“I love Lana Del Rey,” the dark–haired girl next to me says, flicking the glimmering firefly of her cigarette ash out the car window. “She’s so conservative.”
The car smells like Marlboro Lights and perfume, and with flowers in our hair we drink summer shandy in the backseat, rattling down Route 66 through old Civil War battlefield country to see the Bristow, Virginia, leg of Del Rey’s Endless Summer tour.
On the radio, Del Rey chants: “I fall asleep in an American flag / I wear my diamonds on Skid Row / I pledge allegiance to my dad / For teaching me everything he knows.”
At the teeming grassy stadium where she performs, there is a cult-like air in the crowd. It’s June, and balmy: young women with garlands in their hair wear frocks and miniskirts, lacy rompers, breezy crocheted crop tops. They scream and clap and gaze transfixed when Lana graces the stage, a David Lynch-like vision of loveliness, and haunting in her incarnation of Americana nostalgia.
“Conservative” may not be the first word the ethereal chanteuse conjures up. This is a woman who also croons provocative lines about her lady bits tasting “like Pepsi-Cola;” (“Cola”) about running amok, getting wasted in public, and “facin’ time at Rikers Island again;” (“Off to the Races”) and about simultaneously reveling in and lamenting “being a mistress on the side” (“Sad Girl”). Nevertheless, there is a conservative sensibility to Del Rey’s persona, presentation, and many recurring motifs in her lyrical content, if we see conservatism less as a contemporary political agenda, and more as a spirit of sociocultural yearning for an earlier era—a longing to conserve or return to iconic American traditions.
Lana Del Rey Rolls In Americana
She is thoroughly suffused with this spirit. It surfaces again and again in her Old Hollywood vibes, smoky lounge singer voice, cinematic melodies, and especially her nostalgic lyrics, filled with references to twentieth-century Americana such as Coney Island, the Chateau Marmont, Marilyn Monroe and the silver screen, Elvis, Bugsy Malone, diners, and Tony Montana.
Del Rey idealizes a distinct, gritty-but-glamorous slice of the American dream: freedom, often symbolized by the American flag, a car (the Pontiac, the Chevrolet), or a trailer; youth and beauty, with recurring references to pinup girls and the trappings of traditional femininity (nail polish, peach lip gloss, red lipstick, party dresses, high heels, “beauty-queen” hair); a cash-strapped life that is nonetheless filled with material goods with iconic American connotations (motels, cherry pie, guns, motorcycles, tattoos, cigarettes, liquor); and a hot-blooded, all-consuming type of love—sometimes unrequited, tragic, or even violent. In the singer’s latest LP, “Honeymoon”—which Federalist senior contributor Rich Cromwell described as “a lush examination of love and work” in his spot-on review of the album—this romantic yearning takes on a wavy, California film noir tinge, but its essence remains intact.
One might even go so far to say, on the basis of her recurrent exploration of this last theme, that Del Rey presents this often quixotic quest for a profound, passionate, and sustaining love as her raison d’être. For her it seems a deeply personal, existential vision of fulfillment. In a sense, it’s also a reinterpretation of Horatio Alger’s American Dream: in Lana’s world, the Dream is not so much about acquiring material wealth and upward socioeconomic mobility, but about finding tranquility in romantic companionship. In other words, she is content just to get by and to live in the trailer park as long as she has love, epitomized in her song “Trash (Miss America):”
“Do you like my fake nails, daddy? / Black palm tree, pink tiger stripes / Used to go to the Comfort Inn, yeah / Will you buy me a slice of cherry pie? /We didn’t know much, just worked at night / Sweet trailer life.”
Dreaming of Her Own Family
Sometimes she even portrays worldly success as something that sabotages the purity of love or a meaningful life. In an unreleased track leaked in 2011, “Back to the Basics,” Del Rey romanticizes the simplicity of “trailer park love,” with her delightful gibe, “I can speak Spanish / You can sing for the neighbors / You’ve been pretty stupid / Ever since you got famous.” In the “Honeymoon” track “God Knows I Tried,” she croons, “I’ve got nothing left to live for / Ever since I found my fame.”
The highpoint of this American Dream is a life of happiness with her soulmate, which is also liberation from solitude and isolation. In an early interview, she explained, “When you’re an introvert like me and you’ve been lonely for a while, and then you find someone who understands you, you become really attached to them. It’s a real release.”
In a recent Billboard interview with novelist Bruce Wagner, Del Rey disclosed: “For someone like me—and it’s not a codependent thing—I just like having someone there. I’ve been alone, and that’s fine. But I like to come home and have someone there. You know, to say, ‘Oh, he’s here. And this other thing (mimes a table) is there. And this (mimes setting down an object on the table.) is there. (Laughs.) I’m very methodical. I have to be. I’m like that in the studio too.”
In the same interview, the singer said she would “love having daughters.” Del Rey has previously stated she would “love to” get married at some point and that she “would like to have children. Hopefully it will work out sometime.”
For many young women, these are all relatable and even lovely or admirable sentiments. Studies have found that most millennials hope to get married and have children, and many young women crave meaningful romantic partnerships with deep emotional bonds. Research and investigative journalism reveal that despite the pervasiveness of today’s hook-up culture, most women prefer intimacy and long-term relationships to casual sexual encounters.
Why Feminists Slam Lana
Yet Del Rey has infuriated feminists and left-leaning music critics, who rankle at her hyper-femininity—she’s often derided for her “Betty Boop” voice—her glamorization of the American dream, and her preoccupation with a decidedly pre-feminist, gender-normative brand of love.
“Whether or not Del Rey actually knew the definition of feminism before she rejected it in a recent interview, her statements, lyrics and music videos prove that she wants nothing to do with the movement…If we as a society accept the disempowered form of femininity that Del Rey embodies, young women are truly in trouble,” wrote Ms. magazine in June 2014.
The article catalogued Del Rey’s crimes: assuming “the persona of powerless victim who depends on men for validation and support;” alluding to the 1960s girl group the Crystals’ song, “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss;” and “modeling herself after the character Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov’s book of the same name—a guise she uses to explain her preference for older men and her penchant for baby talk in her songs.”
In 2012, LipMag.com aired similar grievances in a post titled “Why Lana Del Rey Cannot Be a Feminist Role Model.” While author Freya Greenwood acknowledged that Del Rey’s music is “beautiful and melodic, and I think she is gorgeous to look at, surgery or not,” she also wrote: “But when examining her misogynistic song lyrics I’m coming to the conclusion that I should probably loathe her.”
Like Ms., Greenwood was particularly perturbed by Del Rey’s attraction to older men and tendency to refer to them as “Daddy” (which may, in part, be homage to Marilyn Monroe, whom Del Rey is known to channel, and who often called her lovers and husbands “Daddy.”)
Lest you doubt the magnitude of the affront Del Rey poses to radical feminism and the Left, look no further than this particularly scathing essay in The Gloss, which whined: “Lana Del Rey has constructed an image that is heavily dependent on sexist stereotypes, the beauty myth, and the myth of the American Dream. She makes many, many references to red dresses, makeup, diamonds, and high heels, and she loves to pose in front of the American flag.” Even worse: “She throws a bunch of imagery out there, but then does nothing with it, creating an end result that’s more conservative than subversive.” (Emphasis mine.)
If You Believe In America, You Must Be Privileged
On the subject of Lana’s “privilege,” there was this barb: “Lana Del Rey (born Lizzy Grant) is the daughter of a wealthy domain name entrepreneur who financed her early career, yet she unabashedly talks about herself like she knows what it’s like to be poor. Hearing LDR talk about living in a trailer park is like hearing Hannah Horvath complain about how broke she is because she can’t get a job as an essayist.”
The scandalized author also felt compelled to further disparage the American Dream and Del Rey’s embodiment of it: “And then there’s the American dream, which appears everywhere in her music, and which she tends to view as desirable and achievable. Basically, I think anyone who claims to believe in ‘the American dream via hard work’ as a feasible way people can get what they want on a mass level is either a huge sucker or a rich person trying at all costs to preserve their own privilege.”
What’s amusing about these indignant criticisms is that they ring false. First, the oft-repeated claim that Del Rey’s wealthy father underwrote her career has been debunked by the record label owner who first signed Del Rey. Second, the singer actually did live in a trailer park in New Jersey before her career took off.
Ironically, Del Rey is also a living testament to the endurance of “the American dream via hard work”: a young woman who lives in a trailer park in New Jersey spends several years eking out a living, working doggedly at writing songs and singing at open mic nights at bars in Brooklyn, entering songwriting contests and sending out demo tapes. She eventually makes a record that’s shelved for two years, and finally has success after she starts over from scratch and releases another debut album, which sells over 1 million copies, followed up by a second major release EP that has sold 7 million copies worldwide. Now she’s a major commercial success with four albums under her belt and a platinum single (“Young and Beautiful” from the “Great Gatsby” soundtrack), with a net worth in the millions.
But feminists and anti-American leftist critics aren’t interested in an American success story. They continually pounce on any opportunity to run Del Rey down. Overt femininity, a love for America, belief in the American dream, and a preference for traditional relationships with older men: these seemingly innocuous traits amount to grave transgressions for the doctrinaire left-wing feminist.
Looking for Love Inside a Home
Despite such condemnations, Del Rey remains a commercial success and wildly popular among young women. Her recent Endless Summer tour sold out. Her September 2015 album “Honeymoon” debuted with 105,000 copies sold in its first week and starting at No. 2 on the Billboard Top Album Sales chart. Her previous album, “Ultraviolence,” launched at No. 1. She has 5 million followers on Instagram, nearly 6 million on Twitter. Young women have been overheard at her concerts saying, “I want to be her!”
Why do we love Lana Del Rey? What’s so alluring about her to millennial women (and men)?
First, in response to the feminists who disdain the “disempowered femininity” Del Rey allegedly represents, we should emphasize separating the artist’s art from her personal life. Musicians have long adopted personas that do not necessarily mirror reality. Take for example David Bowie, who in the 1970s became synonymous with his promiscuous, glam-rock extra-terrestrial alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. Performing onstage as Ziggy, an androgynous and bisexual character, Bowie donned dresses and makeup and provocatively mimed fellatio on male bandmate Mick Ronson’s guitar.
Yet the performer famously told Rolling Stone, “I was always a closet heterosexual…I wanted to imbue Ziggy with real flesh and blood and muscle, and it was imperative that I find Ziggy and be him. The irony of it was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn’t enjoyable.” In stark contrast to the hedonistic Ziggy persona, Bowie also said that monogamy is “an incredible source of comfort to me” and “I find [monogamous relationships] very, very pleasurable. It excites me. I absolutely adore it.”
In the same vein, Lana may sometimes sing about doomed relationships with seedy or violent men, but that does not mean she espouses such a lifestyle for her fans, or that she even seeks it out for herself. She has explicitly said her “public persona and career has nothing to do with my internal process or my personal life.” There’s a telling moment in a Radio.com interview during Chicago’s Lollapalooza 2013 music festival:
[Journalist Jillian Mapes] Considering this young female audience you have, do you feel any pressure to be a role model?
Lana: Well, I think the good thing is, I do actually aim to live my life with grace and dignity, if anyone felt like emulating it. I know I look a certain way sometimes, or cast a certain vibe. But I really don’t like to be in trouble. I like to live a good life, it is important to me.
Secondly, many young women relate to Del Rey’s lyrics and aesthetic. Scholar Catherine Vigier writes that she “is representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society’s prescriptions for success in what has been called a post-feminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them.” In a fascinating analysis, Vigier goes onto explain Del Rey’s appeal:
Nostalgia for another time is one of the least damaging forms of withdrawal from the present […] But the meager rewards on offer for many—and the fact that work has become compulsory for working-class and many middle-class women since their male partners no longer earn what used to be called a family wage—mean that for most women work is not nearly as fulfilling or attractive as it could be, and is often seen as somewhere to escape from rather than escape to.
Once the family provided the haven that the male worker would return to after a day of tough competition and stress in the workplace. If a woman wants a haven to return to, she has to make it herself. In the song ‘Born to Die,’ we hear Del Rey asking her boyfriend if he can ‘make it feel like home,’ because she feels so alone on a Friday night. The nuclear family and monogamous relationships gain their strength and appeal from the harshness of the world and working life for both men and women. Even in the era of so-called post-feminism, we can still sense the attraction of the family as a haven in a heartless world.
These themes of longing for a home and home as a haven are intertwined with Del Rey’s fixation on romantic love (“Can you make it feel like home / if I tell you you’re mine?”). It’s not only love that she’s looking for, nor does she need a man solely to “validate and support her.” Lana wants something more holistic: a home, a family, a sense of belonging—things that often feel elusive in the modern world, especially for young women who feel societal pressure to focus on careers at the expense of family life or domestic aspirations.
Why Can’t Women Do What Makes Them Happy?
Although it may be off-putting to man-hating feminists, creating a home with a partner is an aspiration for many young people and should not be incompatible with feminism—if we define feminism as women being free to pursue what makes them happy, no matter how domestic or “regressive” those things may be in the eyes of postmodern feminist orthodoxy.
The judgment that Del Rey “depends on men” is also misguided. Searching for love and belonging is an entirely natural phenomenon. Being transparent about it does not render one powerless or diminish one’s autonomy. The concept of “belonging” repulses the Ms. contingent, which sees it as patriarchal. But “belonging” in this circumstance does not mean objectification, a woman being viewed or treated like property.
In fact, if we look at the etymological roots of the word “belong,” it comes from the Old English word “gelang,” meaning: at hand, together with. The word did not connote “to be the property of.” That meaning was first recorded in the late fourteenth century. The original sense has a more egalitarian flavor, and one can argue that it is this idyllic “togetherness” that Lana craves.
It stands to reason that young women today who long for family and a happy home life would feel an affinity for Del Rey’s portrayal of the pursuit of those things—particularly in an era in which young women’s desires for marriage and motherhood are frequently trivialized and dismissed.
The Appeal of Tragic Glamour
Some of Del Rey’s added appeal also lies in the “tragic glamour” she projects. Writer Leslie Jamison’s book, “The Empathy Exams,” includes an essay called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, she writes about our tendency to glamorize women’s suffering and pain: “The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.”
Jamison includes Susan Sontag’s description of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with women’s pain: “‘Sadness made one ‘interesting.’ It was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad…Sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous. The melancholy creature was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart,’ she writes. Sickness was ‘a becoming frailty…symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity [and] became more and more the ideal look for women.’”
It may not be good that we romanticize this, but it’s been going on for a long time. Not to be confused with the Left’s modern obsession with victimhood and the intersectional grievance industry, the mythologizing of the troubled woman is an age-old convention that lends an air of mystique to melancholy, dark female figures.
Del Rey, for example, is prone to panic and terrified of death. She struggled with alcoholism as a teenager and went to rehab. She’s had love affairs go wrong, and is often sick with a medical illness doctors have not been able to diagnose. She’s heir to this long-running literary and cultural tradition of the beautiful, tragic, often self-destructive woman, fictitious and historical alike.
This includes women like Ophelia in “Hamlet”; poet Sylvia Plath; film stars such as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, and Edie Sedgwick; Cio-Cio-san from the opera “Madame Butterfly”; Peyton Loftis and Sophie Zawistowska in William Styron’s novels “Lie Down in Darkness” and “Sophie’s Choice,” respectively; Ilsa Lund in “Casablanca”; and Tristessa, the morphine-addicted Mexican prostitute in Jack Kerouac’s novella of the same name. This theme appears in the ancient Greek myths, in the form of Persephone and Demeter, Echo and Daphne, and in the American Indian myth of Feather Woman. Again and again in art, women’s pain is juxtaposed with their beauty, as if suffering throws beauty into sharper relief.
Lana Del Rey Isn’t Beyond Feeling Wounded
In her essay, Jamison also explores what she calls post-woundedness: “Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much…post-wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it, more than anything they refuse to care about it, refuse to hurt about it…”
The problem with this, she points out, is that women still experience pain and suffering. “We may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticized her illness and idealized her suffering, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t happen. Women still have broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs.”
So it goes with Lana Del Rey. She sings about her broken hearts, her propensity for self-destruction, her ill-fated love affairs, neglectful lovers and rejection, mourning lost loves, being jilted, and about being “the other woman.” Because women still suffer from failed or unhealthy relationships, from unrequited love, longing, loneliness, and other types of pain, Del Rey’s pathos resonates with them. It articulates a common experience, and this has magnetism.
In this sense, she may be a more “real” and “relatable” figure for young women to identify with, precisely because she is not a “post-wounded” woman, downplaying her melancholy or her unhappy romances the way that, as Jamison points out, the female characters in Lena Dunham’s television drama “Girls” do. Instead, Del Rey bares her vulnerabilities and pain with visceral poignancy, and young women who grapple with similar dissatisfactions and longings see something of themselves in her. In doing so, they can experience catharsis.
Revisiting ‘Lolita Syndrome’
As mentioned previously, one of the attacks leftist feminists love to lob at Del Rey is her so-called “Lolita lost in the hood” image, with references both to the novel and to relationships with older men: “Any thinking person knows that ‘Lolita’ can never be short hand for ‘I, an adult woman, enjoy consensually fucking wealthy older men and calling them ‘Daddy.’”
Del Rey’s hardly the only singer to allude to Nabokov’s classic. Katy Perry, The Police, and French singers Serge Gainsbourg and Alizée have all done so, too. While Lana only overtly alludes to Lolita a few times, in the bonus “Born to Die” track “Lolita,” and in the opening lines of the same album’s song “Off to the Races,” she does return throughout her work to the themes of age-gap relationships and of a young woman’s loss of innocence.
But Del Rey’s notion of Lolita seems more akin to the “Lolita syndrome” Simone de Beauvoir described in her 1959 essay for Esquire, “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome,” about the appeal of French “child-woman” starlet Bardot. The phenomenon de Beauvoir described had little to do with Nabokov’s book, and certainly had no implications of pedophilia, incest, or rape. Rather, she used the term to refer to a shift in contemporaneous cinema, from the “femme fatale” and the “girlfriend” archetypes of film noir and the post-war period to the new “Lolita syndrome:”
Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida are ample proof of the fact that the full-blown woman has not lost her power over men. However, the dream-merchants were also moving in other directions. With Audrey Hepburn, Françoise Arnoul, Marina Vlady, Leslie Caron and Brigitte Bardot, they invented the erotic hoyden…
The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter. The age difference re-establishes between them the distance that seems necessary to desire. At least that is what those who have created a new Eve by merging the ‘green fruit’ and ‘femme fatale’ types have pinned their hopes on.
Perhaps no contemporary musician better embodies this “green fruit/femme fatale” fusion than Del Rey—who, it should be noted, bears only a passing resemblance to Lolita, the impetuous 13-year-old literary creation. Del Rey has a certain wide-eyed innocent quality, but she is also dark and savvy in a cynical way, like a Lauren Bacall-type vamp lurking in the shadows of a Humphrey Bogart hard-boiled flick. She also comes across as distant and mysterious in many of her interviews and interactions, part of this different “universe.”
In fact, there is even something reminiscent of Bardot about her, a disarming and childlike impulsiveness. When de Beauvoir writes about Brigitte, she could almost be describing Lana: “She professes a great admiration for James Dean. We find in her, in a milder form, certain traits that attain, in his case, a tragic intensity—the fever of living, the passion for the absolute, the sense of the imminence of death.”
She quotes Bardot’s character Juliette, in Roger Vadim’s 1956 film “…And God Created Woman”: “‘I live as if I were going to die at any moment,’ says Juliette. And Brigitte confides to us, ‘Every time I’m in love, I think that it’s forever.’ To dwell in eternity is another way of rejecting time.’”
In the case of Lana Del Rey, to dwell in a bygone era—a lush and elegant America of the past—is another way of rejecting time.