“Is that true?” | BORN TO DIE, PT. 3A


Section one of part three of a three-part series on artistic intent and experiential criticism.  See part one and part two. 

Imagine that it’s the summer of 2011 and that you’re a semi-educated young person who is interested in popular music.  Like most semi-educated young people, you are opposed to several things: cultural appropriation, conservative gender politics, inauthenticity.  You’re okay with them ironically, but even that’s starting to toe the line.  Even worse than irony, though, is this nauseating faux-60s nostalgia thing that’s been going on for the past ten years or so.  You like “Mad Men” and you were into Amy Winehouse in middle school, but you’ve had enough.  Your semi-education has led you to realize that the romanticizing of mid-century culture and ethics is the epitome of everything you’re against: it’s fake, it’s anti-progressive, it celebrates an era that thrived on the exploitation of black artists.  You’re over it, your friends are over it, even the kids you always ignore who take up space at parties are over it.

Because you are the person you hypothetically are, you are a regular reader of Pitchfork, and one day you check the new music section and notice a track by a young women who goes by the name of “Lana Del Rey.”  The song is called “Video Games,” and the accompanying video features a girl with giant lips mugging into a webcam spliced with relatively generic scenes of mid-century Hollywood glamor.  The song itself is a Henry Mancini-style torch ballad with Phil Spector production and way too many strings.  It’s centered around the awkward line “Go play a video game” and seems to celebrate a co-dependent relationship.  Somewhere in the description is an allusion to “Lolita lost in the hood.”  You are not into this and move on to your daily reading of Jezebel.

In the next couple months you start to notice Lana Del Rey cropping up in conversation.  It’s usually accompanied by a sense of derision or overplayed self-awareness.  Everyone is uncomfortable saying that name – how are you about to take a stupid name like that seriously?  She has another song or two, but no one likes them.  No one likes any of it.  She’s dumb and Pitchfork sucks now.

Something is happening, though – Lana is making it into the national mindset.  “Video Games” is getting hits and seems to be generating a legitimate amount of buzz.  Weird news is coming out about Lana’s biography: she used to be named Lizzie Grant and already has two or three albums; she once lived in a trailer park even though her father is a millionaire, she might be college educated; she might have fake lips.  Some blogs are upset about her use of hip hop imagery; more are up in arms about her perceived anti-feminism.  Everyone is universally uncomfortable with her complete lack of authenticity.  We all know that the public images of popular artists aren’t real, but Lana Del Rey is particularly Not Real.  And her particular Not Real image – half urban bad girl, half ’60s glamor, all submissive – is particularly Offensive.  No worries that Beyonce is putting out songs about “showing him how you ride it” while switching between Audrey Hepburn and Jennifer Beals costumes – Lana is the death of American culture.  She is actively anti-progressive.  She is oblivious to everything we have struggled for half a century to overcome.  She is everything that you are supposed to hate.

But there’s a problem: for some reason, you sort of don’t hate her.  It’s getting toward the Holiday season, you’re feeling oddly emotional, you find yourself accidentally clicking on the “Video Games” link about once every day.  You hate this song because well you don’t even have to explain yourself it’s obvious.  But there’s something about that video.  You relate to it.  Not actually – you aren’t a submissive fake Ronnette who likes getting beat up by her boyfriend – but still.  You’ve listened to “Video Games” over 70 times and “Blue Jeans” is quickly catching up in your Most Played list.  You follow Hipster Runoff’s “Lana Del Reyport” but only find it 50% funny.  You hear that Lana is going to perform on “SNL” and you actually stay in to watch it.

Of course she tanks.  She looks awkward and sings flat.  Brian Williams calls it “one of the worst outings in Saturday Night Live history.”  Hipster Runoff goes into a panic.  There hasn’t been a bigger Twitter backlash since Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  You breathe a sigh of relief.  Lana Del Rey sucks.  The world’s been had and you were just along for the ride.  This will all go away.  Everything is okay.

“Born To Die” comes out two weeks later.  It debuts at number two and goes Gold in less than a month.  Lana goes on to release six high profile music videos in 2012 and spends her time on the cover of mass market fashion magazines and centerpiece blog entries.  One day you see her twenty-foot face plastered across a wall on your way to work and you don’t even blink.  It makes no sense but you never question it.  Lana Del Rey has forced her way into the American pop music A-list despite the fact that no one ever liked her.

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No one likes Lana Del Rey.  This is a bad way to start a theoretical argument, but I think that it’s important to lay it out there.  Pop stars are stars because we like them, and general consensus on Lana Del Rey is that she is is, for the most part, unlikable.  It’s essentially impossible to critically support that sort of statement, but considering that a majority of the conversation around Lana has been focused on her inauthenticity, her antifeminism, and her weakness as a performer, I think it’s safe to say that, as popular music figures go, Lana Del Rey is particularly unpopular.

This opinion doesn’t seem to correspond to sales – Lana has a number two record, a number six single, a armful of magazine covers, an advertising deal with H&M, and a heavily viewed Vevo channel.  Someone clearly likes her – or at least, someone is clearly willing to pay money to sustain her public existence.  Perhaps reality demands an addendum to my initial statement – I don’t like Lana Del Rey.  And, as a fairly representative member of a major music-consuming and criticism-creating demographic, I think I can expand that statement to say – people like me don’t like Lana Del Rey.  By people like me, I mean people who listen to a lot of popular music and respond to it through a highly critical, often theoretical lens.  People who read and write music blogs, who care about authenticity and feminism, who loathingly sustain the existence of Spin and Rolling Stone, who actually buy CDs – we don’t like Lana Del Rey.  And yet, here we are, two and a half years since the release of “Video Games,” still talking about her.  Something happened.  Either we secretly like Lana Del Rey, or we particularly Do Not Like her.  Something is happening and it is imperative that we figure out what it is.

In her highly negative and relatively insightful review of “Born To Die,” Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz explicates the case against Lana:

The album’s point of view – if you could call it that – feels awkward and out of date.  Whether you take a line like “Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows that it’s a fact / Kiss kiss” with a 10-carat grain of salt is up to you, but even as a jab at the chihuahua-in-Paris-Hilton’s-handbag lifestyle, it feels limp and pointless…Del Rey’s gem-encrusted dreamworld, meanwhile, relies on clichés (“God you’re so handsome/ Take me to the Hamptons”) rather than specific evocations. It’s a fantasy world that makes you long for reality…the sexual politics of Born to Die are troubling too: you’d be hard-pressed to find any song on which Del Rey reveals an interiority or figures herself as anything more complex than an ice-cream-cone-licking object of male desire…Even when Del Rey offers something that could be read as a critique (“This is what makes us girls / We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first”), she asks that we make no effort to change, escape, or transcend the way things are (“Don’t cry about it / Don’t cry about it”).

Zoladz’s review hits what should be the last nail in the coffin that is Lana Del Rey’s career on the head.   No matter what angle you chose to spin her, Lana is an offensive figure.  If she’s trying to be ironic, she’s coming off dated.  If she’s trying to be serious, she’s a serious problem.  If she’s just trying to have some nihilistic fun, she’s putting on an awfully boring party.

What Zoladz overlooks, though, is that everything she says in her review is, for the most part, obvious.  Zoladz isn’t alone in this regard: perhaps the uniting feature of nearly all critical analyses of Lana Del Rey’s career is that they conclude with an anticlimactic no-brainer.  Lana is obviously anti-feminist, she is obviously inauthentic, she is obviously boring, self-indulgent, and funny-looking.  But any review that comes to this sort of conclusion is missing a major part of the conversation – that is, why we ever paid any attention to her in the first place.  It’s no mystery that Lana is the death of Western civilization – it’s a mystery why Western civilization turned the other cheek for it’s last fatal blow.  Lana Del Rey has spent the last three years producing boring, offensive, uncomfortably inauthentic music, and the music world, indie and mainstream alike, has been quietly buying it up.  For whatever reason, Lana is not just another forgettable vamp with cat-eye make-up.  Something else is happening that has gone so far critically unaddressed; there’s something about Lana Del Rey’s project that makes her, to quote another Pitchfork writer (the always humble Ian Cohen), not “unworthy of our attention.”

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Cohen was writing about “Video Games” when he said that, and it seems appropriate to turn to “Video Games” in order to answer our questions.  “Video Games” is the song that introduced most of the world to Lana Del Rey and an analysis of the critical and emotional experience of that song will help us to understand what exactly Lana has done to us.  “Video Games” is primarily experienced as a music video, and it is therefore important to look at as an intersection between music, lyrics, and visuals.  All three work off of each other to create the “Video Games” experience, and our initial experience of Lana is tied to their interaction.

Musically, “Video Games” is a relatively straightforward verse-chorus ballad with several theoretical twists.  Primarily in E minor, “Video Games” plays between major and minor chords to create a particularly wistful mood despite its overwhelming melancholia.  It opens with introductory church bell tolls that quickly fade into the song’s introductory piano riff.  Accompanied by occasional string flourishes, the isolated piano alternates between an E minor and G Major chord, evening out to a minor E7.  The hint of a major turn is always around the corner but never quite arrives.  The string accompaniment overwhelms the piano and the chorus begins, changing to the key of C that doesn’t overcome its minor E iii and refuses to sink into it’s major-key glory until the G major V chord that makes up the theoretical climax of the song.  It remains mostly major for the last phrase of the chorus before falling back to the verse’s opening riff.  The string flourishes complicate themselves over the course of the second verse before returning in full bloom for the second chorus, this time accompanied by ominous march drums.  The song continues its crescendo to a gushing third repetition of the chorus before settling back into the E7 piano progression of the start, this time barren and entirely unaccompanied.  TL;dr: “Video Games” is structured around a major/minor interplay that is only briefly resolved around the halfway point of the chorus before returning to unhappy E7 ambiguity.  The instrumentation begins with a hint of liturgical transcendence, works itself into unbounded string-section emotionalism, and ends in the personal solipsism of solo piano.  It’s a grasp at Major warmth that cannot escape its cold underlying minor.

This is a relatively straightforward emotional journey without lyrics.  Words, though, tend to complicate things, and they are more than happy to fulfill that role in “Video Games.”  One first encounters “Video Games” as a generically nostalgic monologue that neatly accompany it’s intentionally dated instrumentation. “Swinging in the back yard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name” – for a second the listener leaves the modern world and imagines a James-Dean-and-Natalie-Woods-ish ’50s teenage idyll.  Lana immediately ruins the scene with the second line: “Open up a beer and say, ‘get over here,’ and play a video game.”  The romance seems a little bit less nice and a lot less nostalgic; instead of sticking within obvious temporal restraints, Lana awkwardly forces in an anachronistic line about a very modern romance.  The verses teeter between these two poles for the rest of the verse – “In his favorite sundress,” “lean in for a big kiss” next to “I say, ‘you the bestest’,” “take your body downtown.”  Whenever the scene begins to feel modern, an uncomfortably artificial sense of nostalgia gets tossed into the mix; whenever the nostalgia begins to set a believable scene, modernity raises its awkward head.  The described relationship spirals between healthy, overly romanticized and downright abusive.  It never quite works, and the un-poetry of “go play a video game” always steps in to keep it that way.

Then the chorus kicks in, and everything changes.  It begins with the simple repeated phrase, “It’s you, it’s you.”  Everything hinges on those two words.    They hold remarkable power  – they are words every single person in the world who has ever loved anything can relate to, and they are words everyone who has ever wanted to be wanted by anything else longs to hear.  They are so ambiguous, but so immediately personal.  The ambiguous third person neuter is imbued by whatever objective role the listener longs to have filled; the ambiguous second person is filled by whatever entity the listener longs to address.  The similarly ambiguous contracted “is” forces both the role and the entity that fills it into contact with the implied first-person speaker and implies an undefinable relationship between the listener and the desired entity.  “It is you.”  “It” means nothing, “is” means nothing, “you” means nothing, but everyone who hears “It is you” or speaks “It is you” knows exactly what each meaningless word means.  “It’s you” is the simplest and truest declaration of love.

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When Lana sings that, sadly and longingly, backed by instrumentation and chord progressions that already have the listener feeling sappy and vulnerable, the listener has no choice but to know exactly what she means.  He gets where she’s coming from; he feels the exact same way.  If he’s in love, he feels woozy.  If he isn’t in love, he wants to be just so he can have the experience of filling that ambiguous void.  Suddenly, he and Lana are on the exact same page.  When she follows it with “it’s all for you, everything I do,” he keeps on relating.  He wants to give everything for whatever “you” “it” “is.”  Because that’s what automatically filling in an “it’s you” is – it’s yearning for that void so wholly that one has no choice but to give the world for its existence.  What is “all?”  What is “everything?”  It doesn’t matter.  Because whatever it is, “it’s” “for” “you.”

Things get absurd after that, but the gushing affect of the first line hasn’t worn off.  “Heaven is a place on earth with you” – okay.  Then things get problematic – “tell me all the things you want to do.”  But still.  Then, right as the chords work themselves into their G Major climax, they turn absolutely pathetic – “I heard that you like the bad girls, honey – is that true?”  The listener wants to scoff and turn against a horrifying line like that, but he can’t.  The warmth of the chord’s resolution is irresistible.  He’s on the same page as Lana now.  He understands where she’s coming from.  For a second, before he’s gotten himself comported to modes of decent sexuality, he feels what she’s saying.  He gets what it’s like to be absolutely in love, and he understands that sometimes, for some people, being absolutely in love means submitting oneself to the antifeminist sexual desires of an emotionally abusive self-involved meathead who likes to play “World of Warcraft” on dates.  He’s never been in that situation, he technically opposes the existence of that situation, but for a second he understands what it’s like to be there, and he revels in it.

When the song goes back to the E minor verse, he begins to regains his head.  He realizes that Lana just took a a musically beautiful chorus with a heart-wrenching opening lyric and climaxed it with a tacky line about submissive sexual role playing.  He starts to feel betrayed.  But he supposes that this is the point.  Lana just tried to make a song about watching her boyfriend playing video games into something sweet and beautiful.  Is this sarcastic, or ironic, or tragic, or is this actually sort of serious?  No, of course not; this is an act.  He just experienced her feelings, he knows they are real feelings, but he knows that they aren’t really hers.  But even so, he feels something kind of wistful and sweet in his stomach.  But this is absolutely despicable.  These aren’t okay feelings to feel.  He just felt them, but that doesn’t make them okay.  He feels weird and confused and sort of wants to take a bath.

And what is Lana doing while creating this horrifying tangle of thorns?  She’s sitting in her bedroom mugging into a webcam like a middle school girl making sexy music videos to send via Hotmail to her summer camp boyfriend.  In all the discussion of the interplay between webcam solipsism and nostalgic imagery that has made up most of the conversation around “Video Games,” an inescapable truth has gone inexplicably unspoken: “Video Games” is a really awkward video.  Two particular moments stick out for me.  The first comes around 1:17, as Lana sings the “bad girls” line for the first time.  Leaning against a door in a loose-fitting sleeveless blouse, she winks and starts to raise her now-iconic three-finger “BAD” ring just as she mouths the word “bad.”  She doesn’t quite get it up in time, and the video switches to a grainy shot of shot of a residential L.A. neighborhood before she’s done executing the gesture.  It’s a silly, juvenile move, awkwardly timed and poorly delivered.  She looks like she’s trying much too hard to play up the gangster side of her Nancy Sintra but not quite confident enough to own it.

That’s nothing, though, in comparison to the third delivery of the “bad girls” line at 3:45.  Here we cut to Lana in the same outfit, this time in front of a window.  Instead of her usual fat-lipped pout, Lana is, for the first time in the video, smiling.  It’s a very pretty smile, full and incredibly genuine.  It’s the kind of smile someone makes when they’re thinking about the person who made them fall in love.  This is all well and good until one considers why Lana is smiling like that: she’s grinning at the thought of playing naughty girl for her asshole abusive self-involved meathead boyfriend.  It’s not cute at all: it’s absolutely mortifying.  And it’s absolutely out of place.  “Video Games” is a sad song about an unhappy relationship, but at its darkest lyrical point, Lana is smiling like she’s happily in love.

This is the point when the horrific realization sinks in – she’s smiling because she is in love.   This song isn’t a joke.  This song isn’t ironic.  This song isn’t even sad.  This is actually a song about being in love with an emotionally abusive self-involved meathead.  You can hear the smile as her voice thins on record as she delivers the second “bad girls” line.  She’s grinning as she says it.  Not because she’s laughing at herself, but because she’s truly, genuinely happy.

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The awkward, far-too-modern realness of Lana’s webcam shots play at odds with everything one would expect from a nostalgia-driven video.  Instead of building a smokescreen that forces Lana’s faux-retro image away from reality, the bedroom scenes force the viewer to acknowledge that Lana is actually a real person.  She is actually feeling these things that she’s singing about; she isn’t just playing a character.  Or, even worse: she is playing a character – a deliberately contrived, faux-nostalgic bouffant-wearing hip hop Lolita character – that she can’t sustain because the emotional motivation behind it is actually real.  Unlike Madonna in her Marilyn phase, or Christina Aguilera in her “Back to Basics” phase, or Beyoncé when she’s dressing up like Audrey Hepburn/Jennifer Beals, Lana isn’t using her retro image as a clearly artificial structure to portray an ironized version of mid-century sexuality – she’s actually into mid-century sexuality.  She really likes playing the submissive beauty queen.  She is honestly interested in doing anything she can to make her man happy.  The thought of her boyfriend liking “the bad girls” legitimately causes her to uncontrollably smile.

The generic video montage, the awkward lines, the over-the-top strings, the cheap jewelry, the lacy white peasant shirt, the obviously fake collegan filled lips – all of this is real.  She is doing this because she thinks its sexy and interesting.  She is actually the girl who says her favorite artists are Elvis and the Beatles.  She is actually the white girl at the school dance who bites her lip and unconvincingly swings her hips to “Ride Wit Me.”  She is actually the girl who is sort of pretty and nice at parties but dates the basketball player who everyone knows is a borderline sex offender.  And, despite the fact that you hate her and are disgusted by her and feel weird and uncomfortable watching her music video – you get it.  You relate to her.  You feel whatever horrific, problematic, embarrassing emotions she is feeling, and for the duration of the song you are unable, no matter how hard you try, to suppress them.

Anyone who has paid any amount of attention to Lana Del Rey’s career over the past several years should not find any of the above analysis particularly surprising.  Like Zoladz review, I have come to the clear conclusion that Lana is either unpleasantly genuine or ineffectively ironic.  The same analysis could be drawn from any of her videos or songs – the oddly celebratory hip hop-revisionist Zapruder film of “National Anthem” in which the figure of Jackie Kennedy is sexualized into a form of submissive femininity that is indistinguishable from Marilyn Monroe; the cliché fueled grasp at spectacle of “Born To Die” in which Lana plays Goddess and dead white-trash in the same breath; the painfully self-serious anti-feminist monologue of “Ride” that begins with the line, “I was in the winter of my life, and the men who I met along the road were my only summer.”  Always, a critical analysis will come to the same conclusion – Lana is doing something problematic, and she is doing it badly.  But that would be beside the point, because what Lana is doing – that is, her artistic intent – is irrelevant.  What matters is how one experience Lana’s career, and how one experiences Lana’s career is almost always with a confused mix of repulsion and intimacy.  That would be a potent enough revelation on its own, but I would take it one step further.  I believe that Lana understands exactly what she is doing to us, and that we are playing directly into her hands.  She is fully aware of her problematics, her failures, and her cringeworthy smile, but she has figured out how to use them to manipulate her listeners and viewers into an oppositional reaction to her failed career.  In other words, I believe that she is attempting, and succeeding, to bring the viewer to an internal revelation that necessarily rejects the apparent teleology of the Lana Del Rey project.  She wants us to experience her career as a real and relatable entity and to find it wholly unpalatable – she wants us to hate her.

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