The Gonzo Vision of Lana Del Rey

lana del rey with flowers in her hair

I do not know for a fact that Lizzy Grant, the canny songwriter behind Lana Del Rey, secretly earned an American Studies degree at SUNY-Geneseo, but all the evidence points in that direction.

Lana Del Rey is, of course, the pop ventriloquist act who burst onto the scene in 2012—a ginger-haired gun moll with big hoop earrings, a moody disposition, and a lavish taste for 1960s torch-song atmospherics. Del Rey is a character invented by Grant: a full package of image, attitude, and sound that results in a familiar yet singular image. Indeed, her brand is that of the femme fatale in its most frankly Platonic form.

Grant’s bio reads like an uptown-downtown hipster inversion of Jack Donaghy’s: she grew up in the tony suburbs of Lake Placid, New York, before being sent to a boarding school at fifteen “to deal with her alcohol dependence.” She went to SUNY for a short time before dropping out for a gap year that unfolded into a lengthy odyssey shuttling back and forth between Miami, South Africa, Indian reservations, and Fordham, where she worked in bars, helped the homeless, and studied philosophy. If that backstory sounds almost as mythological and manufactured as the character she soon created, you could be forgiven for thinking so.

In any case, Grant began to craft a musical persona, known alternately as “Sparkle Jump Rope Queen” and “May Jailer.” The musician has at times been derided as a prefab phenomenon, akin to the Monkees or the Spice Girls, and some of her narrative seems to support that criticism: as Wikipedia’s slightly deadpan entry on Grant reads, “her lawyers and managers made… ‘Lana Del Rey’ and persuaded her to adopt the stage name.”

But Del Rey appears to be more than a puppet created and controlled by a shrewd Svengali. She writes or co-writes most of her songs, and her meticulous stewardship of her own image as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” suggests that considerable thought went into creating a pop star who is more motif than human.

Like Bob Dylan, who also obscured his real roots in favor of borrowed and imagined ones, Grant became Del Rey: a pale, brooding death mask framed by flaming hair, exuding a distinct whiff of American dreams and despair. Whereas Dylan pilfered from a great nineteenth-century storehouse of folk music and myth—the “old, weird America” of God and Abraham, grifters floating down the Mississippi on riverboats, preening Senators, vagabonds and slave-drivers—Del Rey’s grab bag is very twentieth century. Her palette is film noir, Scarface, and fantasies of 1990s hip-hop. In this Cuisinart of pop culture one finds mobsters, drug dealers, reckless teenagers; blue jeans and James Dean; Scorsese and Lou Reed, Sunset Boulevard, the Beats and amphetamines; all immersed in a heavy-cream Mad Men haze of high style and dread.

All of this homage is pegged to a hip-hop beat and momentary eruptions of girl-group pep and puppy-dog love. Del Rey has it both ways, like most successful pop stars and politicians, casting herself as the cold-blooded femme fatale concerned with nothing but pleasure and wealth, as well as a moony, smitten teenage girl. (The same album, Ultraviolence, contains both the weepy “Sad Girl” and “Fucked My Way Up to the Top,” which is self-explanatory.)

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Del Rey’s image owes a deep debt to a certain kind of Southern California gothic, which Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film Inherent Vice so richly explored. Her album covers feature palm trees, fancy cars, and Del Rey’s austere face glaring out at the world—as if to say, “all this, and I’m still staring into the abyss.” Her lyrics celebrate excess and extravagance in much the way as the most gilded hip-hop—it’s no surprise that her song “Young and Beautiful” was picked to accompany the Jay-Z soundtrack of 1920s champagne-popping fabulousness in Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby remake—and yet this baller posture is married to a dark and sultry sound that harks back to melodramatic ballads of the 1960s.   On the Ultraviolence standout “Shades of Cool,” for instance, she sounds like vintage Bond-era Shirley Bassey filtered through Sigur Ros.

Del Rey first rose to prominence in 2011, when a few songs on YouTube caught the eye of Stranger Records, and the buzz machine commenced. Her first single, “Video Games,” wallows in a sort of abject femininity, slavishly adoring a thoughtless lug who spends most of his time playing video games:

Go play your video games. It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you, everything I do is for you. I tell you all the time. Heaven is a place on Earth with you. Tell me all the things that you want to do. I heard that you like the bad girls, honey, is that true? It’s better than I even knew…

The lyrics are so full of teen ardor that one wonders if the narrator’s uncritical devotion is meant to satirize gender roles in some way or another. Indeed, many of her songs boast gender politics that resemble nothing so much as “Leader of the Pack.” She rhapsodizes about being held “in his big arms, drunk and I am seeing stars,” and the overall impression is a narrator who sees empowerment in unapologetic surrender to a macho male.[1]

Another early track, “Blue Jeans,” indulges in a smorgasbord of 50s tropes—James Dean, big dreams, gangsters—as Del Rey sings another keening ode to undying love. “I will love you til the end of time, I will wait a million years. Promise that you will remember that you’re mine,” she says, to an errant lover who “went out every night,” and then left “chasing paper,” never to be heard from again.

I told you that no matter what you did I’d be by your side…
Whether you fail or fly
Well, shit, at least you tried.
But when you walked out that door, a piece of me died…
Then they took you away—stole you out of my life
You just need to remember…

Conjugal visits never come up, but they’re implied. (On the trashy and hilarious coke ditty “Florida Kilos,” Del Rey assures listeners that “prison don’t mean nothing to me if you’ll be by my side.”)

In her true magnum opus, “Born to Die,” Del Rey mixes cinematic lyrics and hip-hop with a sense of cool indifference in the face of death and existential dread: “Choose your last words, this is the last time; because you and I, we were born to die.” It is the too-cool, pessimistic inverse of Springsteen: about as perfectly suited as it could be for driving around as a teenager at dusk, smoking cigarettes, and thinking about what a bad-ass you are. (The title might also be a white, suburban rejoinder to the despair and nihilism of hip-hop albums like Biggie’s Ready to Die.)

Like Michael Jackson,she's bad and dangerous
Like Michael Jackson, she’s bad and dangerous

The album Born to Die became one of the biggest of 2012, selling over 3 million copies at a time when overall record sales continued to tank. One of that album’s biggest hits, “The National Anthem,” begins with a string bit that evokes “Bittersweet Symphony” (albeit surely calculated not to incur the legal wrath of former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, as the Verve learned to their everlasting dismay). A peppering of fireworks breaks in, reminding the listener that the song to come is going to say something about the American dream, but “The National Anthem” is mostly a story about partying with another dangerous beau (this time, in the Hamptons). She wants him to buy her lots of diamonds; at first he tells her to be cool but she confesses she “doesn’t know how yet”; a few drinks later, in the next verse, she responds that she’s “already the coolest.” The song is about being young, blasé, and hedonistic, but it’s also none too subtly about defining the American dream as bling:

Money is the anthem of success… money is the reason we exist. Everybody knows it, it’s a fact.

Del Rey wants you to know that she is just being real. “I can tell he will do very well,” she says, calculating her man’s earning potential amid the drunken excess. But the chorus gives into a sing-along chant, a slightly romantic twist to Del Rey’s cynical and self-interested definition of American aspirations: “Tell me I’m your national anthem.” Money may be the national anthem, but I want to be yours—money is everything, but I want to transcend it, to be more meaningful than bling to one person. Love triumphs over greed, or maybe it’s just another grift?

Midway through the song, Del Rey gives the lie to the whole gun-moll persona, alluding to “our dreams and our rage, blurring the lines between the real and the fake.” The whole image of partying in the Hamptons with ballers and gangsters might be a fantasy, but what difference does it make? In a culture that accepts as “reality” television shows that everyone knows are 100% fake and rewards the most ruthless people with all the wealth and power they could desire, maybe inventing a phantasmagoric golem like Lana Del Rey isn’t so bad after all. She’s like the 2012 version of “Material Girl,” by way of The Great Gatsby and Reasonable Doubt.

“They say I’m too young to love you, I don’t know what I need.  They think I don’t understand the freedomland of the 70s,” Del Rey intones on Ultraviolence’s “Brooklyn Baby.” She’s not, she insists—her boyfriend’s in a band; she’s got feathers in her hair, and a rare jazz collection. Del Rey’s entire body of work feels like an attempt at proving the doubters wrong by creating a weirdo simulation of that mythic freedomland. Indeed, she may be protesting a bit too much when she tells the parents and the squares: “I’m talking about my generation… If you don’t like it, you can beat it.”

What stands out to me about Lana Del Rey, despite her penchant for hoary clichés and occasionally ludicrous posturing, is how thoroughly all-in her image is. Del Rey boasts all the planning and attention to detail of a dissertation: a thesis on American glamor, gender, dread and ambition, recycling twentieth century pop culture for 2014 pop radio. As Pitchfork said of the musician back in June:

She’s an utterly distinctive figure in popular music—not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely.

As Tropics of Meta has noted before, musicians put on poses all the time. Dylan basically implied he was an Okie still busy clearing Dust Bowl detritus out of his throat; Springsteen was never quite a working-class stiff from Jersey either, but he sure sounded like one. (Rapper Saigon once bragged that “I ain’t just giving you shit to critique. Everything you hear me spit to the beat is shit I did in the street.” But then he goes on to say that “I had a real body in the trunk, not one but two guys.” If we can take Saigon at his word, he should probably be the subject of a manhunt in multiple states.)

Officially down with Whitman and Sterling Hayden
Officially down with Walt Whitman and Sterling Hayden

With Lana Del Rey, Lizzy Grant created a character in the same way everyone from Bowie to Biggie has done before—just without the Thin White Duke’s wafer-thin attention span, or the veneer of authenticity that most rappers crave. She figured out how to filter a bevy of tropes from noir and hip-hop through a sieve of bubblegum pop and create something derivative yet distinctive—something punk in audacity and attitude that doesn’t sound remotely punk rock.

Grant recently said she was working on an album called Music to Watch Boys To, which has since been renamed Honeymoon. I look forward to the album in much the same way one might think about the next work by a genre novelist who unexpectedly broke through to the mainstream: if less is truly more, then can more-of-the-same ever really be a good thing?

Indeed, how far she can sustain this commitment to a highly stylized character remains to be seen. Born to Die was heavy with catchy tracks like “Diet Mountain Dew” and “Summertime Sadness,” while follow-up Ultraviolence has a few comparable songs, like “West Coast,” but perhaps not the immense marketability of its predecessor. Still, Del Rey’s career as faux-hunger artist remains fascinating. Like Lady Gaga, she is an extraordinarily contrived and stage-managed presence—even by pop-music standards—but whereas Gaga wants to be a shape-shifting Madonna, Del Rey wants to be exactly one thing. (And it’s worth noting that, also like Madge, Gaga roots her work in a gay dance culture that is sharply distinct from the thoroughly hetero world of tough guys and pretty girls in Del Rey’s lyrics.)

In any case, we can check back in about five years to see if she is still spinning catchy, moody tales about femme fatales, dangerous boyfriends, and the splendor and horror of LA. Maybe by then she will just have a residency at NYU, having retired the character to teach a course on SoCal gothic in the American Studies department.



[1] Del Rey has been fairly derisive toward claims that her own work is somehow retrograde in terms of gender. Feminism, she has said, “is just not an interesting concept,” echoing other celebrities who have recently courted controversy by distancing themselves from the movement. Like Kaley Cuoco and Shailene Woodley, Del Rey appears to have concluded that because she is rich, beautiful, and successful, the cause of equality for women is basically irrelevant in today’s world. But it remains hard to tell whether Del Rey the anti-feminist is just another part of the character—and she would certainly not be alone as a celeb who disowns feminism, joining the estimable company of Bjork, Marissa Mayer and Carrie Underwood.