Lana Del Rey’s sound is nostalgia for an old lie
“Darling, you can’t let everything seem so dark blue. Oh, what can I do?”
—“Black Beauty,” Lana Del Rey
The summer I was 16 and cripplingly awkward, my father’s job moved our family from Toronto to the southern U.S. After spending my whole young life in Canada, I started my first day of 10th grade at George Walton High School in East Cobb County, Georgia, and the ensuing culture shock was about as harrowing as you can imagine for an already uneasy teenage girl.
The high school of nearly 2,700 students was primarily white and Baptist, complete with daily prayer around the flagpole, pancake breakfasts for Jesus, and a Friday Night Lights–style football obsession. On game days, fully suited football players brought roses to their assigned cheerleaders, while the girls, clad in their freshly pressed red-white-and-blue uniforms, provided players with baked goods and breakfast sandwiches from Chik-fil-A. The town was famed for a 56-foot-tall steel-sided chicken statue, and for being an early adopter of evolution is just a theory stickers for its science textbooks. In one memorable round of bullying, a few other students decided I was a weirdo and a freak and threw food at me in the cafeteria while gleefully chanting insults.
The only way to suffer through 18 months in the slo-mo sport-movie montage of southern teen culture was to fetishize Americana—protests in Marietta Square and peach pies cooling on windowsills, buttery Waffle House grits and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds with bottomless diner coffee, and the appealing façade of southern hospitality. It was a bright-side approach to darkness, a juvenile fascination with the great American road trip, with drug-fueled binges for the sake of poetry and art, with Hollywood glamour and revolution and the blinking lights of Vegas—a false frontier mentality that made America seem majestic rather than menacing. Deluding myself into survival, I found something to love where there was nothing. And decades later, I’ve found that Lana Del Rey that sounds exactly like that glorious pretense. Her songs are, in essence, nostalgia for an old lie.
The culture makes a dictum of authenticity and a near tyranny of the “genuine,” so that anyone who capitalizes on untruths is sinning against the virtue of transparency. We so often destroy people who are truly themselves in all their brokenness, yet loathe those, like Lana, who can tell a whole lie (or at least make many music critics think she’s “fake”). But artifice is not only armor, and performance is not the same as faking it. It’s a salve against day-to-day cruelty to rewrite reality, to build pretty, fictional worlds to live inside for a time, because the alternative is to writhe in agony without them.
Lana Del Rey’s music is a tiny harbor of safety, not unlike the Americana of my teen imagination. She is hated not because she’s faking it, but because she’s faking it in an unsanctioned way, and even worse, is unrepentant about it. “My pussy taste like Pepsi-Cola, my eyes are wide like cherry pies. I gots a taste for men who’re older,” she croons in semi-ridiculousness. “I’ve got feathers in my hair. I get down to beat poetry, and my jazz collection’s rare,” she brags without the necessary irony. She’s playfully wrestling with bikers in the desert, safely submitting to her old man, glorifying things that never were and will never be. In essence, she’s a grown woman living inside that timeless teenage daydream of what it means to be an adult—yearning for agency but still wanting to be someone’s baby, too terrified to grow up but hating the powerlessness of youth.
While the media harps about the lies this self-styled daddy’s girl is spinning, those who enjoy her find her tall tales a balm. Some say she’s bored or boring (with “Lana Del Nyquil” being my favorite nickname thus far,) but hers is a comforting fantasy in its repetitive romantic tedium, an all-consuming, unsustainable love on an endless loop. Del Rey’s Ultraviolence is brutal, sexy, and submissive., but she’s managed to make herself the subject of the narrative not the object, even if the subject is a passive one. This is not the (male) fantasy of Aguilera’s Dirrty-girl chaps, or Spears being a Slave 4 U with a python hanging from her all-American neck. It’s also not the hyper-caricature of over styled pop-culture pleather BDSM, though it’s just as performative.
This is not to say that Lana Del Rey doesn’t suffer, but that when she does it’s quick. Then she curls her hair, smokes a Parliament, and gets a little bit of bourbon in her. (I get a little bourbon in me, and I either need to have a cry or go to bed. Listening to Lana Del Rey is like doing both.) When, in an Ultraviolence lyric, she tells us that his “Bonnie on the side” makes her a “sad, sad girl,” we don’t really believe it. Her heart seems unbreakable, and there is no better “fake” daydream than the invincible heart.
In another lyric, Del Rey really misses you but is ultimately glad you’re gone—her sadness nothing more than a pretty song that can be skipped on the album. She is like a chameleon that got stuck on one comfortable color and decided to stay there while she made herself a martini. Sometimes she gets so lazy, lounging her linens, that she does nothing more than make Didion-style lists to combat life’s ugliness: “blue hydrangea, cold cash divine, cashmere, cologne and white sunshine, red racing cars, Sunset and Vine…”
As I grow older—age being the thing that the Del Rey persona fears the most—the future has become increasingly dictated by diminishing choices, and has increased the value of my (and Lana’s) long-fading fantasies of the wide-open road. All the hyper-romantic “die for you” sentiments of Ultraviolence are as impossible to sustain as they are beautiful, like love notes, folded and stored in shoeboxes in an adult bedroom closet. Her realm is the furthest thing from taking the kids to soccer practice, mortgage payments, and desk jobs, just like it was the furthest thing from the horrors of high school.
We know it’s impossible to love someone “?’til the end of time,” or to “just ride,” but Del Rey’s gleefully artificial landscape softens the edges of those brutal truths, and belies the argument that she should stop all this faking. There is a forgotten part of me that would like to believe that—like in Ultraviolence’s “Old Money”—if you send for me, you know I’ll come, and if you call for me, you know I’ll run. But I know I can’t run. There are responsibilities and bills to pay and errands to cross off a tedious list, and for those trapped in whatever cage they’ve found themselves in, fantasy is necessity. Song by song, Lana’s telling us her pretty lies in her little red party dress, and we can enjoy her longing to believe them, even if we can’t.