Lana Del Rey’s America

Lana Del Rey’s America

Lana Del Rey Performing in 2013 (Beatriz Alvani)

More than halfway through her Billboard topping latest album, Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey wonders, “Is this the end of an era / Is this the end of America?”

On one level, the line is typical Lana Del Rey. The persona she’s developed over the last decade has been defined by sad, nihilistic songs that revolve in one way or another around death, bad boyfriends, and Americana—sometimes all three at once, and always painted in a thick, tacky coat of nostalgia. “I’m in love with a dying man,” she sang as Lizzy Grant on her 2008 EP Kill Kill, less than three years before she became Lana Del Rey, an internet sensation turned award-winning pop star. “Dear lord, when I get to heaven,” she prayed over a full orchestra on “Young and Beautiful,” her contribution to the 2013 Great Gatsby soundtrack, “please let me bring my man.” As in that story, death is just around the corner in Del Rey’s version of the American dream. When it does come, that end will be as tragic as it is garish—never less so than in the Trump era, where violence and gold plating go hand in hand.

Lust for Life is plenty sad—it wouldn’t be a Lana Dey Rey record if it weren’t. But it might also be her most upbeat production yet, announced by the fact that she’s traded her well-known scowl on this cover for an earnest, toothy smile. She even put some flowers in her hair.

Following early failure as a young musician, New York City–born Elizabeth Grant transformed herself into Lana Del Rey shortly before her breakout hit, “Video Games,” went viral with a homemade video and slow, catchy song about a love that’s as boring as it is obsessive, singing vacantly, “it’s you / it’s you / it’s all for you” to a man more interested in his Playstation than her affection. Sparse at first, then gradually swelling, the orchestra meets Del Rey’s deadpan voice as she hums, “Heaven is a place on earth with you . . . I heard that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?” She’s been criticized since then for lacking authenticity, with detractors arguing that she’s too plastic and was set up for commercial success by her wealthy and well-connected family. (Del Rey’s parents met while working at a major New York advertising firm, and her father went on to make millions selling web domain names after the family moved away from the city.) She dealt with the flack mainly by casting off the idea that authenticity is even possible in modern pop music, leaning hard into her dark and campy trademarks, and never cowing to the haters.

Her four albums have given us lyrics like, “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” and “I’m pretty when I cry”; she begins “Fucked My Way Up To The Top” with the line “Life is awesome, I confess,” only to rhyme it with another about passing an STI test. Ultraviolence (2014) took a darker-than-usual turn even for Del Rey, exploring the depths of how brutal a relationship between two people can get. The title track gives us one of her more controversial lyrics, albeit borrowed from the sixties girl group the Crystals: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.”

Many of the songs on Lust for Life—soaring, debauched ballads about relationships gone sour with men who were probably rotten from the jump—continue in this same vein. If Lust for Life is her most cheery album, it’s also her most on-brand. There’s no more classic Lana Del Rey scene than her wandering “13 Beaches” (track three) in search of one where she can mourn a boy alone. (The song makes a nice companion to “High By The Beach,” off her last album; in the video, Del Rey mopes and writhes uncomfortably around a sparsely decorated shore house before finally shooting down a helicopter full of paparazzi with a bazooka.) Another track—“White Mustang”—finds her characteristically pining the titular car of a guy who may or may not be a murderer. The difference now seems to be that she’s more visibly in on the joke, admitting just how Peak Lana a line like “making love while I’m making good money” is. After all, as she reminds us in the chorus, “Who’s doper than this bitch? Who’s free-er than me?”

 

Amid all the brash hedonism and the relationship melodrama, Del Rey always finds an excuse to drape herself in the American flag, whether casting longtime collaborator A$AP Rocky as the JFK to her Jackie in the video for “National Anthem” or enjoining listeners to “Be young, be dope, be proud / Like an American.” “My eyes are wide like cherry pies,” she continues on “Cola,” over a string section, spaghetti-Western guitars, and a club-friendly throb. “I fall asleep with an American flag.”

Del Rey’s career-long interest in Americana is part of what separates her out from the pack of newly woke celebrities. It hasn’t been uncommon in the months since the election for pop stars to voice their opposition to Trump, and in some ways Del Rey’s most recent work is part of that trend. One difference between her and the likes of Katy Perry and Lorde, though—pop darlings who’ve issued anti-Trump missives on Twitter and in sporadic interviews—lies in how well Del Rey’s larger artistic project lends itself to this political awakening.

Part of that difference may stem from the fact that Del Rey’s stardom has never been dependent on chart-topping hits, her songs a few shades too dark for radio. With the possible exception of “Video Games,” her greatest commercial success was a club remix of “Summertime Sadness,” a revved-up rendition of a standard LDR lost-love ballad. Distance from the top of the charts has granted Del Rey a bit more space to develop her vision at album length, playing around with broader themes without the pressure of punctuating them with hit singles. Consequently, she’s famous more for her general mood and aesthetic than any one song. That’s put her less in the spotlight than other stars, allowing her to maintain a relatively elusive, low-key public persona—perhaps also because, at thirty-two, she’s more worldly than contemporaries like the twenty-one-year-old Lorde.

Rather than trying to score points with political statements, what Lust for Life touches on is something deeper, as she tries to reconcile her fictional America with the one we’re all living in. In her lengthy 2012 video for “Ride,” she narrated mournfully, “I believe in the country America used to be.” She loves her country, but it’s always been messy. The monologue ends:

I believe in the freedom of the open road. And my motto is the same as ever: “I believe in the kindness of strangers. And when I’m at war with myself I ride, I just ride.”

Who are you? Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you can experience them?

I have. I am fucking crazy. But I am free.

Del Rey’s America was always a kind of dystopia—a bubblegum pastiche, except peopled by lecherous old bikers and drug addictions and bad boyfriends who stalk her through beaches and deserts and stifling small towns. America is as much a character in her work as a setting, shaping and stealing scenes. What’s made her brand of Americana endearing to many is that it manages to be enthusiastic about the idea of America while filtering its reality through enough hazy nostalgia to wipe out any notion that she’s talking about a country that actually exists—or ever did. “Affectless without irony, full of pop-symbolism that refuses to signify,” the New Inquiry’s Ayesha Siddiqi wrote of Del Rey’s work, “perhaps an American culture drained of all moral qualities or ethical commitments is worth holding onto.”

With Trump’s election, the bleak, kitschy America Del Rey holds onto has acquired another layer. Trumplandia has made her rethink her patriotism, in other words, but not abandon it. In an interview with Pitchfork, the singer said she would stop flying the stars and stripes behind her when performing “Born to Die,” the title track off her first album. On Twitter, she’s voiced her enthusiastic support in the last few months for everything from the March for Science to a binding spell against Trump, meant to prevent him from doing harm.

Some of Del Rey’s contemporaries have no doubt been quicker to channel their newfound politics into a catchy protest anthem or a bombastic quote. Perry, for instance, credited Trump in June with her sexual liberation: “I was retriggered by a big male that didn’t see women as equal,” she told the New York Times. “I went to that dark place that I had been avoiding, and I dug out the mold”—returning the male gaze with defiance.

Del Rey, who has made a career more or less accepting the male gaze’s role in modern pop, is less concerned with the symbolism of Trump than in the consequences of his reign. She’s caught flack in the past for calling Tesla more interesting than feminism, but recent attacks from the federal level on Planned Parenthood have made her see sexism in a more explicitly political light. She was inspired enough by the Women’s March to devote a song to it.

Yet while toxic relationships have animated large parts of Del Rey’s past albums, she doesn’t make the perhaps obvious move of subbing those bad boyfriends out for Trump, or even for America writ large. Nor does she adopt the now-clichéd line that he’s gaslighting America or somehow re-enacting the other traits of abusive male lovers. Her sadness on Lust for Life is more sweeping, grappling with what it means to love a country gnarled into something she doesn’t quite recognize.

That millions of Americans are involved in a collective mourning process over Trump’s election seems to have freed Del Rey’s songs from the confines of destructive interpersonal relationships, allowing her the space to talk about what’s wrong with the rest of the world. With a few exceptions, love interests in Lust for Life’s more political tracks are mostly demoted to narrative devices. Where at times the men in her songs have sounded more like bosses than boyfriends, her digs tended to limit themselves to the power dynamics between individuals. If there’s any twisted relationship at the heart of this album, it’s between her and the country she’s spent the better part of her career celebrating.

Where Del Rey’s zeal for America has in the past been animated by a series of symbols—flags, cars, bourbon, and Budweiser—what seems to excite her most now are Americans themselves, from participants in the Women’s March (“God Bless America—And All The Beautiful Women In It”) to the festival kids making the best of life in an increasingly unstable world. There are still bad boyfriends, of course, but there’s also fun and uncomplicated love, of the steamy variety found in “Lust for Life” (featuring the Weeknd) and innocent “Love,” about finding solace in one another even as the world crumbles around them, “cause it’s enough to be young and in love.”

Over the course of Lust for Life, her biggest battle seems to be between escapism and a desire to see some version of the American dream fully realized. “When there were the women’s marches, I was writing about that,” she told collaborator Stevie Nicks in an ethereal V Magazine conversation between the two. “There was enough space in my mind to really absorb everything. I think I was very much in the mix of culture in California over the last five years, but it feels good to feel more connected to a wider world.” In the resulting track, she cheers on marchers: “May you stand proud and strong / Like Lady Liberty shining all night long / God bless America.”

In “Coachella—Woodstock In My Mind,” she reflects on the feeling of being at the Southern California music festival and waking up to news of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. She’s older and more reflective, looking out for the future generations in her audience and seeing herself in them: “’Cause what about all these children / And what about all their parents / And what about about all their crowns they wear / In hair so long like mine.” What would each of them do in the event that tensions between Trump and Kim Jong-un reach some catastrophic breaking point?

For Del Rey, the fact that she’s spent the better part of her career embracing death contributes to the sense that she’s already come to a kind of spiritual acceptance with nuclear war and whatever other horrors the Trump administration might bring. But now she’s interested in doing something about her circumstances, even if she’s not entirely sure what that might be. “Lately I’ve been thinking it’s just someone else’s job to care / Who am I to sympathize when no one gave a damn,” she stews, before admitting that “Change is a powerful thing / I feel it coming in me.” Somewhere between Born to Die and Lust for Life, she’s realized we all might have to step up if we want to have anything to hang on to at all.

But for now, it’s still the escapism that wins out. As long as Trump’s in power, Del Rey’s got a prescription for how to deal with the emotional wreckage wrought by his administration: keep dancing and keep fucking. Sex and pleasure are usually intertwined with sadness for Del Rey, but more than on any other album, Lust for Life parses out love and happiness from manipulative relationships. If the world is crashing down around us, then let’s enjoy the cheap, dirty pleasures we’ve got.

Even while contemplating the end of empire, Lust for Life manages to fit in its share of pure fun. Del Rey isn’t resigned to watching the world burn, but wants us to enjoy ourselves so long as we’re caught in the fire. It’s in that resilient, youthful Americana that she sees hope for the country’s future.

Is it the end of America? “No,” Del Rey urges, phoenix-like. “It’s only the beginning.”


Kate Aronoff is co-host of Dissent’s Hot & Bothered podcast on the politics of climate change and a writing fellow at In These Times.