I have recently gotten very into Lana Del Rey – her decidedly not training montage material even dominates my running playlist. I’ve been aware of the siren with the 1,000 yard stare since she hit the scene in 2011 but avoided her, maybe unintentionally, for six years. As someone who runs in an unapologetically feminist circle, Lana Del Rey is not exactly on message. Outside of my bubble, Lana’s conceit is likewise out of tune with the zeitgeist. The current image of stars like Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande generally espouse agency and confidence. Although their songs can deal with tumultuous relationships, the message that wins out is almost always self-love and self-care. Lana, on the other hand, is often subsuming herself in the shadow of a man. Her (very internally consistent) world of dangerous, negligent men, affairs, and sugar daddies isn’t something I aspire to. But here’s the thing – it still speaks to me and my life much more than dozens of girl power creeds. It may be bad feminism, but damn if it doesn’t resonate with me.
Self-destructive submissiveness leads on Lana’s gloriously sexy and morbid debut album Born to Die, and is doubled down on in Ultraviolence. In Lana’s world, commitment and resignation may as well be the same thing. Many of her lyrics could be equally describing a romantic evening or a double suicide. The same attention is given to being ignored by a boyfriend who is too busy playing video games as to actual, physical death. It’s impressive when she sings “but I wish I was dead” and it barely registers. There’s even a warped model of acceptance in these narratives, but it’s one of leaning into the most demonized female roles: the other woman (a Lana track title), the psycho bitch (“you like your girls insane”), et al. Nothing I haven’t been or been called in my life.
Lana faces a world that defines women by their sexual capital by playing along. Her “regressive” femininity, wrapped in literal retro imagery, isn’t a joke or played off with a wink. She’s serious. It’s not the take charge sexuality of Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, and she suffers under men without the simmering anger of Beyonce’s Lemonade. The closest comparison to Lana’s willingness to wear her pain and bad decisions on her sleeve might be Rihanna. RiRi at least tends to employ a push and pull between her vulnerabilities and her demands that people recognize her value.
In almost every promotional image and single cover, Lana is staring you dead in the eye. Like I imagine she might, I dare you to admit you’ve never had a thought like “you’re no good for me… but baby I want you.” As cool as it is to disavow the message running through Lana’s body of work, there had to be something true to the female experience in it. I don’t see how else a slow, maudlin song like “Video Games” could have made such a huge splash in the era of loving yourself. What I recognize in these songs is a very familiar way of coping. While seeing myself in Lana’s music, I must confront the ugliest contradictions to my own narrative.
I don’t think of myself as a submissive person. Yet so much of my teen and young adult life has been defined by dysfunctional relationships with men. In lyrics like “And I don’t know how you get over, get over/Someone as dangerous, tainted and flawed as you” I see a pathetic 19 year old version of myself, convinced there was no life beyond my brooding, older, and abusive boyfriend. Like Lana, or at least her character, I’ve never really been lacking for male attention, even if most of it was predatory. Despite a recurring motif of being aware of her own beauty and the power she has over men, Lana’s knowledge of her position as an object of desire is lacking subversion or self esteem. Canned phrases like “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” or calls to weaponize beauty likewise fell on deaf ears for me. Instead, I see myself in “Who else is gonna put up with me this way?/I need you, I breathe you, I’ll never leave you.” Even if the man I was convinced I wasn’t good enough for, surely the only and last man to ever accept me, would be followed by another, equally ill-advised man, I was always utterly shocked that anyone could be with me. And if these men so charitably took me under their wing, I could deal with the cruelty and the insults.
Lana is a perfect vector for self-reflection of a certain, sad sack type. Almost all of her songs are in first person: she is the star of this story. She may be a doomed and destructive star, but at least she gets to tell her own story. Deep in the well of an abusive or co-dependent relationship, it’s always tempting to indulge in self-mythology. If I’m getting treated like shit, I might as well be suffering beautifully in a cloud of perfume with perfect red nails and willowy sundresses. Most articles on Lana bring up her obsession with noir aesthetics and old Hollywood, and it’s no coincidence that such defeatist lyrics would be paired with filmic images. Like myself and so many women who have loved the wrong men, the truth of these entanglements may be ugly. But I could cope by positioning my pain as the centerpiece of my imaginary biopic. I think again about Lana’s challenging, forward stare. There’s a certain twisted power in taking charge of your own ruin.
The glamour of Lana’s LA was always supposed to be cracking at the seams. Hollywood, like the men she lives for, are filling a void of stability. In this way Lana Del Rey is an Emma Bovary by way of 1970s California. Like Flaubert’s doomed heroine, Lana cycles through love, wealth, death, and even religion to find mooring for an unstable sense of self. When she sings “Now my life is sweet like cinnamon/ like a fucking dream I’m living in,” does anyone really believe she’s found contentment? The changing obsessions and casting and recasting oneself in romantic narratives is a very human thing to do, though. It’s especially tempting for those of us who feel destined for sadness but are still trying to figure out who our best selves are.
Five years after Born to Die, there is finally a hint of that elusive contentment in Lust for Life. The new album isn’t from the perspective of someone who’s over their damage, but there’s markedly less in the way of co-dependence. The romances are still tinged with sadness and morbidity, like her love with Sean Lennon cut short by death or absence in “Tomorrow Never Came.” The title track, featuring The Weeknd, seems less a celebration of life than a freefall. They seem more honest, though, more down to earth. Many of the tracks have a sense of transparency and perhaps even a wry nod to her past recklessness, like the repetition of “could it be that I fell for another loser?”
The world of her songs are less claustrophobic here, too, populated by friends, strangers, and fellow women. Lana seems to be realizing that instead of offering her whole self to a man, she might have a part to play in the wider world. Myopia and isolation are classic markers of unhealthy relationships, so a willingness to be concerned with the bigger picture, politics, “America, and all the beautiful women in it” seem to indicate a Lana who is starting see her own value.
Ultimately I’m thankful that I avoided Lana Del Rey until 2017. Born to Die might have been a source of validation when I was at my most destructive and isolated, but it means more me to experience those earlier albums in the context of the attitude shift in Lust for Life. I know it’s naive to marry an artist to their persona, but I like to think of Lana as someone who has been the other woman, the codependent girl, the person who thought she was worthless, and has grown into someone finding their footing in themselves. That’s where I am. It’s always a gift to find yourself in art, and I was floored to find a line on Lust for Life’s “Change” that speaks to the state of my life in this moment. “When I don’t feel beautiful or stable/ Maybe it’s enough to just be where we are because… There’s a change gonna come, I don’t know where or when /But whenever it does, we’ll be here for it.” And really, for an unsettled soul who is used to escaping, being where you are is a radical stance. It’s an achievement with more gravity than any empowerment anthem.