In case you have been under a rock, Lana Del Rey is pop music’s It Girl right now, sauntering past Queen Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus with her languid sex appeal and self-professed death wish. With a sound described as “narco-swing,” Del Rey floats through ghostly videos in various poses of drowning and despair, blowing a pouty kiss to the Grim Reaper in the guise of a Gothic pinup.
The kids can’t get enough. Her album “Ultraviolence” has just topped her hit debut “Born to Die” to land at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
“I wish I was dead already,” she confides to the Guardian in a kittenish voice (interview clip here). Asked if she thinks an early demise a la Kurt Cobain is glamorous, she murmurs, “Um, yeah,” setting off a twitterstorm in which Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of the singer who shot himself at 27, slammed her for romanticizing youthful death. “People like you think it’s ‘cool,’” blasted Cobain. “Well, it’s f–king not.”
But ask a Goth kid or a vampire fan, or for that matter a Pre-Raphaelite or an aficionado of European Romanticism, and you will quickly find that the pose of eroticized death has been a perennial favorite of youth culture — and it tends to crop up in seasons where young people see an epic fail in society.
Enter Lana Del Rey.
Love Story for the New Age
Del Rey has more than her share of detractors. Some feminists are irked by what they perceive to be the singer’s victim stance (not to mention her professed boredom with feminism), comparing her style unfavorably to Beyoncé’s brand of bootylicious empowerment. Indie music writers complain of her gimmicky transformation from under-the-radar Brooklyn songstress Lizzy Grant to pop phenom Lana Del Rey. (Do they feel similarly peeved with Bob Dylan, once known as Bob Zimmerman?) On Del Rey’s much-panned 2012 Saturday Night Live performance, where she stood looking like she’d just popped a Xanax in pale gown, news anchor Brian Williams dubbed it “one of the worst outings in SNL history.” True, it was weird: Del Rey seemed, if anything, painfully bored with the SNL proceedings. No hopping around the stage shaking her bon-bon. No painfully earnest emotional appeals. What was this blasé siren up to?
Becoming the hottest ticket in town, is what. While the critics panned her, fans swooned. Angelina Jolie, remembered for her own youthful Goth phase, handpicked Del Rey to record the theme song for the summer’s hit Disney film “Maleficent.” Kanye and Kim asked her to sing at their A-list wedding. Del Rey is en fuego.
Too awkward for the medium of live television, too ethereal for the stage, Lana Del Rey seems to know her bread is buttered on the Internet (she is actually a child of that medium, the daughter of a web entrepreneur who made his dough hawking Internet domains). There, fans embrace her eclectic video mashups and twisted takes on pop culture clichés. There, she can be as detached, noncommittal and as rapturously bored with it all as her audience.
With her well-honed weltschmerz and mesmerizing monotony, Del Rey expresses the winter of America’s discontent through the eyes of the youthful bourgeoisie.
In “Shades of Cool,” Del Rey transforms the sunny myth of California dreamin’ into a nihilistic ride to oblivion in a Chevy Malibu. Her most recent insta-contraversial hit “Ultraviolence” throws a stink bomb into '60s dreams of peace and harmony with a fantasy of being roughed up by a cult leader/lover. “We could go back to Woodstock,” she sings. “But they don’t know who we are.” In “National Anthem” she gives a ghoulish rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy birthday address to President Kennedy, followed by assassination clips that segue to a cynical anthem about America real obsession, money, which kills every other youthful aspiration.
“It's a love story for the new age
For the six page
We're on a quick sick rampage
Wining and dining
Drinking and driving
Overdose and dyin'
On our drugs and our love
And our dreams and our rage”
Lana Del Rey is pushing the envelope, and here’s her message, delivered with a languid pout: 21st-century America is a rotting corpse, deadlocked culturally, economically, and politically. Since there’s nothing we can do about it, let’s enjoy ourselves as the body-politic disintegrates, perhaps by savoring some toothsome bites of the past: candy-colored Super 8 films, juicy jazz tunes and clips of sultry screen sirens. The future is a retrospective.
All of this echoes the ancient danse macabre, the dance of death, the motif that sprang out of the medieval horrors of war and the plague. It's a plea for fevered amusement while you’ve still got time.
Queen of the Damned
You might call Del Rey a musical Queen of the Damned: the expression of a generational sense that America has lost its way, and there's little hope for redemption. Del Rey’s haunting sense of exhausted sadness is perfect pitch for an era when climate change threatens the planet, bloodsucking financial predators steal the future of our youth and consumer culture deadens everyone. The kingdom of wealth is sterile and limiting; perhaps the kingdom of death is preferable. Del Rey’s pose of expectant pleasure at the coming apocalypse strikes a resonant chord — a cool bravado that eases the pain. In her romantic fantasies, you can almost hear strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, a love story in which young lovers seek peace through annihilation.
Del Rey and fellow avatars of the death-and-the-maiden trope —one of the oldest in art — have been creeping onto the cultural scene since the global financial meltdown of 2007-'08, and not just in America. In Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film “Melancholia,” Kirsten Dunst’s character Justine welcomes the end of the world by offering her sprawling naked body to a rogue planet hurtling toward earth. “Life on earth is evil,” murmurs Justine. “No one will miss it.”
All of this is no surprise to students of psychoanalysis. It was a woman, Sabina Spielrein, who gave Sigmund Freud the inspiration for his theory of the death drive, writing of young women who dream of lying in a coffin, yearning to return to the womb through the tomb. It is women who are most acutely aware of the limitations of society’s institutions and its life-denying strictures: scripts for marriage, motherhood, and career still don’t accommodate women’s desires and creative potential. Why not just imagine sinking into a blissful abyss with your lover?
For millennials, the desire to reject an inhumane future in favor of a sensual plunge into undifferentiated nature is mirrored in Del Rey's videos, where she is often submerged in water, as if suspended in Earth’s amniotic fluid. The world can be saved only when life returns to its primal source.
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
The sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote of “anomic suicide,” a desire for death that comes from confusion and lack of social direction in the face of hard economic times and societal upheaval. When young people can’t find legitimate aspirations, they feel lost and disoriented. They begin to lose any sense of the limits of desires and become mired in a sense of chronic disappointment. A bankruptcy of expectations leads to a nostalgic fixation on the past and inability to actively meet the future.
What Lana Del Rey is selling is what a big chunk of America’s youth is feeling: contemporary capitalist society is a deathly bore.