She’s Not What She Seems
Pop stars reinvent themselves all the time. Why has Lana Del Rey’s reinvention caused such a stir?
One take on Lana Del Rey, along these lines, is that the Internet hype machine thrust her into the spotlight before she’d had a chance to work out kinks in her live performance, sharpen the fuzzy contours of her persona—in short, put her face on. She’d been caught, embarrassingly, mid-transformation: Not quite Lizzy Grant, not quite Lana Del Rey, hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of that “a.k.a.” from her first album title.
But this is exactly what makes Del Rey worth mulling, no matter what you think about the music. She strikes me as something like an anti-Nicki Minaj. Both artists have patently plastic personas that, advertising their own contingency, expose the mechanisms of pop identity-craft. But whereas Minaj has a galvanizing agency about her—she is the savvy, sexy chameleon, in control of her scattershot subjectivity, wielding her desirability as a weapon—Del Rey plays the victim and emotional punching bag, constructed (and poorly, at that) entirely in the service of male desire. Her favorite image is the female corpse, pliant and posable; the words dead, dying, and death recur over and again. In Del Rey’s lyrics, love is an obliterating, self-abnegating force, and women are its victims: “I can be your china doll if you’d like to see me fall”; “Take me like a vitamin”; “I wish I was dead.” Del Rey has called herself the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” but she spends Born to Die walking all over herself.
Before passion snuffs out Del Rey’s heroines (as in the “Born to Die” video, in which she dies in a fiery car crash, her bloody body held aloft by her impassive beau), it pushes them to acts of derangement and disreputability designed to appeal to lovers. This motif appears in “Video Games” (“I heard that you like bad girls, honey, is that true?”), “Off to the Races” (“I’m crazy, baby, I need you to come here and save me”), and the title song (“You like your girls insane.”) Back in November, Del Rey asked an interviewer, “Have you ever seen Fire Walk With Me and the scenes where Laura Palmer is in the bar with the lumberjacks, sort of dancing and getting crazy? Well, it’s that frightening sensation of being out of control that really sticks in my mind.” Guitars that suggest ’50s rock via Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score shimmer across the album, and Del Rey’s Palmer anecdote is a telling detail, reverberating both in the “Video Games” footage of tottering de la Huerta and across the album.
The theme of Del Rey’s unhinged subjugation to her lovers is so unrelenting that, as the album goes on, it begins to resemble an outright critique of female passivity, rather than an extreme case of it. The last song on the album, “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” confronts these issues most poignantly. The song tells a story, seemingly autobiographical, about the turbulent sexual awakening of a group of “small-town” girls who fall in with, and act crazy in attempts to impress, the “senior guys.” The song concerns youth, but death is mentioned several times. At one point, Del Rey summons a haunting image of “my new best friend, high heels in her hand, swayin’ in the wind”—a girl who, having suffered some humiliation we can readily guess at, “starts to cry, mascara running down her little Bambi eyes: ‘Lana, how I hate those guys.’ ” On the chorus, Del Rey laments, of her cohort, “We don’t stick together and we put love first.”
In this context, Del Rey’s failure to assume the perfectly unified bombshell persona she’s ostensibly striving toward registers as almost subversive. Symbolically killing off Lizzy Grant and re-emerging, corpselike and puffy-lipped, as Lana Del Rey, she calls to mind the necrophiliac transformation in Vertigo of the prosaic Judy, a plaything of destructive men, into the glamorous Madeleine. The fact that you can see Del Rey’s seams is, whether or not she intends it, fascinating, and may account in part for the discomfiting effect she has on listeners: She presents as a Frankenstein monster, a prototype sexbot on the fritz, a glitch in the pop matrix.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.