Dissecting Lana Del Rey

by Lily Oliver

We each make up our minds about someone by asking one simple question: do we believe them? Naturally, our answer determines the direction of our bias and we adjust our perceptions accordingly. This subconscious assessment is an innate survival instinct amongst peers—a natural tip-your-hat-off to the animal kingdom, if you will. When it comes to celebrities or public icons, however, this now conscious judgment of one’s character is less about keeping one’s wits, and more about the fear of being deceived.

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Del Rey’s “Saturday Night Live” performance (source: thewrap.com)

When Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” first graced our computer screens in 2011, social media was a buzz with scrutiny. Critics were concerned by the legitimately of the video being home made, and passionately debated the credibility of its creator. She was labeled a “plastic-surgery phony and a music-industry puppet.” Buzzfeed complied the “26 Meanest Quotes from Reviews of Lana Del Rey’s New Album.” Even actress Juliette Lewis took to Twitter to post and criticize Del Rey’s first (albeit awkward) live performance on Saturday Night Live. The commentary was endless. Fans emerged to rival each and every one of her foes, and soon they were all enveloped in a timeless predicament: to fight or to follow?

The fact that Del Rey produces material that is both melodically masterful and lyrically daring ensures that her fans are deeply invested in her artistry. True music lovers would agree that storytelling plays a vital role in the enjoyment of music and, as a result, affects how we emotionally respond to an artist. So it’s no surprise that Del Rey has been met with some intense backlash. Her characters are bold, honest, confronting… and female. In a review of Del Rey’s latest album Ultraviolence, Alexis Petridis states that Lana “inhabits a terrible, alternate universe where every woman you meet is either pitiful or horrible.” Yet again, Del Rey moves a little higher up on the list of Hollywood’s Most Inappropriate Female Role Models.

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“National Anthem” still (source: portabletv.com)

In an interview with Tim Jonze for The Guardian, Del Rey says her “songs are not just simple verse-chorus pop songs – they’re more psychological.” If one was to analyze Del Rey as a poet, or more accurately, a storyteller first and a singer second, it would become clear that she is excited by (and therefore openly chases) life experiences that many consider as inappropriate or reckless behavior. Her songs have a strong sexual content that are commonly conveyed through sarcasm and mockery. In “Radio,” from her debut album Born to Die, Del Rey says her “body’s sweet like sugar venom,” and in “Off To The Races,” she playfully coaxes her “old man” with a “cocaine heart” to “watch [her] in the swimming pool.” In “National Anthem”, the male character “can’t keep his eyes off [her] or his pants on.” Other major themes are promiscuity and infidelity, infamously conveyed in “Sad Girl,” in which the main character is “a mistress on the side.” In “Cola,” Del Rey sings in a tone that’s coy and nonchalant, while assuring her lover, “I know your wife and she wouldn’t mind.” From phrases such as these, one could question whether Del Rey has a strong moral compass. Perhaps this is because she is drawing inspiration from a world that is essentially built on double standards.

Irrespective of its origin, it’s important to acknowledge that Del Rey’s characterization isn’t a far stretch from reality. Many women can relate to loving an aggressive or troubled man. Many have been the “other woman.” Often females use their sexuality for power, control, or personal gain. Perhaps all women, despite whether they admit it or not, are excited by the notion of multiple lovers.

On a more intricate level, Del Rey openly identifies the flaws in her lovers; the imperfections that keep her thrilled and engaged. She also repeatedly highlights her own complex nature. In “Ride,” she admits “I have a war in my mind.” Strong “two-to-tango” imagery dominates “Ultraviolence,” the title track on her new album. Del Rey’s characters are intertwined in a vicious love spiral that draws tighter as they feel the need to escape, demonstrated through recurring symbolism of beauty and tragedy. Major hits such as “Summertime Sadness,” “Born To Die,” and of course, “Video Games” express exactly this, and are performed with a mixture of sincerity, sarcasm, and melancholy.

The unpredictability of these unconventional relationships allow for a dramatic (and in most cases erotic) situation that is depicted in Del Rey’s music as if it were a piece of theatre. The sexual energy is often conveyed across multiple platforms: music, lyrics, and video. This uncompromising approach builds an atmosphere that ultimately envelops the receiver and in turn allows Del Rey a deep sense of catharsis. Artistry such as this is commonly found in film as opposed to pop music. Similarly, Del Rey’s many female characters are more likened to silver screen starlets rather than pop princesses who rarely put pen to paper. When discussing the message behind “Ride,” Del Rey told Jonze that it is about “free love” and moving away from “social obligations.” In the video, Del Rey plays a prostitute associated with a biker gang with whom she appears to sleep with, resulting in further negative criticism. Sasha Frere-Jones states in The New Yorker that “no equivalent male star would be subject to the same level of examination.” However Del Rey explains herself in the commentary at the beginning of the clips that she is openly exploring the notion of being a woman “who belonged to no-one, who belonged to everyone.” In response to circulating accusations of anti-feminism, Del Rey told Jonze that she believes “a true feminist is a woman who does exactly what she wants.” Musician Liz Phair suspects that Del Rey battles with both the scrutiny of the public and her own inner conflicts because she is “a woman wanting and taking like a man.” When Jonze questioned whether “Ride” was autobiographical, Del Rey replied “Oh, 100%.”

Despite harboring a style that is reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s, Del Rey consistently challenges what is being played on mainstream radio. Her artistic approach is littered with dualities. She is as “non-committal” as she is “theatrical,” and describes her music as “Hollywood sadcore.” Time named her sound “movie music,” a style you wouldn’t expect to dominate the pop charts. Del Rey’s voice possesses an exciting array of dimensions. Low, mature, sexy vocals that command the listener juxtaposed with high-pitched, girly tones that both flirt and tease. She has been labeled a “socialite gone wrong”, yet spends a lot of her time doing social work for the homeless and as a teen helped to build homes in an Indian reservation.

While living in Brooklyn, Del Rey (née Elizabeth Grant) studied metaphysics as “it bridged the gap between God and science.” As a child, Del Rey ’s parents were fans of completely different entertainers; her dad, The Beach Boys and her mom, Carly Simon. Is Born to Die thus the creation of a hip-hop influenced modern poet or a lounge-singing starlet inspired by times of the past?

The problem that Del Rey faces is the murkiness of public perception because she is far from being just one thing. This is probably what her fans love most about her. They embrace the notion of her being artistically misunderstood, as they alone understand her. They appreciate her rawness, even when she’s unapologetically singing, “I fucked my way up to the top.” They don’t need to know whether she truly moved to California “like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer” (“Gods and Monsters”).

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On set of “Tropico,” in which Del Rey portrays a stripper (source: lanaboards.com)

Contrary to public criticism, there’s no denying that Del Rey is both a complex character and a true visionary. Anthony Mandler, who directed Lana’s 2013 short film Tropico and the videos for “Ride” and “National Anthem,” said “my experience of her is that the way she thinks is in a written form.” The Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, who produced Ultraviolence, told Rolling Stone that Del Rey is “extremely talented” and that “her demos were so good…. he didn’t want to mess them up.” Auerbach went on to mention that Del Rey helped him to open up about his divorce on the latest Keys’ album, as he had watched her record songs that were “extremely personal.”

The question we must all now answer for ourselves is, do we believe her?

Title image source: www.swide.com

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