become just the things you like. You become your own artist when the references are plain and unironic, or as Lana said, “I get lonely on tour, so I brought Nina and Billie with me.” That’s it, that’s us: an agglomeration of things we like, only often in the digital and/or abstract sense. Where many heart-sleeved artists fall out of favor is when the things they like become a thing you like, which fact the artists will seize upon for new material. But then it’s not them that you would like, it’s them liking you liking them. (Did that make an ounce of sense?) Honeymoon, Rey’s third album, has yet to leak more than a few singles; it would stun me if she faltered into the second camp. I think she feels confident in what she likes, especially the dark shit, and so some fans like myself might even search for actual meaning in these unbelievably trite tattoos.

My biggest takeaway from the tattoos: they are images on her body, which means they belong to her. When we talk about intimate, we mean that an artist has invited us into their private lives, but I don’t get that sense from Born To Die and Ultraviolence. Her songs resonate more like the tattoos: we can think what we want of them. We can enjoy them or not. Not only were they not made for us, they weren’t made for anyone – makes sense when her influences already comprise the music’s spirit. The songs are ultimately just her and they exist the same reason a person exists, not to be criticized or contextualized, but to be received for a purpose unknown. If art is communication, Rey’s poignant music is transmitted into deep space.

(For this reason, she can’t really be a ‘rock star’, even in a time desperate to allow for one besides Kanye. Rock at its core is a rebellion, fake or otherwise. Mostly fake.)

The willful DGAF toward feminism, as many have pointed out, thus becomes actual feminism. Maybe not every female artist feels begrudged to reserve sixteen bars for women’s rights; none of them save sixty-four bars for lyrics that border on male subservience – and yet, if the lyrics were repurposed in the reverse as femdom, she would be exalted. She finds comfort in a peculiar relationship role and wears it like a tattoo. That’s fucking cool.

The best thing Rey ever did for her music was cast disillusions of rebellion aside from the start. To know her music without listening would be to read this quote about early alcoholism: “At first it’s fine and you think you have a dark side – it’s exciting – and then you realise the dark side wins every time if you decide to indulge in it. It’s also a completely different way of living when you know that.” Going back to Kanye, I enjoyed YEEZUS because it was an album in which he continued to admit to his deeply rooted problems (continuing from Dark Fantasy and pretty much every other Kanye album). But he is asking us to pit Confessional Kanye against all the other Kanyes, which surely makes for complex hip-hop but takes us further from what we would consider the Real Kanye. Lana Del Rey’s career began post-understanding of her problems. She didn’t need to make an ass of herself or Taylor Swift to record Fucked My Way Up To The Top. She does not so much confess as she does describe. Nothing attacked, addressed, or healed. Reconciliation, after all, is an invitation to intimacy; I’ve listened to her albums a thousand times and haven’t detected anything vaguely sounding like an apology. She keeps her lyrical tattoos much in the same way a great novelist does not quite ever address the reader. Kanye wears musical emotions, while tattoos do not move.

When I saw LDR at Coachella in 2014, it was immediately obvious that she wasn’t “there”. This was when my fascination began. Of the scores of artists I’ve seen at festivals, many have looked distant, bored, stoned, drunk, even afraid. I do believe that she’s still sober since 2004, because Lana stood comatose and sang the way you would to a song with deep personal significance, a significance of which you’ve told no one. I hate to use this example, but it’s the most famous one and it fits: the way Rick dies inside when As Time Goes By echoes from Sam’s piano. That was the entirety of the 90 minute Lana Del Rey concert at Coachella and, good as she was in the Blue Velvet H&M ad, such a distance cannot be feigned or affected. She often remarks that she doesn’t enjoy touring. Kurt Cobain said the same thing. All artists say that. To see Lana up on stage, you can only believe it’s because she painfully exists as music in front of large crowds, yet for no one, not even herself. (The more you understand yourself, the less room for escape, so to speak.) Everyone played very well at Coachella 2014, except for MGMT, yet no one merits more than a paragraph after her performance. The word critics would use is ‘vulnerable’… that falsely implies she had another option.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu