Still from Looney Tunes “The CooCoo Nut Groove”
Subhead: Bad taste, melodrama, and identification with the uncool
Review by Athena Bryan
Despite all of her muted beats, lounge-singer-on-methadone voice, and warbling of the word “blue” every ten minutes on Honeymoon, her most recent album released this September, there is quite possibly nothing as uncool as Lana del Rey. She is well-known enough to not be niche, but not ubiquitous enough to be taken for a given. She evades the category of guilty pleasure and her trash-pop sensibility becomes cooler the more boldly you declare an unlikely allegiance to it. Most of all, she takes herself too seriously. Nothing less cool than that. Well, there is one thing less cool: writing about her.
You could look at an essay on Lana del Rey as an exercise in showing your hand, revealing how profoundly uncool your taste is. Hi it’s nice to meet you, I’m going to write about music; in the future I’m going to probably stud my writing with references that feel like a shibboleth for you who are cool enough to understand it. But instead of trying to start by establishing my credentials I’m going to write a long effusive essay on Lana del Rey. This is me, humbling myself before you.
Loving Lana del Rey is a strange experience, nothing like the love you feel for the real (legitimate, serious!) artists that you will publicly admit to. She grows on you like a headache from too much perfume—and you find her hollowing out a little part of your affection because she is a distillation of some deeply buried part of your personality that you have been trying dismiss as some sort of construct or false consciousness. No, you don’t want to admit that you’re not a cool girl, and that you sing along when she goes “You are my one true love. You are my one true loooove”. You’re more evolved than this, you think, and you are disturbed that you are attracted to something so garishly, embarrassingly feminine.
You start by guiltily admitting it after a couple drinks with someone you trust. You grin coyly and slip into the conversation—not too strongly—that you like her. Or maybe just one song, and then once you’ve gauged the reaction, you fess up to more. This is all fine, but then one day, you’ll find that instead of revealing it as a surprising incongruity of your otherwise gritty taste in music, you have started leading with it. You find yourself saying things like, “Sometimes I just google image her, and look at pictures of her face.” You find yourself inserting her name into conversation, maybe just because you like the way in rolls of your tongue..
You think, “Maybe there’s a think-piece to be had here?” After all, can’t the think piece absolve us of all our worst habits? Can’t you write something about the male gaze? Something about old Hollywood icons and the cinematic quality of her music? There might be something here, but in order to bring this out, you have to go and admit that you have gone through her old videos (meaning old—back when she still went by Lizzie Grant and hadn’t done her lips yet).
What have we got here? Interspliced footage of Elvis kissing fans, Nosferatu, the Coney Island mermaid festival, someone’s coronation, and Lana in long white eyelashes and a dirty t-shirt, fanning herself and pouting into the lens. Her footage clearly comes from a webcam. She appears to be in a motel room, or maybe a mobile home, positioning a webcam at various awkward angles. She looks at the viewer, but the footage is spliced so that she seems to be interacting with a film character.
One of the YouTube commenters put it best: “this reminds me so much of what i do when i'm home alone lol she's the best <3” Everything about this comment perfectly encapsulates the psychology of the Lana fan. The lack of punctuation breathlessly connects the two elements into a single thought: this-is-exactly-like-me-I-love-her. There is no space between identification and adoration. It caps off with a heart emoticon, girlishly adoring and saccharine on top of a sort of depressing admission that you are part of a subpopulation that sits around, pouts, and integrates yourself into media instead of integrating with the rest of the world.
And mind you, this is not the sort of media integration that us millennials are so hyped up to be capable of, that vaunted skill of “social media” ( which we are assured is somehow useful on the job market even though literally every millennial has it, thus devaluing it, right?*1) This is a sort of retro quality of Lana del Rey that has nothing to do with her invocations of Jim Morrison and beehive-cat-eye aesthetic. She seems charmingly unaware of how to navigate current linguistic ticks or any sort of grasp on how to use an Instagram account. You cringe every time she sings “dope”, and double over in pain when she starts calling someone “ghetto”. She posts selfies on her Instagram for christsake.
Reasons like this are why we can’t retire the term “basic” yet.
I know a girl who is on her own journey of sheepishly confiding her love for Lana. She laughs and goes, “Someone once described her to me as that girl in your philosophy class…” then trails off. I think I know what she means. Lana’s that girl who raises her hand confidently and heavily articulates something that is totally self-evident, and everyone sort of spaces out for the ten seconds that she speaks and then the rest of the discussion resumes as soon as she’s done*2.
What can we say about Lana’s reading of Lolita... Or Lana using the beat poets to prove that she’s literary? Lana quoting the most obvious David Bowie line possible. She’s not into obscure Bowie like cool girls, nor does she seem tapped into anything beyond a high school lit curriculum. She reads from Howl in her long music-video “Tropico” (no, I will not call it a ‘film’...) and recites T.S. Eliot on her new album. Please, Lana. Arcade Fire was inspired by Kierkegaard for Reflektor. And Arcade Fire isn’t even cool anymore.
So how do you defend Lana? There’s the obvious stance. “Because it is Lana who is doing it, and I love Lana, then what Lana does cannot be bad.” This one is infallible. It can also go, “Lana del Rey is a goddess, and goddesses don’t have to be good at literary criticism.” Also a pretty solid defense.
But let me show my hand here, stop hedging, stop the sarcastic jokes and admit that right now, I am trying to write a think piece about Lana del Rey. I even stopped using the second person. This is me here, writing this.
Here’s the thing: Lana del Rey is not really stupid so much as she possesses every quality that can be grouped around the word feminine that you secretly think you are above. She is an over-dramatic, over-enunciated heap of affectation whose narration of her life seems to have little to do with reality. Early in her career, this was mistaken for the falsified persona springing from the corporate music industry. But this isn’t right. Lana doesn’t lie like big business. She lies like a little girl.
People accuse her melodramatic posturing of being an act. And I say, of course it’s an act—all melodramatic posturing is an act. But she’s posturing in exactly the most genuine and embarrassing way that one does such a thing. She isn’t about some sort of approach to the honest, raw truth. But she is completely truthful in the ways we lie about ourselves to ourselves, and turn our lives into something that has a sultry soundtrack and soft-focus cinematography.
Critics seem to think that her new album is the most representative of her as an artist yet. And I can agree with this insofar as it is the most redolent of demonstrative moments of huffy, attention-seeking misery. On “God Knows I Tried”—I mean, let me stop here and just say the title alone says it all. “I’ve got nothing much to live for ever since I found my fame,” she moans, and the world rolls its eyes. Unflinchingly it mounts a peak of self-pity of unrelenting and unmeasured lamentations. Lana is not one for subtlety.
But by the time the album has reached its emotional climax, and “Blackest Day” buzzes slowly into life, you’ve lost all perspective and the bridge throws you into ecstasy: “Looking for love / in all the wrong places / Oh my god.” Nothing she says is especially interesting *3. In fact, writing out her lines in praise is a uniquely demeaning act. “I’m on my own again.” That’s a good one. “Say you love me too.” That one really got me. Yet when they hit, it’s dead-on *4. Not because they are especially true, but because you like the way you would sound saying them. Because you can enjoy the same fantasy as she does: standing there with cigarette smoke surrounding your pin-curled hair, saying “Ooh baby, ooh baby, I’m in love.”
Not that you’d admit it to anyone.
1. Which is why I decided to expressly NOT develop any social media skills, differentiating me from my peer group and making me a more valuable candidate for your job opening. No? You think it won’t work?
2. Pretty sure this isn’t me. I think people are silent after I speak because they’re FLOORED. I’m expecting silence after this essay because people are agreeing so hardily, they can’t even express it.
3. Highlights of especially painful lyrical moments: “You fit me better than my favorite sweater.” “Ladadada ladadada soft ice cream.”
4. Being bereft of social media, I can’t figure out how to announce the overwhelming resonance I experience every time she crescendos through the line “Come and take a walk on the wild side / Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain / You like your girls insane?” Sneak it into my LinkedIn profile? Forehead tattoo? Side note: all jokes aside, we now have a pretty good idea why my self-imposed embargo of social media is necessary, don’t we.