Lana Del Rey uses the imagery of American nationalism to construct the kind of iconic girlhood that white America goes crazy for. But her relation to this history feels complicated. She aims to be “classic,” an aesthetic throwback to a bygone time when music was music and men were men and so on. But something is wrong with the picture. Ostensibly, she gives white America what it wants—an image of itself as lethal but beautiful, guilty but forgiven, an image of violence as indistinguishable from romance. If a straight white man hits you, it means he wants to kiss you—get it? The albums sell, but it’s not enough; critics berate her for not being convincing. But maybe it’s not Del Rey’s fault that this gloomwashing of whiteness (“Okay, we suck, but look how much we hate ourselves!”) doesn’t work. Maybe the material can no longer be made convincing.
Del Rey’s whiteness is unstable because it seems somehow faintly disturbed by the knowledge of its formation. Why else the death wish? Why else do her lips circulate independently of her face? Her lips are so plump and pleasingly symmetrical that when she first became famous a lot of people thought they were fake. The mouth became a phenomenon in its own right, signifying some kind of excess that couldn’t be assimilated. There was an exposé of her alleged “lip-enhancement surgery” and a Tumblr where someone Photoshopped the mouth onto images of celebrities. With a couple of exceptions, most of the famous faces enhanced with Lana lips on this blog belong to white people. Evidently the joke doesn’t work so well when the lips are transposed onto black people’s faces. When thick lips belong to black people, they are part of the apparatus of racial and racist identification. But on a white girl, big lips are sexy and suspicious. They must be fake meaning they look fake might be interchangeable with they better be fake. In the context of American whiteness’s paranoid relation to what it perceives as the blood taint of blackness (which is also the taint of white guilt), false full lips might be deeply preferable to a real full mouth, even if they are superficially derided.
Del Rey has said she wanted the new album Ultraviolence to have “beautiful jazz undertones.” The smokiness of her voice is vaguely jazzy in a white way, a neutered and bleached jazz—the voice of a white girl draping herself in an acceptable, decorative blackness. It’s not the intense, yearning rasp of Holliday or Fitzgerald or Simone. Where blackness is deployed as an undertone, an underneath, the surface is wipe-clean and white. This structure deflects the unbearable history of American capitalism, turning it into mere texture. In “Dark Paradise” (2012), Del Rey “lives on the dark side of the American dream,” but it’s okay because she “can be your china doll.” From the outside, white womanhood looks like a place scrubbed clean of history where the violence of white men can be maintained, at least symbolically, as enjoyment. This is absolutely not meant to criticize or comment on actually existing white women, or even the actually existing Lana Del Rey, but only to register what is negated or held at bay in the image of white womanhood, from the perspective of blackness.
In the video for “Ride” (2012), she is on the road with some bikers, all big white guys. She wilts on the back of a bike, detached and dead-eyed, in a novelty T-shirt. In the opening monologue, she tell us, “I believe in the country America used to be.” (To quote Hennessy Youngman: “Which good old days do you mean? The good old days when people owned slaves? Or maybe it was the good old days where n–s were free, but they couldn’t vote?”) Her trembling tininess is a compliment to the men’s bigness. “You can be my full-time daddy,” she croons. White heterosexuality is like a photographic perspective trick in which the man stands very close to the camera and the woman stands far enough away that a radically diminished version of her seems to stand on his palm.
As ever, she is awkward and weirdly unconvincing on camera. Her awkwardness is so intense that it overwhelms her beauty, even though beauty usually reads as competence. In a sex scene, she leans on a pinball machine, doll-like and detached, as a guy fucks her from behind. It’s hard to tell if it’s meant to be consensual or not. She reminds me of the gawky teenagers in porn, the ones advertised as “amateurs,” whose erotic charge is exactly in their incompetence. They too are overwhelmingly white, whether pretty or ugly, fat or thin. Daddies can be dangerously aroused by signs of sexuality, signs that are almost interchangeable with those considered marks of blackness—a full mouth, emphatic hips, a sexual appetite—but they are basically safe if you are able to reassure them that you are a “china doll,” a white full-time daughter.
Ultraviolence, building on the spirit of “Ride,” extends out from this amateur affect, a whole album’s worth of the fantasy of the violence of desire: “I can hear sirens, sirens / He hit me and it felt like a kiss / I can hear violins, violins / Give me all of that ultraviolence.” This deeply ambivalent image of masculine desire—an eternal hard-on of the spotless mind—requires a feminine desire that knows how to long for death, and therefore how to really love white masculinity. There may well be suicidal femmes in non-white culture, but the pop-culture Beautiful Girl Who Longs For Death is paradigmatically white. She could take her pick of the spoils of white patriarchy, but instead she wants to lie down and die. In this alone, perhaps, she is very sympathetic.
She wants to die, but until then, she guards her man jealously. Who from? In the song “Black Beauty,” the protagonist of the song is angry with her blue-eyed boyfriend for fucking around with “Spanish women” who will lead him to ruin, instead of him leading her to ruin, which is also what she is offering him: ruin. But her ruin is white. Deploying the aesthetic of white America tends, necessarily, at best, toward suicidal self-loathing. To achieve anything of note with this repulsive material, you have to take the only reasonable course and wish yourself dead.
Unlike Ciara, whose own song “Ride” is an open celebration of her own sexual skill, when Lana “just rides” she coyly flips the interpretative work onto us. Of course her “Ride” works only because the trouble she’s telling us she’s trying not to get into sounds like sex. But as a dedicated white girl, Lana can only arrive at this through a tortured and euphemistic tale of driving through the night to throw herself at Daddy, who might send her home. She is frozen in the long white night of sex as ambivalence. At moments the girl in the song turns “I just ride” into the bittersweet simultaneous spell of sex and escape that pop excels in. She is trying to cleanse herself in sex from the spell of sex. But “Ride” is full of fathers, and she can’t drive anywhere that isn’t daddy.
Wherever it goes, whiteness abolishes ancestors. It’s easy to understand this refusal to be haunted by the dead shipped as commodities, starved, infected, worked to death, and so on. In the absence of its dead, white patriarchy has to do extra work—the phallic father becomes an erotic mirage, and Lana Del Rey tries to love it. In “Old Money” on Ultraviolence, she celebrates the paternal line where the money came from: “My father’s love was always strong,” she sings. But she can’t help adding, “Yet still inside I felt alone, for reasons unknown to me.” Maybe she doesn’t know the reason, but her work seems troubled by an inkling of it. How convenient that the white fathers, unable to bear the tragic structure of desire that Del Rey constructs in their image, accuse her of faking it.