April 14, 2013
First, a little story: I used to be an obsessive user of Livejournal. I started back in 1999, before Facebook and microblogging. I posted long, personal entries, often accompanied by photographs (I wanted to be a photographer—I became a poet instead). One of my favorite journals was by a writer whose handle I can’t quite remember, but it included the name “Lolita.” Her journal was a beautifully-written account of her marriage to a wealthy man from another country (the location was never clear—she described beaches, a gleaming, blue-green pool, servants, and a personal tutor with an “angry haircut”). She claimed to be a seventeen-year-old American girl who had been swept away from a boring suburban life and plunged into a life of cocktails at noon, constant sunshine, and parties for which she was carefully dressed by maids and trotted around to impress fellow rich men and dignitaries. She described the manicured lawn, the servants, and her husband, who was often gone on “business,” a state of affairs she didn’t seem to mind, though when he returned, he showered her with love and presents, which she enjoyed. This obscure Livejournal account, and the languid, passive, and beauty-obsessed writer, was the first thing I thought of when I first heard Lana Del Rey.
Del Rey’s music is a melding of somber crooning and propulsive beats, ironic posturing and genuine sadness, of girlishness and Thanatos. Her music and persona, as presented in songs like “Born to Die” and “Ride,” are bewildering and retro. In nearly all of her music videos, she is somehow being restrained or forced by male characters—in “Blue Jeans,” a male character puts his fingers down her throat; in “Born to Die,” she is forcefully kissed, her mouth smashed against his mouth; and in“Ride” she is bent over a pinball machine.
Her characters welcome this, though. In almost every song, the speaker is begging to be viewed voyeuristically:
I’m in his favorite sun dress/Watching me get undressed
Watch me in the swimming pool bright blue ripples you/Sitting sipping on your black Cristal
Likes to watch me in the glass room bathroom, Chateau Marmont/Slippin’ on my red dress, puttin’ on my makeup
Every Saturday night I get dressed up to ride for you, baby.
Every lyric is about performing for someone. Her characters seem to have no inner world aside from a desire to be driven somewhere, anywhere, fast, “fucked hard,” and, well, to die. And this is where Lana Del Rey gets weird.
Here, she reminds me of another doomed female heroine, Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Like Palmer, Del Rey’s characters continually flirt with disaster and death. Her songs both acknowledge and welcome the dangers of chasing away a deadening sadness by taking too many drugs, driving too fast, and burning out while still glamorous. The videos, too, depict this. In “Born to Die,” Del Rey’s character seems to be singing from a big, empty heaven, as we see her climb into a car and end up bloodied and dead, held in the arms of her heavily-tattooed boyfriend.
This courting of death makes her unique among the current female singers with a masochistic streak: while Rihanna makes videos about the effects of living fast and free (as in“We Found Love”), the idea is that you can have fun—but must pay for it later. Lana Del Rey’s music makes paying for it the point.
So, what’s appealing to a woman about this persona of a death-seeking sex doll who begs men to see her as an object? I think it comes from the fact that we’re not supposed to want the things that Del Rey’s characters want. They are everything a modern woman doesn’t allow herself to be. And so it lingers, a shadow femininity, one that women are both attracted to and repelled by. To be frank, it is sometimes exciting to be completely dominated by another person and, sometimes, to be an object, admired as one might admire a painting. It is also damaging, obviously, to not be seen as fully human. Still, objects have power. When the character in the song “Off to the Races” says Tell me you own me, she also says, Who else would put up with me this way?” In a relationship where she is objectified, she is also free. There will be no pesky interventions and no limits on what she is allowed to do, as there would be in a mutual relationship. She is free to kill herself from drinking or overdosing, still free as long as she has youth (something else with which Del Rey’s music is obsessed). It makes sense, then, that these characters would also court death—what will they have after their beauty, youth, and desirability fade?
Del Rey’s music, persona, and videos all play to this shadow side, but do it cannily, in a way that demonstrates self-awareness. Her songs reference Walt Whitman and Nabokov as well as hip-hop, classic films, and doomed icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. This mix of both high and low culture doesn’t mean that she always gets it exactly right—songs like “Gods and Monsters” and “Cola” are too on-the-nose and outright goofy to be effective—but the consistency of her obsessions suggests that she isn’t blind to the impact of her choices.
But back to that Livejournal account. I’ve asked many people whom I knew from those early LJ days if they remember this account, and none of them do. I wonder, sometimes, if I made it up myself, if it was some kind of shadow side of my own life at the time. Even at eighteen, in 1999, I was living an adult, responsible life, attending a Southern Baptist college full-time and working thirty hours a week. I neither drank nor smoked, and lived miles and miles away from beaches. Maybe I needed a Lolita from somewhere far off, a girl full of cocktails, sunshine, and seashores, and created her all on my own. Lana Del Rey, too, feels like a culturally-created specter, her presence more an exorcism than a rehashing of old stereotypes. She is the poster child for dark, death-obsessed, objectified femininity, and her persona feels dangerous because it is—representative of the edge that contemporary women are often flirting with and pushing against and, sometimes, going over.