Spinning Through The Smoldering Ashes Of America: Lana Del Rey’s “Lust For Life”

“Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” wonders Lana Del Rey in the startlingly prescient chorus to her song “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” off her new album Lust For Life, which was released this Friday. Lust For Life marks a distinct change in Lana’s nostalgic, melancholic outlook–one that echoes our fraught yet farcical political state. Even though America still plays a large role in her auditory and visual landscape, often an inescapable one in songs like “God Bless America–And All The Beautiful Women In It,” Lana now trains her musical eye outward, on the fall of America.

Previously, I delved into what I termed, with some credit given to Jack Halberstam’s “Gaga feminism,” Lana American exceptionalism. Lana’s aesthetic vision of America has always derived straight from some idealistic midcentury hallucination. The America that is apparently supposed to be great again. Even her fat and hairy bikers in “Ride” gesture to a freedom of the road and “The Edge,” as described by Hunter S. Thompson. Hell’s Angels can be romantic too, despite the undercurrent of violence. Lana, until now, has been seemingly out of time, while thoroughly entrenched in place.

Taking Lust for Life on just the music alone, it sounds like a return to form with more emphasis on contemporary pop and hip-hop beats, reminiscent of her early album Born To Die. Gone are the dreamy, narcotic atmospherics of Ultraviolence and Honeymoon. And yet, rather than proclaiming a new “National Anthem” while dressing up in Camelot drag, Lana here depicts an America that is currently both familiar and terrifying. Looking outside her suffocating auditory landscape of her damaged self and doomed love affairs with bad men, Lana’s American Dream got a rude awakening. Even songs like “God Bless America–And All The Beautiful Women In It” is punctured by gun shot sound effects, a rupture in her narcotic patriotism.

In an interview with Pitchfork on her new release, Lana explained her change in her American romanticization: “It’s certainly uncomfortable. I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now–it didn’t feel weird in 2013.”

This doesn’t mean that our favorite depressive is unrecognizable. The songs continue to mine the sonic and lyrical legacy of the 1960s such as the “doo wop doo wop”’s in the title track “Lust For Life,” a duet with The Weeknd, which are reminiscent of The Shangri-Las and the “wall of sound” groups like The Crystals. And there are still copious one-liner references to nostalgic vintage songs like Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” or Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run.” Not to mention the entire duet “Tomorrow Never Came” with Sean Ono Lennon, which includes multiple mentions of John and Yoko’s love and creative output.

Lana breakdown

Lana doesn’t abandon her chosen musical obsessions either. One just has to listen to her witchy duet with Stevie Nicks “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” to see that the doomed diva act is still intact. There are many references to cherries, darlings and bad relationships underscored by her quintessentially expansive and lush cinematic scores. Songs like “13 Beaches” are filled with “dripping peaches” and references to death. She also lusts over glamorous objects and fame in “White Mustang and “Groupie Love” with A$AP Rocky.

She also thankfully includes some over-the-top moments. My personal favorite visual comes from “In My Feelings”:

“I’m smoking while I’m running on my treadmill
But I’m coming up roses
Could it be that I fell for another loser
I’m crying while I’m cumming
Making love while I’m making good money
Sobbing in my cup of coffee
Because I fell for another loser”

And yet, something’s undeniably different on Lust For Life. Lana, whose music has always seemed to come from a vacuum or a time capsule from 1967, exists now in this era. Maybe America under Donald Trump and the seething unease of the 2016 election, under which Lana wrote the album, finally caught up with Lana’s nihilistic visions.

Art is, inescapably perhaps, a product of its time. Describing the recording of the album, Lana tells Pitchfork: “All the guys in the studio–we didn’t know we were going to start walking in every day and talking about what was going on. We hadn’t ever done that before, but everyday during the election, you’d wake up and some new horrible thing was happening. Korea, with missiles, suddenly being pointed at the western coast.”

The song that most addresses Lana’s fear for the future and in particular her audience is “Coachella–Woodstock In My Mind.” Granted, the title is eye roll-inducing when thinking of just how ridiculous and over-privileged Coachella is, but nevertheless, it still manages to be a throwback to folk protest songs of the 1960s. It has an air of anxiety swirling around bomb threats.

The song begins with Lana swaying to her friend’s husband (Father John Misty) at Coachella before hearing warnings of North Korea bomb threats the next day:

“In the next morning, they put out the warning
Tensions were rising over country lines
I turned off the music, tried to sit and use i
All the love that I saw that night

‘Cause what about all these children
And what about all their parents?
And what about all their crowns they wear in hair so long like mine?
And what about all their wishes wrapped up like garland roses
Round their little heads?
I said a prayer for a third time”

As Lana describes the song when she shared it over social media, “I’m not gonna lie- I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount. I just wanted to share this in hopes that one individual’s hope and prayer for peace might contribute to the possibility of it in the long run.”

Similar to the hope of change, her muted piano ballad “Change” speaks of both bombs and struggling between apathy and motivation:

“There’s something in the wind, I can feel it blowing in
It’s coming in softly on the wings of a bomb
There’s something in the wind, I can feel it blowing in
It’s coming in hotly and it’s coming in strong”

But, even though in “Change,” she concludes “change is a powerful thing,” Lana doesn’t seem to be advocating for marches, taking it to the “streets” or some other tired form of activism. She sees, much like we do here at Filthy Dreams, a power in escapism. Much of Lust for Life sounds like Lana is spinning and twirling in the ashes of the American dream, particularly her song “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing.”

Reflecting on the song in her Pitchfork interview, Lana says, “I was posing a real question to myself: Could this be the end of an era? The fall of Rome?” And she admits she had qualms about putting it on the record: “The tone of the production is very dark, and doesn’t lead to a fucking happy feeling. And the question it poses: Is this the end of America, of an era? Are we running out of time with this person at the helm of a ship? Will it crash? In my mind, the lyrics were a reminder not to shut down or shut off, or just don’t talk about things. It was more like stay vigilant and keep dancing. Stay awake.”

Just like these startling questions, the song is deeply haunting, beginning with the line “Girls, don’t forget your pearls and all of your horses” before she moves into purring various dance moves, reminiscent of Patti Smith’s call to “Do the Watutsi” in “Land”:

“Shake it up, throw your hands up and get loose
Cut a rug, leaning into the fucking youth
Choreo, we just want the fucking truth”

Rather than a joyful romp, though, as it seems by the lyrics, there’s no joy in Lana’s voice or in the slow plod of the song. It’s a call for a nihilistic dance as America’s promise of exceptionalism–a promise she herself has celebrated throughout her oeuvre comes to a–either explosive or whimpering–finale:

“No, it’s only the beginning
If we hold on to hope, we’ll have a happy ending
When the world was at war before
We just kept dancing.”

Sending out this call in a higher register, an implicit reminder that we danced all through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Lana concludes, “And we’ll do it again.” Is Lana’s dancing while the world burns a radical or affective gesture of #resistance? Certainly Nietzsche would think so. A long encourager of the power of dance, Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “You higher men, the worst about you is that all of you have not learned to dance as one must dance–dancing away over yourselves!…Learn to laugh away over yourselves! Lift up your hearts, you good dancers, high, higher! And do not forget good laughter.”

By her celebration of dancing through the chaos, Lust For Life becomes Lana’s protest album–no less of a revolutionary gesture than lame obvious references to the Trump administration. As both the musical world (think Katy Perry’s “Witness”) and the art world have largely bungled any valid response to Trump, Lana shows how it’s done through a pervasive sense of unease, paranoia, apocalyptic dread and a jarring celebratory sense of saying “fuck it” when nothing seems to matter. “It’s like smiling when the firing squad’s against you,” Lana sings in “Cherry.”

Though the record, like all of Lana’s records, is largely dark, there’s a glimpse of light in Lana’s “tar black soul” as she formerly sang in “Off To The Races” on Born To Die. This isn’t to say she’s found happiness, but she’s decided to at least have hope or try to be happy (an important distinction).

A lot has been made of the album cover, which shows Lana with a giant smile slapped on her face in front of a vintage pickup truck with flowers scattered in her long hair. It’s a marked contrast to her pouting, sad-eyed and stone-faced look of the previous album covers. It’s a turn toward positivity, proving that there may be nothing more subversive than deciding to be happy in dark times. It’s reminiscent of a thought from Nick Cave in the documentary One More Time With Feeling. Addressing the tragedy of his son’s death and the overwhelming aftermath of grief, Nick describes his and his wife Susie’s decision to be happy, saying, “It seems like an act of revenge, of defiance, to care for each other and the ones around us.”

Lust For Life places Lana in this same sort of revenge and defiance. In several songs, she reassures the audience like in “Love” (“Don’t worry baby”). In others, there are fleeting moments of hope as in the title track’s “There’s no more night, blue skies forever.”

Blue skies make a significant appearance on the album’s final epic “Get Free,” which marks an existential transition. “Finally, I’m crossing the threshold from the ordinary world,” Lana begins. The chorus comes in, quoting a line from her song “Ride”:

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a war in my mind
I want to get off, but I keep riding the ride
I never really noticed that I had to decide
To play someone’s game or live my own life
And now I do, I wanna move
Out of the black into the blue”

Singing elsewhere that this song is her “modern manifesto,” Lana, in “Get Free” is transforming, walking out from the darkness and into the world. And luckily, she takes us with her.

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