This week, narcotic songstress Lana Del Rey, a Lynchian romantic favorite here at Filthy Dreams, released a dramatic trailer to announce her new album Lust For Life. In the black and white video, Lana, with doe-like eyes and big hair, purrs about cooking up new songs for “the kids” as telephones, moons and other objects float around her dreamy abode in the H of the Hollywood sign.
Lana assures us that it’ll all be ok “when the world is in the middle of such a tumultuous period.” Lana later croons, “Even though these times can feel a little bit crazy, they’re not so very different from what other generations have experienced at one time or another before” as a shot of a mangled Mount Rushmore appears onscreen before Lady Liberty’s flame is snuffed out. Uplifting as always, Lana.
Not only just announcing her album, Lana, with her references to our “transition out of one era and into another,” also announces herself as the de facto chanteuse of the Trump era. To be fair, this shouldn’t be so much of a surprise as Lana’s entire career has been made out of longing for an era of American history that never really seemed to have existed. Let’s be honest, Lana wanted to Make America Great Again way before Trump and his deplorable red hat-wearing minions. He’s just a hanger on.
The Many Stars and Stripes of Lana
The question I’ve always had for the Trump voters is: what “great” era exactly do you want to go back to? Lana presents a similar conundrum. “I believe in the country America used to be. I believe in the person I want to become. I believe in the freedom of the open road. And my motto is the same as ever, “I believe in the kindness of strangers.’,” purrs Lana at the end of “Ride.”
Cognitive dissonance has always been visible in Lana’s elastic aesthetic and personae. Is Lana the flag-draped hooker in a Budweiser T-shirt, wandering through truck stop parking lots, looking for bikers to bend her over a pool table as she sleepily rolls her eyes and smokes a Parliament? Or is she the Jackie Kennedy knock-off in “National Anthem,” with giant nails and pearls? Or is she the white-adorned cult member drinking Kool-Aid and taking acid with a Charles Manson figure, played by Father John Misty, in “Freak”? Or is she, as she seems to be now in the trailer for Lust for Life and her new video “Love,” Lana the Good Witch? Or is she just, in fact, Elizabeth Grant, Daddy’s girl?
All through her oeuvre, though, Lana likes bad men, flower crowns, giant hair and, well, America. Lana is the embodied representation of fireworks, the forth of July, cherry pies and a pussy that tastes like Pepsi cola, all wrapped up in blue jeans and a white shirt. But, how do we understand this unstable identity that seems to be just a random collection of American ideals?
In 2014, in time for the release of Lana’s second album Ultraviolence, New Inquiry released a supplement entitled Ms. America that focused entirely on Lana’s unique and sometimes problematic aesthetic. In her essay “Full-Time Daughter,” Hannah Black observes, “Ostensibly, she gives white America what it wants–an image of itself as lethal but beautiful, guilty but forgiven, an image of violence as indistinguishable from romance.”
Lana American Exceptionalism
In their book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal, Jack Halberstam uses Lady Gaga’s particular form of feminism as a jumping off point, defining “Gaga Feminism” as “a political expression that masquerades as naïve nonsense, but actually participates in big and meaningful forms of critique. It finds inspiration in the silly and the marginal, the childish and the outlandish” (22).
If Jack can look to Gaga as the prime example of a new current form of feminism, than I can employ Lana as symbolic of the nearly suicidal, nostalgic impulse of our times now. Lana American exceptionalism has everything to do with fantasy and, well, very little with reality. And instead of hearing that the fantasy isn’t real, we double down and voted for a reality TV star.
The best example of Lana American exceptionalism is on view in her exhausting, hallucinatory 27-minute long Tropico, which narrates the fall from Eden. The video opens with Lana, dressed as Eve (interspersed with images of Lana as the Virgin Mary, praying to John Wayne). Rather than a paradise of just her and Adam, though, she has some buddies, namely stereotypical American icons John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Jesus. “I’ll teach you how to be cowboys,” says Wayne as Monroe thrusts her breasts forward and breathily says, “Sex is a part of nature and I go along with nature.”
Instead of realistic interpretations of these classic figures of Americana, they are over-the-top, kitschy impersonations. And sometimes, not very good ones, in the case of the Elvis impersonator as he wildly gyrates and waves his arms. It’s a camp version of America’s founding, a fake fantasy worthy of Spirit Halloween stores. It’s all style, no substance–America the void.
“Elvis is my daddy, Marilyn’s my mother, Jesus is my bestest friend,” she sings in “Body Electric,” itself a quote from American poet Walt Whitman. Eventually, Lana bites into the cursed apple and falls from grace, landing on a stripper pole, illustrating the failure of even the fake American dream.
But, this almost drag Americana isn’t only limited to Tropico. Even in her cover of “Blue Velvet,” she appears to be doing a take on Isabella Rossellini’s version in Lynch’s film rather than Bobby Vinton’s original. Simply put, Lana’s Americana is a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy–it’s full of bibles and guns, as well as the promise of money, power and glory. And it’s all entirely fake.
Make America Fake Again
“Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people and I finally did on the open road. We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore except to make our lives into a work of art,” says Lana in “Ride.”
Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s, in the introduction for the New Inquiry’s Ms. America, writes, “Lana Del Rey gives us patriotism we can act out. Hers isn’t a love song to America; it’s a how-to manual… But to revel, even for a moment, in that America is to betray the one we live in. Lana Del Rey offers an alternative. She isn’t just for those who can’t tell whether it’s patriotism or Stockholm syndrome; she’s for those who don’t care about the difference.”
And Siddiqi is right. Throughout her music, there seem to be three consistent themes: money, freedom and daddy (ok, love too, but that’s wrapped up in all three). With her frequent invocations of “Daddy” (As seen in this YouTube video, which collects them all), Lana shows a reliance on the trope of the great man–a thoroughly American impulse that just might have got Trump elected (Milo Yiannopoulos famously calls Trump “Daddy”). Lana’s call in “American” to be “young, dope and proud” was one that was answered by a generation of Trumpers.
And like the fantasy of Trump, Lana offers a soothing opioid balm for the opioid epidemic. But, Lana’s superficial version of American exceptionalism comes a hidden critique.
Perhaps her fluid form of American aesthetics and identity, which all, in their manner, are nostalgic for a certain period of 1950s and 1960s Americana, is what makes Lana so detestable to many listeners (well, that and her anti-feminist statements). But, I’d wager that in her fakeness, she dismantles the idea of American identity as fixed. Unlike Trump and his goofball minions, Lana’s fake, depressive excess exposes a layer of vacuity and emptiness in the American dream.
Take the beginning of her video “Ride.” Lana sits on a tire swing, wind whipping through her long hair, somewhere in a Southwestern desert. While beautiful and undeniably nostalgic, you have to wonder…what the fuck is that swing attached to? The sky? Like Lana’s tire swing to nowhere, it’s all image and very little security.
Like her tire swing (and voting for Trump), Lana’s music represents a jump into the void, throwing ourselves entirely into a yearning for a past that never was and never will be. Red, white blue might be in the sky, but it’s unreachable–ever impossible and quickly fading.