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On singer, songwriter, and poetess Lana Del Rey

“We had nothing to lose, nothing to gain, nothing we desired anymore, except to make our lives into a work of art.”
— Lana Del Rey, Ride

Anyone who has lurked around online dissident corners for any real length of time has probably taken note of the peculiar iconography of the subculture, bits of this and that adapted from the larger pop and internet cultures as a whole. To most outsiders this is all very esoteric and incomprehensible. It’s a vibe, and you either get it or you don’t. But for those of us who get it, it’s powerful. Like when you read Bronze Age Mindset, if you find it indecipherable and don’t see what the fuss is about, you don’t ‘get it’ and you probably never will. Like every thriving subculture, gatekeeping and exclusion are necessary to preserve the vital essence and resist the gravitational forces that would drag it towards the mass culture.

Prominent in the iconography of this community is the singer/songwriter/poetess Lana Del Rey. My own connection with her goes back to 2011. I was crashing on a friend’s couch in NYC and looking for things to do on a weeknight and upon checking the schedules of some of the local live venues I noticed a show happening at the Bowery Ballroom; it turned out to be Lana Del Rey’s debut concert. I still remember the moment she stepped out on stage. She looked like a lounge singer from the ‘60s. It wasn’t just the way she was dressed or the way she styled her hair, the whole vibe was that of a particular type of American woman who had gone extinct. It was an aesthetic that she cultivated throughout her persona, from her stage and music video visuals to her lyrics.

The early 2010s were a particularly dispiriting time to be a young person in America. For the first time, there was a palpable sense that the country was in decline and that the American dream was dead. The idyllic valley cowtown I called home for part of my childhood, where a working man could comfortably raise a big family on a single income, a place with a strong sense community, where teenagers could run wild and have fun, drag racing and skinny dipping, with drugs nowhere to be seen; it all dried up and blew away. Tent cities popped up on the edges of town, largely populated by sex offenders, ex-cons, and other marginalia that blew in. Localities across the mountain west and midwest instead of cutting funding for homeless services began to put them on buses bound west. The drug trade became observable for the first time in living memory. Illegals from Nayarit selling black tar outside the mall, bike gangs fighting with Nuestra Familia over who controlled the meth trade, bodies found in the trunks of burned-out cars in the almond orchards, and so on. America as we knew it a few blissful years earlier, was over. This nostalgia that Lana tapped into included moments of American glory and tragedy that were experienced before my generation came along, but that we glimpsed nonetheless from stories told by our parents and grandparents.

Her Born to Die debut album made heavy use of the imagery of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, a choice that is profound both aesthetically and symbolically. This portrait of Camelot represents America at its zenith, a country that had everything going for it. It was when our cars were most beautiful, our people most attractive, our culture most in bloom, and our economy most able to offer economic opportunity and upward mobility to the working classes.

And one cold November morning, a rifle round shattered that dreamworld.

Setting aside the various theories of culprits and methods, the importance of the Kennedy assassination lies in the way it shattered the American psyche. More and more people began to believe that a secret power behind the throne is really running the show, an (arguably-good) paranoia which lasted to this day. Lana’s early work didn’t just express nostalgia, but also showed how it changes the way we live our lives in the present; how that longing can lead to outbursts of self-destruction and hedonism along with sentimentality. This phenomenon occurred after the JFK assassination, from the Beatles to brightly colored polyesters to LSD and heroin. Then again after the Great Recession, when American communities turned to pain pills, booze, and crank in the wake of collapse. The loss that Lana most deeply mourns in songs like “Ride” is not a decline in material prosperity, but the loss of a way of life that was beautiful and full of possibility:

“I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet. But upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky. That I wished on over and over, sparkling and broken. But I didn’t really mind because I knew that it took getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is. Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people. And finally I 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. Live fast. Die young. Be wild. And have fun. 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.”

“I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet. But upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky. That I wished on over and over, sparkling and broken. But I didn’t really mind because I knew that it took getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is. Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people. And finally I 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. Live fast. Die young. Be wild. And have fun. 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.”

Ride

“I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet. But upon an unfortunate series of events saw those dreams dashed and divided like a million stars in the night sky. That I wished on over and over, sparkling and broken. But I didn’t really mind because I knew that it took getting everything you ever wanted and then losing it to know what true freedom is. Every night I used to pray that I’d find my people. And finally I 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. Live fast. Die young. Be wild. And have fun. 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.”

Ride

Her follow-on albums had a shift in themes, matching America’s own. The economy had stabilized and was finally growing again. The time to mourn was over, the one to build had arrived. But a new disruptive force was growing too: the advent of the smartphone and the new constant connection to artificial reality quickly emerged. With this came apps geared to ‘social purposes’. Arguably, the most disruptive of all was the advent of Tinder. Online dating, which in the computer days practically carried a stigma, was now fully mainstreamed. The sting of loss and rejection diminished by the knowledge that a dozens more ‘matches’ laid just a swipe session away. The classic pickup came to be regarded as creepy and weird. Approaching, or being approached by a stranger is now unusual in many of the big cities, but exchanging nudes from behind a screen is de rigueur.

As all of this roared into reality, the rise of fourth-wave feminism and the archetypal girlboss/bad bitch had led to a purge of more traditionally feminine modes of expression from the mass culture. The fruits of recovery largely accrued to women — the economic impact of the recession lingered for men. Suddenly women were outpacing men, but still naturally wanted one who outranked them in salary and status, which led to an ever-shrinking pool of suitable prospects, who then basically flipped the script on them by becoming selective. Adding fuel to the fire was of course the excesses of #MeToo, which quickly moved beyond the lecherous behavior of fat old men to begin indicting young men for the regrets of the women who willingly slept with them. Its effect on romance was chilling, with men having to worry about even innocuous advances being labeled as sexual harassment, and women suffering the psychological distress of wondering if the latter weren’t flirting with them as much because they were no longer desirable. True passion thus became countercultural, and Lana established herself as the voice of that.

The next year she moved to California. I guess she was drawn there at that time for the same reason that I and so many others were. Los Angeles was a city for hustlers. A city that was growing and looking into a bright future, but at the same time retained a strong sense of itself. A culture that had remained intact through the hard times. It’s gone now, but the LA of the mid-2010s was the promised land for the young and unsettled. You might get an actress’s number while waiting at a crosswalk, slick-talk your way into a production gig that triples your income overnight, cross paths with a mountain lion while walking home from dinner, or find Jesus in the desert with your Buddhist burner friends. Anything could happen — even the opportunity to shoot my shot with Lana. My roommate’s girlfriend was in a sobriety support group with her. I contemplated taking inspiration from the narrator in Fight Club and attending, but my upbringing overrode it. It later turned out that that support group was a cult.

Which brings us to the dark side of the industry. If there’s one thing I became convinced living in LA is that Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was a documentary and the entertainment industry is just MKULTRA implemented on a mass population level. Lana’s 2017 track “Get Free,” features the line: “Finally… Gone is the burden of the Crowley way of being,” as well as “I’m doing it for all of us who never got the chance, For [blank] and for [blank],” but in her live performances the blanks are filled with “Amy” and “Whitney” respectively. Conspiracy theories are one of America’s most enduring forms of popular entertainment, and Lana is the only major pop singer with the guts to artistically reference them. Like, when she included in the original lyrics to “Cola” a line about Harvey Weinstein: “Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds and he’s making me crazy. All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby.” Lana continued further in this vein of conspiracy with last year’s release Chemtrails over the Country Club.

Few singer/songwriters manage to excel at their craft beyond their first couple of albums. In our current situation, after two years of a pandemic that has completely upended life for most people, even fewer artists have managed to turn out work that ‘fits’ the times we’re living in. Lana has done both, producing some of her best work in her past three albums, including what is so far her career masterpiece, the 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, a full realization of the vision and motifs she had been expressing since her debut. Norman Fucking Rockwell is an album written in the afterglow of the ‘20s. The wild party days are behind but still longed for, but so is the maternal longing to nourish a relationship and a family. The Atlantic described it in 2019 as her “obituary for America.” The author of the review was of course right — he just didn’t know why yet. Unknown to him, a rough beast, its hour come round at last, was already slouching towards Wuhan.

I am a believer that all great art comes from the muses. Fewer things are more powerful than a woman who is tapped into her femininity and who hears the voice of her muse. And sometimes the result of this is nothing less than prophecy, as in the case of the track “The Greatest.” Also from Norman Fucking Rockwell, The Greatest is a song about loss. It foreshadowed what was to come, for me and for the whole world. The shutdowns. The death. The riots. The loss of our way of life. It was an epitaph for the world we knew before; the one we will never see again.

But life goes on, strange as the living may be. When all the world is reduced to ruin and ash, I believe that even then there will still be someone out there in the wastelands, tilling the exhausted soil in search of their lost Eden; until the Last Man has returned to dust.

This process of picking up broken fragments and building up life again was the main theme of Lana’s follow-up album. The first single from Chemtrails Over the Country Club — released on the one-year anniversary of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of the first statewide stay-at-home order in the United States — opened with the lines: “I’m ready to leave L.A., and I want you to come.” The album ranged through Lana’s experience of Year One. She left L.A.’s riots and lockdowns to date a cop in Oklahoma, an affair that inspired two of the best tracks of the album: “Tulsa Jesus Freak,” where she sings like a woman who knows it’s on the rocks and doesn’t want to let it go, and “Yosemite,” where the relationship is now in the rearview mirror but appreciated for what it was, a fling that happened for all the right reasons.

Lana also always carried a certain detachment from the ideological expectations of celebrity. Like when she commented on the January 6th protests: “I think, for the people who stormed the Capitol, it’s disassociated rage. They want to wild out somewhere… We don’t know how to find a way to be wild in our world.” This wasn’t an endorsement of the protests, nor a criticism, but the thoughts of someone who wants to understand. In a healthy culture this trait would be widely recognized as a good thing. But of course that’s not the culture we live in. Lana became instead the target of a torrent of online abuse for her comments; for posting of rioters looting on her Instagram page, for being photographed in a mesh face mask that did not meet CDC standards, for not including enough people of color on her album cover, for being a glamorous woman, for not being sufficiently interested in feminism, for being feminine herself. Her reaction was to tune out and immediately work on her next album.

Blue Banisters dropped just six months after Chemtrails, but is a marked change in maturation. It’s the full realization of a woman who has come fully to terms with her inner desire for domesticity. Lana has become a maternal archetype, both in her art and her personal appearance, a radiant vision of fertility. Underpinning this is an anxiety that maybe the domestic life she desires will continue to elude her best efforts to realize it. This manifests lyrically not as desperation — because there is a certain surrender to fate that has already taken place — but a sober and immanent bracing force. She confronts childhood traumas, identifies the BLM protests as a sublimation of personal frustration into a socially acceptable outpouring of catharsis, alludes to the emptiness of the post-Trump era, the challenges of the country, and the frustrations and joys of romance.

“I’ll pray for you. But you’ll need a miracle, America.”

It’s been a decade since that night at the Bower. Through highs and lows, breakups and new romances, whether driving through the mountains of Turkey or sitting on a beach in California, her work has been a major part of the soundtrack of my life and adventures since. Where this connection I feel with her art comes from I can’t say. I guess it exists on a level of feeling which thoughts are a mere shadow of. Perhaps this is the essence and mystical power of true art — the breaking through to glory by the artist who surrenders to the muse.

Benjamin Braddock is an American writer and a Senior Editor of IM—1776.

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