Monday, 31 December 2012

Life Imitates Art

Lana Del Rey sitting on a throne, wearing white gown and headdress of blue flowers, in the video for National Anthem

Every little aspect of Lana Del Rey is the product of studied emulation—every vocal, every sultry face-turn and wandering gaze, every precision f-bomb, sepia overtone and Britney Spears tic. Lana Del Rey is obviously not real. One glance at one of her music videos and it's pretty obvious that she's an artistic creation, a persona, or else Lizzie Grant, the artist behind Del Rey, must be a pretty strange person to encounter in day-to-day life—draping herself over the couch with her spray-bulged hair and a cigarette holder in hand and staring smokily into middle-distance while you're playing videogames.

More interesting than the question of authenticity and whether or not this is literally Lizzie Grant, which to me seems to have an obvious answer, is, assuming this is a persona, what's she trying to do with it? Personae can be the grounds for all kinds of genuine artistic expression, from ironic-or-not explorations of characters and stereotypes, to heightened, artistic extensions of what we might think of as the real deal. So what's Lana Del Rey about?

Del Rey's trademark is dark-side Hollywood glamour, moody and cinematic ballads littered with pop-culture references. She's a kind of broken starlet revelling in the downward spiral, a life dangerous, seedy, hedonistic and romantic, living fast to die young. In her own words, she's 'gangsta Nancy Sinatra', a rolling stone in the American tradition. As far as this theme goes, the music pretty much nails it. It's great lounge music, a bit of melodramatic but not over-excitable Hollywood noir escapism.

It's striving so much for a certain effect, though, that it doesn't always seem to come quite naturally. There's something paint-by-numbers and occasionally strained about the way she hits the notes in imitation of the vocalists who influenced her, or the way she drops urban vernacular into the lyrics, or the references to literary Americana. It's a little stiff, all somewhat brittle and overproduced—a criticism that could be levelled at Del Rey as a whole.

The problem with Lana Del Rey is that, whatever the stylistic fusions and updates, this emulation could well be the whole story. Compared with other musical personae of note, your Madonnas or Marilyn Mansons, Michael Jacksons, Grace Joneses or David Bowies, Lana Del Rey, even beyond the detached lethargy of the lounge style, is curiously non-reactive, sealed off in her near-perfect holographic reproduction of classic Americana from any kind of reflex or social commentary—like she's trapped in her own fiction, an old-timey movie played mindlessly through a person-channel. The music is shot through with hip hop and contemporary pop, but none of this has any real implication beyond adding shade and texture to the darkly glamorous veneer, sucking in more recent frames of reference to give it a more modern feel, a different kind of grit.

Mood-lit Del Rey in the video for Ride

If you're the kind of person who unironically embraces the live-fast-die-young ethos that's come to be embodied by James Dean or On The Road or other American icons of misunderstood, freedom-seeking self-destruction, maybe this is enough. It definitely has a certain cathartic appeal. The lack of introspection on this point, though, elevated almost to a point of pride, makes some things problematic—like, for instance, the recurring 'Daddy's bestest Lolita' theme, in tracks like 'Ride', 'Off to the Races', 'Cola' and, well, 'Lolita'.

It's hard to tell if Del Rey is romanticising her own infantilisation because in some twisted way she equates being 'child-like' with being carefree, or if she just likes how it adds to her overall image of fuckedupness and innocence lost. But the end result is the same—she glamorises it. There's no real exploration of it; no point being made. It's more or less just embraced. In the video to Ride, this extends to what is strongly implied to be prostitution, rather mindlessly reduced to some free and easy part of rolling stone life, with no discernible downsides. In fact, anything tragic or fucked up about Lana Del Rey is given this gloss, like it's all part of this edgy, daring rockstar lifestyle.

It's worth asking, where does Lana Del Rey really tug at the heartstrings—with the tragedy of self-destruction, the dark side of the pristine Hollywood starlet and tales of innocence lost; or with the glamour of that tragedy, co-opted as part of some weird wish-fulfilment fantasy? How much of it is just texture? Hit it with a hammer and maybe you'd get porcelain shards, the same dead expression staring back at you from the fragments. Maybe the Lizzie Grant inside then just walks off and does something else.

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Edit 10.07.14: Reading back on this, the above seems to equate sex work with the tragic or the fucked up, and I take that back. But in the context of everything Del Rey romanticises, I think on some level she makes that equation herself—that it's glamorous or romantic or edgy in the same way that it is to be desperately dependent and infantilised and Lolita-ish in many of her other songs.

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Edit  29.05.15: So, as one more addendum that might relate, here's an essay about Kanye West and solipsism. It's about how solipsistic indulgence can be an artist's rejection of their cultural bounds, pointedly stepping up for their slice of the ego pie. Maybe applies to Del Rey's dark, solipsistic fantasies too?

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