The Dissection of Lana Del Rey
“I like you a lot / So I do what you want” are the opening lines of “Music To Watch Boys To,” the second track on Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon. The album, Del Rey’s fourth full-length and third major-label release, was released in September of this year and features many of the hallmarks of the indie-pop star’s musical style. Themes of bitterness, sadness, violence, self-destruction, lust, and, of course, love are woven both throughout the album and her entire body of work thus far, tying it all together in a cohesive, if not redundant, package.
Lana Del Rey was born in New York City as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur father. She spent her childhood in Lake Placid and, at the age of 15, was sent to a prestigious private school in Connecticut after struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. Upon graduating high school, Grant took a year off to live with her aunt and uncle in Long Island before moving back to New York City to study philosophy at Fordham University. While in college, Grant began writing music and singing in nightclubs and bars throughout the city, first using her real name, then adopting several stage-names. After a number of failed record deals and single releases that were met with little public attention, Grant started performing under the name Lana Del Rey, which she chose because of the glamour and mystery that it evoked. She put out the music video for “Video Games,” a song with the dramatic and moody style she is now known for, in October 2011. Del Rey signed a record deal with Interscope the following month.
Since the release of her major-label debut Born to Die in 2012, Del Rey has attracted both vitriolic criticism and fanatic adoration. Her core fanbase, comprised mostly of teenage girls, is devoted, selling out concerts within a matter of seconds, and unconditionally supportive; upon seconds of publishing a tweet, Del Rey will receive thousands of responses from gushing fans that lovingly call her “QUEEN” and “MOM.” She has also been ripped apart by many music and cultural critics, who have labeled her as everything from untalented to unmemorable, as The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica stated in a scathing review of Born to Die. She has been accused of aestheticizing and glamorizing depression, a condition that, it has been speculated, she suffers from personally. Her “disastrous” performance on SNL in 2012, during which she did nothing more egregious than miss a few notes and awkwardly shuffle around the stage, was extensively ridiculed and spawned countless parodies, memes, and an SNL skit of its own (most of these critiques of her performance failed to mention her long-time struggle with anxiety and panic attacks). Del Rey has often been called “anti-feminist,” an insult lobbed at her long before she explicitly identified herself as such. In a 2014 interview with James Franco, published in The Fader, Del Rey said that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept to me… Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.” Del Rey was widely condemned for this comment, with many people pointing out that she is white, thin, cisgender, rich, and conventionally beautiful, one of the only types of women that can afford to not care about feminism yet still endlessly benefit from it.
Feminist critics also turned to Del Rey’s music to support their denunciation of her, claiming that she constantly enacts tropes of femininity that feminism has long worked to dismantle. In “Music To Watch Boys To,” for example, Del Rey assumes the role of the lovesick damsel-in-distress who happily bends to the every whim of the man she desperately longs for. She is submissive and servient, malleable under his palms, ready to do and be whatever he wants of her. We’ve seen her slip into this character in many of her previous releases. In “Off to the Races,” a track off Born to Die, she describes a relationship with a rich, much older lover. Their romance is parasitic, implied by the many references to the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita. The song’s hook features the lyric “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” the opening line of the novel. This older man — a bad, tough thief, according to Del Rey’s own language — takes advantage of her, and constantly surveils her, watching her “in the glass room, bathroom, Chateau Marmont / Slippin’ on my red dress, puttin’ on my makeup.” This gaze is different than the one Del Rey herself employs in “Music To Watch Boys To.” While in that song her watching is more passive, full of desperation and longing for men that she can’t have unless she adapts to their desires, in “Off to the Races,” the act of watching is dissecting and objectifying. Still, though her romance with her “old man” is volatile, Del Rey is completely devoted to and dependent on it. At the end of the song, she boldly proclaims that she is “not afraid to say that I’d die without him,” characterizing herself as a woman who is not just unable to live without male attention, but who is also willing to admit to it, who is seemingly proud of it.
The feminist backlash to Del Rey and her music, though aggressive, does seem justified in part. Her public rejection of feminism can definitely have harmful effects if people take her words to heart. Her lyrics, when read literally, have the potential to be regressive. This is especially true when considering that her core group of fans consists of impressionable teenage girls who may be enticed by the shiny veneer of glamor she coats her world of depression, addiction, and toxic relationships with. Del Rey’s performance of gender is not one that should be widely followed as a model of femininity, but, then again, she is not presenting it as such. While her public persona may mirror aspects of her lived experience and reflect the feelings of loneliness and sadness that her young female fans may share, it is also very clearly just that — a persona, a character that she slips into along with her red party dresses and heart-shaped sunglasses.
Del Rey constructs a lavish fantasy world around her public persona, one that her listeners, and she herself, can retreat into to hide from the outside world. Her work is highly cinematic and provides the same sense of escape that film does. Her songs, with their grand sweeping choruses, sound like soundtracks to blockbusters. Her glitzy music videos, which are often overlaid with sepia or black-and-white filters, evoke nostalgia for Old Hollywood. Her lyrics even borrow from cliché movie plotlines, the characters in her songs often kissing in the rain or running away to explore the vast landscapes of the American Midwest together. Though sometimes trite and overdone, her lyrics still have an air of truth in them. She writes about real, albeit heavily exaggerated, female feelings of longing and dissatisfaction, giving voice to the authentic by being as shamelessly and dramatically inauthentic as possible. While Del Rey’s world is, on the surface, glamorous and appealing, it is also ultimately uninhabitable. She makes it clear that the pretty fantasies she writes of are just that, and that they have ugly repercussions if played out in real life. Her love stories are tumultuous and tragic, her heroines helpless and doomed, often suffering through not-so-happy endings.
Take, for instance, the 2013 video for her song “Blue Jeans.” The video features Del Rey lounging poolside with her lover, a heavily tattooed “bad boy.” We see them playfully and intimately splash around in the glittery, luxurious-looking water together. As the song’s bridge — with emotional, pleading lyrics like “but when you walked out the door, a piece of me died” — rolls around, things suddenly turn violent when he wraps his hand around her throat and pushes her underwater. The video then cuts to Del Rey’s lover holding her lifeless body above the pool’s surface, gently stroking her face before pulling them both under again. Rather than romanticizing abusive relationships, here Del Rey is explicitly pointing to their effects, highlighting how dangerous it is to be so dependent on another person. She does this without condemning or patronizing the women that fall in love with these “bad boys;” she instead investigates and represents the mindset that enables it to happen.
Del Rey’s willingness to explore and embody female darkness and “weakness” is part of what makes her so appealing to her young female fans. She makes audible the feelings that women, especially young girls, are ridiculed for having and silenced in expressing. She validates their thoughts of inadequacy and depression, telling them that it is okay to have these thoughts, but still issues a warning of how lethal it can be when they consume you. Her openness to embracing the dark side is also what makes Del Rey so susceptible to unrelenting criticism. In a culture where women are expected to be polite, smiling, and accommodating at all times, and are made to repress their emotions in order to be taken seriously, Del Rey’s sadness can be seen as excessive, her longing as desperate and embarrassing.
It is interesting to note that male musicians are hardly ever attacked for the same qualities that Del Rey is crucified for. After all, she writes with the sense of melodrama and melancholy that can found in the lyrics of Morrissey from The Smiths. She shares the same penchant for drugs, alcohol, and self-destruction as many of her male contemporaries such as The Weeknd. Her adoption of a stage persona is an industry move that many artists before her have used, such as David Bowie with his Ziggy Stardust character. Countless male artists have employed the sexist trope of the submissive, weak-willed woman that Del Rey embodies in her work. None of these musicians receive even a fraction of the hate that is constantly flung at Del Rey; they are instead met with widespread adoration and acclaim. The discrepancy between the critical reception of these male artists and Del Rey reveals that the problem is not with being sad, self-indulgent, inauthentic, or even “anti-feminist.” The problem is that Lana Del Rey, a female, is these things, and in a society that is extremely invested in policing the way that femininity is enacted, this will be noticed and harshly punished. Many of Lana Del Rey’s critics are so concerned with how she portrays “problematic” tropes of femininity that they forget how and why these tropes were created in the first place.