Don’t worry, this is not another post about whether Lana Del Rey is a worthwhile popstar or not. It’s a rant about the personal crisis I had after watching her video Ride, released in September last year.
‘It’s Thelma and Louise meets grindhouse meets David Lynch,’ says a reviewer at American Songwriter about the clip, ‘and if it doesn’t leave you feeling something — distaste, interest, arousal, confusion — then you’re about dead inside.’ And he was right! The video left me feeling unsettled. It left me a little freaked out. And it left me more obsessed with her than ever.
Ride depicts a beautiful, young woman in a backwater US town, who hops into cars with strange men, lounges around on said men’s laps, rides through the desert with rough biker types (and hooks up with them, in a melancholic, self-abusive kind of way), holds a pistol to her head, screams that she feels crazy, and gets wasted around a campfire wearing a giant Native American headdress. The whole thing is book-ended with a monologue about how she’s a total nomad who finds peace only with other nomadic, crazy people – namely, the biker crew.
Her journey is one of finding ‘safety in other people,’ but she really means men: her speech opens with ‘The men I met along the road were my only summer…my memories of them were the only thing that sustained me, and my only happy times.’
But the men are sweat-stained, greasy-haired and much older than she is, and seemed designed to look pretty gross alongside young Lana’s creamy legs and luscious hair. But she feels better about herself in this position – ‘don’t leave me now, don’t say goodbye, don’t turn around, leave my high and dry,’ she cries into the chest of giant, leather-clad, bearded fellow – herself looking somewhat like an infantilised prostitute, with overzealous eye make-up and a giant bow in her hair.
Here’s the crux of it: I can’t tell if she’s for real or not. And I don’t mean ‘real’ in the usual Del-Rey-debate sense, because obviously she’s manufactured to a point – you can’t actually be a 60s siren when it’s 2013. (And I don’t really care if her lips are real or not either, because she’s a total fox – see here! – and if you’ve never been mesmerised by her face on Google images for over an hour then you’re dead inside.)
What I mean is, it’s not clear to me whether her self-exploitation is a staged event, or something she deeply longs for. This is why the haters hate, of course – Del Rey presents herself as some sort of vintage bad girl, when it’s not exactly clear what she is.
On the one hand, Lana Del Rey as a figure is clearly a performance-piece, who fetishises losing her innocence and makes a spectacle of her own objectification. (She has a song called ‘Lolita’, for goodness’ sake, and Nabokov’s name tattooed on her arm). But this persona is so hyperbolic, so obviously created that it almost seems as though she’s placing herself in a position of subservience in order to demonstrate her own power to do so.
But in interviews, she insists that Lizzie Grant (her real name) and Lana Del Rey are one and the same person; that her songs are ‘about what was actually going on in my life’ and in her GQ Woman of the Year Interview, speaks at length about her past alcohol addiction and her ‘wild’ years in New York City, where she claims she used go on motorbike rides with strangers.
Her Ride monologue closes with the following:
Who are you? Are you in touch with all of your darkest fantasies? Have you created a life for yourself where you’re free to experience them? I have. I am fucking crazy. But I am free.
All this kind of suggests that either she is able to live out her fantasies about life, men and sex through her art, or that she actually lived these dreams out in real life, or that she just enjoys being generally provocative (or trying to be, at least). Or maybe it’s all an act for the sake of a controversial film. I can’t tell!
Which is why I became unsettled. Because if a Del Rey does want to be sexually subsumed like the girl in Ride – and I don’t mean in an ironic or performative way, but actually subsumed – then I’m not sure what to do, critically. I have no frame of reference for someone who chooses to live like that. It freaks me out that a girl might want to only find her sense of self in being used by other people. But I enjoy the way that Del Rey’s contradictions highlight my own inability to theorise everything, and expose my desperation to make everything she does ‘okay’ or ‘empowering’ because I admire her, when perhaps the point is that neither Del Rey herself or her choices need to be either of these things.
Maybe she’s just really pretty and sings catchy songs.
Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. Her essay ‘Lana or Lizzie? Vintage Videos and the Del Rey Debate’ appeared in Kill Your Darlings, No. 10.