The Shameless Satire of Lana Del Rey
“The cleverest piece of cultural criticism” to appear in 2012 is from none other than media-made pop singer Lana Del Rey, argues n+1‘s Christopher Glazek in the year-end edition of Artforum. Indeed, Rey’s two recent videos, which have an outsized, ’80s ambition to them, are fascinating jaw-droppers. Here, Glazek gets at why:
Men hardly ever speak in Del Rey’s videos. Their silence also permeates Ride. This more recent video follows the life of a streetwalking saloon singer in Big Sky Country who spends her days and nights among the motorcycle-gang members she picks up and services on the road. Although its milieu is white and poor instead of royal and interracial, Ride doubles down on the gendered incitements of Anthem. In both videos, men are treated with gentle, erotic fascination. Yet unlike the love interest in Anthem, the Hells Angel types in Ride are not patent hunks—they’re obese and greasy. Del Rey’s enjoyment of, for example, getting fucked by one of the fattest of these men over a pinball machine shocks the viewer more than her cavorting with a black JFK. Where Anthem deals gingerly with race and class stereotypes, the newer video exploits them with immodest vigor, depicting rural poverty with either offensive condescension or a proud fondness bordering on nativism. “There’s no use in talking to people who have a home,” explains Del Rey’s voice-over. “They have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lay your head.” We wonder whether Del Rey herself has any idea about such things (though, in fact, she did spend a year living in a trailer park, and in varying states of “homelessness,” during her wayward adolescence). “I believe in the country America used to be,” her character proclaims. “I believe in the person I want to become.” In Ride, Del Rey, a libidinal feminist and slumming heiress, makes clear that she can do whatever—and whomever—she wants.
If satire traditionally lampoons society by ridiculing the things we revere, Del Rey reveres the things we ridicule, exalting our baser instincts and especially our exhibitionism. This isn’t to say her videos lack a reformist edge: In their shamelessness, they attack shame; in their glee, they sanctify desire, which is the ultimate subject of Del Rey’s work. For Del Rey, desire and persona are inextricable; she has turned herself into a figure for desire, and a game-changing one at that: In demeanor, clothing, makeup, and even voice, she cultivates the aesthetic of an older woman. Although barely eighteen months senior to Rihanna or Grimes, Del Rey performs as a MILF, shunning the signifiers of youth and suggesting, through extravagant self-invention, the extent to which adulthood is wasted on adults. Where Lady Gaga, Del Rey’s exact contemporary, takes her cues from big-budget musicals like Cats—outdoing her competitors by reinventing her look as many times in a single concert as Madonna has during her entire career—Del Rey has chosen embellishments that could be said to bring her closer to who she “really” is. I have no reason to doubt that Del Rey was born with those lips, but if it’s the case that they got extra help along the way, I’m thankful someone had the presence of mind to correct nature’s mistake.
For performers like Gaga, passion for artifice and modification all too easily lends itself to physical escapism—to palpable hatred of the body. What distinguishes Del Rey from her pop peers is that she’s comfortable in her various skins and commits to the characters she creates. Other stars put on costumes; Del Rey puts on personalities, much as might a Trecartin tween. In this way, more than any of her rivals, male or female, Del Rey queers pop. Her unwinking enjoyment of her own perversity would be enough to qualify her as a great queer performance artist; her astonishing television debut on Saturday Night Live last winter, in which she covered her own hits as though she were a drag-queen impersonator, put her over the top.
You can read Glazek’s complete essay here at the link.