Christopher Glasek on Lana Del Ray
Artforum December 2012
IN A MIDDLING YEAR FOR POP MUSIC, the cleverest piece of cultural criticism nevertheless came in the form of a new hit from Lana Del Rey, aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, heiress to an Internet domain-name fortune and proprietor of one of the most promising voices of the Obama era. The track “National Anthem” (Born to Die, Interscope), Del Rey’s parapatriotic send-up of American luxury, may not rank as the year’s greatest song, but its eight-minute video, which reimagines the Camelot fairy tale of JFK and Jackie O, invents a new subset of pop: Call it postironic satire—a Swiftian revival that multiplies the objects of its parody with such reckless guile that it seems challenging and new. The satiric vision the video proposes is syncretic: Del Rey stands in for Jackie but also for Marilyn Monroe—and for herself, a contemporary celebrity princess; her costar in the video, fellow New Yorker A$AP Rocky, represents Kennedy but also Barack Obama and gangster rap, incarnating both the right-wing stereotype of black power and the liberal voter’s fantasy of Obama-as-messianic-prince—a limousine liberal worthy of his vehicle.
As the video begins its long intro, Del Rey steps up to a lectern and croons Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to a darkened audience. The clip is black-and-white and, like much of the video, uses digitally “aged” HD to evoke either vintage 8-mm home movies or, if you prefer, the filters of Instagram. Through the silhouettes, we see a bling-fingered, cigar-smoking Rocky imbibing Del Rey’s performance with single-minded lust. The video cuts to color: In a car with a tan leather interior, a dark-skinned hand emerging from a suit jacket grasps the exposed thigh of a white woman in a short skirt; screams ensue, along with faux footage of assassination day in Dallas; then a three-second interlude of Del Rey in a patch of azaleas; then a shot of her hand grazing Rocky’s leg; finally, the camera pulls back, revealing the couple enjoying a picnic with children on the lawn of their mansion (a lyric indicates the Hamptons, though it might as well be Hyannis).
According to Rocky, the video is “some swag shit … some 2015 shit,” suggesting its vision might beso contemporary that it could take a while to properly digest. If 2012 was the year that hip-hop finally embraced gay pride, it’s worth noting, perhaps, that Rocky, as straight male, doesn’t speak in Del Rey’s video: His erotic, mischievously coded body is featured prominently on-screen, but he isn’t “featured” on the track—he has surrendered his sexual self-presentation entirely to Del Rey. In a typical pop/hip-hop collaboration, Rocky would be allotted thirty seconds to voice his own desire and thereby reclaim the phallus. But the video for “National Anthem” isn’t a collaboration—it’s matriarchal reverie. A reversal allows Del Rey to style herself as a rapper, “winin and dinin / drinkin and drivin / excessive buyin / overdose and dyin,” projecting a persona that’s seamless and impenetrable even as her physical body stands ready to exercise its prerogatives. Del Rey is not the product of handlers: The concept for the video is her own; she penned the treatment and picked the director. In silencing Rocky, Del Rey not only puts pop on top but also isolates female desire as the essence of Americanness.As the intro fades and the song begins in earnest, we watch Del Rey fondle lion skins, butter toast, grind with her dice-throwing, sweater-setted prez, and stroll along the beach with their exquisite offspring—stand-ins for Sasha and Malia—while issuing blunt and brutish glorifications of American culture: “Money is the anthem of success,” the chorus goes. Footage corroborates the claim, showcasing all that is wonderful, odious, and precarious in the image bank of American history. Del Rey’s heavy-handed visuals revel in sex, money, miscegenation, fame, death—the pat psychodramas that propel the narratives of both reality TV and centuries of actual Beltway scandal. But Del Rey comes to praise her country, not to bury it. If her obsession with lost American innocence feels more automated than searching, that doesn’t necessarily dilute its power. In place of critique, Del Rey uses historical mash-up to deliver a concentrated extract of contemporaneity, more eloquently pegging our cultural moment than any verse about smartphones.
Men hardly ever speak in Del Rey’s videos. Their silence also permeates Ride. This more recent video follows the life of a streetwalking saloon singer in Big Sky Country who spends her days and nights among the motorcycle-gang members she picks up and services on the road. Although its milieu is white and poor instead of royal and interracial, Ride doubles down on the gendered incitements ofAnthem. In both videos, men are treated with gentle, erotic fascination. Yet unlike the love interest inAnthem, the Hells Angel types in “Ride” are not patent hunks—they’re obese and greasy. Del Rey’s enjoyment of, for example, getting fucked by one of the fattest of these men over a pinball machine shocks the viewer more than her cavorting with a black JFK. Where Anthem deals gingerly with race and class stereotypes, the newer video exploits them with immodest vigor, depicting rural poverty with either offensive condescension or a proud fondness bordering on nativism. “There’s no use in talking to people who have a home,” explains Del Rey’s voice-over. “They have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lay your head.” We wonder whether Del Rey herself has any idea about such things (though, in fact, she did spend a year living in a trailer park, and in varying states of “homelessness,” during her wayward adolescence). “I believe in the country America used to be,” her character proclaims. “I believe in the person I want to become.” In Ride, Del Rey, a libidinal feminist and slumming heiress, makes clear that she can do whatever—and whomever—she wants.
If satire traditionally lampoons society by ridiculing the things we revere, Del Rey reveres the things we ridicule, exalting our baser instincts and especially our exhibitionism. This isn’t to say her videos lack a reformist edge: In their shamelessness, they attack shame; in their glee, they sanctify desire, which is the ultimate subject of Del Rey’s work. For Del Rey, desire and persona are inextricable; she has turned herself into a figure for desire, and a game-changing one at that: In demeanor, clothing, makeup, and even voice, she cultivates the aesthetic of an older woman. Although barely eighteen months senior to Rihanna or Grimes, Del Rey performs as a MILF, shunning the signifiers of youth and suggesting, through extravagant self-invention, the extent to which adulthood is wasted on adults. Where Lady Gaga, Del Rey’s exact contemporary, takes her cues from big-budget musicals like Cats—outdoing her competitors by reinventing her look as many times in a single concert as Madonna has during her entire career—Del Rey has chosen embellishments that could be said to bring her closer to who she “really” is. I have no reason to doubt that Del Rey was born with those lips, but if it’s the case that they got extra help along the way, I’m thankful someone had the presence of mind to correct nature’s mistake.
For performers like Gaga, passion for artifice and modification all too easily lends itself to physical escapism—to palpable hatred of the body. What distinguishes Del Rey from her pop peers is that she’s comfortable in her various skins and commits to the characters she creates. Other stars put on costumes; Del Rey puts on personalities, much as might a Trecartin tween. In this way, more than any of her rivals, male or female, Del Rey queers pop. Her unwinking enjoyment of her own perversity would be enough to qualify her as a great queer performance artist; her astonishing television debut onSaturday Night Live last winter, in which she covered her own hits as though she were a drag-queen impersonator, put her over the top.
In a pop era dominated by gadget-obsessed austerity cults, Del Rey has taken less than a year to construct an alternative path. After launching her career on the strength of a YouTube video made with material swiped from the Web—the sources for Video Games somewhat irritatingly range from skateboarder uploads to home videos of kids swimming to paparazzi footage of a drunk Paz de la Huerta—Del Rey has gone on to exploit the medium to showcase a body of work that, refreshingly, makes you forget about the Internet. Her unfashionable insistence on iconography over technological smoke and mirrors gives her videos a substantive, meaty core. Much as her father amassed a fortune collecting domain names linked to physical places (e.g., www.philadelphiarealestate.com), Del Rey reminds us through her work that the Internet is merely a platform for delivering the things that truly matter—sex, violence, and property in the Hamptons.
Del Rey is not a political singer, whatever that could mean in 2012, but her songs and videos trade on, or perhaps consume, the great issues of our day. Del Rey is a fantasist, too, but her fantasies are worldly and ambitious. Her vision, while affirmative, is also unblinkered; through it, she brings a rare candor to an escapist enterprise. She allows us to escape, but to escape into reality, and thereby perhaps to remake it.
Christopher Glazek is a senior editor at n+1. He is currently at work on a book about the history of incarceration in America.