Lana’s look is not to make it look easy.
In 2011, Lana Del Rey showed up to the chillwave party with flowers in her hair and a video she’d made herself. She was awkward, a pity guest tugging at the hem of her hand-me-down dress. She didn’t know how to do eyeliner. The video—for “Video Games”—looked something like a camcorder montage played at an early funeral, and something like a collection of messages left on Skype for a long-distant lover, and then like something less altogether, a naïve and half-stoned distraction from full-time basement life. Singer and video both were accused of the ultimate high school don’ts: a) “Being fake” and b) “trying” (the new “selling out”). In response, Lana shrugged and said that really, she should’ve tried harder. “Had I known so many people were going to watch [it],” she told The Daily Star in 2012, “I’d have put some more effort into it. I would have got my hair and makeup done and tried not to be so pouty, seeing as everyone talks about my face all the time.”
That year in fashion, the yen for pastels reached a zenith, and few stars went paler than Lana. I tested the look on my strands—having bleached my hair to death the year before, I could infuse it with lavender, rose—but when it came to clothes that matched, I felt ridiculous. I balked at what I then called “the bad girl gone Lula” look, never better embodied than by a “hazily pastiched” Del Rey embodied in and around her “Video Games” fame. I didn’t care if her lips were fake; I cared that the cigarette between them went unsmoked. (As a failed evangelical Christian, I have never understood why anyone would pretend to have sin.) Her songs I liked, but the outfits bored me in their their stiffness, their primness, their pastelness, which I synonomized with sweetness and artificiality. I also associated pastels, and the Pleasantville styles they come in, with the kind of anodyne, ladylike feminism that prizes smartness and self-righteousness at the expense of not only sex appeal, but also those who use it to win, as if brains are any less a thing of luck and cultivation than bodies, or as if the average intellect is any less artificial than (allegedly) Lana’s lips or Lana’s nose.
When Lana tried to look “smart” she dressed “non-slutty:” Google-image “Lana Del Rey 2011” and “Lana Del Rey 2012,” and you get gowns to the floor, shirts buttoned all the way up, fuzzy sweaters, and cinch-waisted frocks. She dyed her Lizzy Grant-era, Britney-blonde hair a shade of brown that dared you to call her “honey.” She lowered her voice because “people didn’t take [her] seriously with a high one,” but then they didn’t trust her femininity with a low one. So she sang “Blue Velvet” but wore strawberry pink and mint green, peach and lemon and violet. And white—never white like a bride, but white like the girl who wears white to someone else’s wedding.
Why was Lana never believable as a Kennedy, whether she was playing Jackie or dressing like Carolyn Bessette? Maybe she was in on the joke. At 14, she was sent to Kent School, the 19th most expensive private high school in America; famous graduates include composers, actors, opera singers, Meryl Streep’s daughter, and a “yachting cinematographer and lecturer.” When she left to go sing about it (see: the painfully pre-fame “Boarding School,” 2009) she knew exactly what she was running away from; when she sang about “doing crack and drinking Pepsi,” she was announcing herself as the anti–Diet Cokehead. The kind of girl she grew up against is classy, symmetrical, “well off” (not “rich”), and thin; her beauty labor is 90 percent hidden, an alembic of genes and expense. She gets $900 blonde highlights, $140 blowouts, and $18 juices, goes in for daily personalized workouts and twice-weekly facials, and spends an hour a day taking vitamins, only to smile apologetically and say, “I swear, it’s just lip gloss and Touche Éclat.” Meanwhile, Lana came out looking like she spent more time on her face than in bed.
Accordingly, Born to Die (2012) took a Blue Velvet-ier direction. But for the album’s Pepsi-colored cover shoot, and for most of that year’s concerts, acceptances, and appearances, Lana put on a Sunday look she couldn’t altogether pull off. The same pale prep revivalism that made Taylor Swift look like a debutante made Lana Del Rey a runaway in shoplifted trends. Both Taylor and Lana are former tomboys with loaded dads and blue-collar origin stories. But Lana dressed like a sweetheart was nobody’s.
Not until the video for “Ride,” with its naive Amer-arcana and manic declaration of independence, did my impression of her make sense of the rest. Lana’s whiteness had never been innocent, or wasn’t now; her look was suddenly so conscious, so caricaturing of its influences that I could have sworn she was appropriating whiteness. The dresses had never been “daddy’s girl,” but “daddy’s little girl.” I had been wrong about the cigarettes. Fader’s June cover story has her “chain-smoking Parliaments,” a brand nobody buys to look cool, and her speaking voice is first-hand proof. Sober for a decade, she still sings about whiskey and “white lines.” She has never been spotted near a gym. Nor has she ever “opened up” about her weight, in regard to which she’s one of the less bothered pop stars alive. In Tropico, her body is ripe, trembling, and defiantly unmaintained, a body as far out of time as her voice.
Because she seems not to take care of herself (that unfairest of modern mandates), Lana’s beauty is both laborious and ad hoc. It’s fake nails, false lashes, lashings of powder and kohl. Her hair, which has always looked dyed from a box, is now the nightshade hue of Secret nylons. Just as her riposte to the charge of “trying too hard” was to try a lot harder, her first move upon becoming famous enough to get her makeup done for a bodega trip was to refuse the kind of celebrity second skin that looks (but isn’t) effortless, even up close, choosing instead to lather on the masks. In the Fader cover shoot, for example, the cameras get hi-def; the makeup stays lo. The message is clear: Stay your distance. Or maybe: I can’t bear my skin, but also: who the fuck are you to see the real me? Lana looks above and beyond being real. She looks exhausting.
“I wish I was dead already,” she says in an interview, and we (the media) freak. “I wish I was dead,” she sang on “Dark Paradise,” on Born to Die, and we didn’t freak at all. That was already two years ago. We either did not hear or did not take seriously the lyric, or else we failed to believe she had written it, assumed she herself did not believe it. We are trained to think of the pop star’s persona as safely removed from the person, the same way we recast as “fantasy” what we’re afraid to say we really, really want. I too split up most personas, but not Lana’s. Instead I think, what if Lana did fuck her way to the top? What if she was hit? What if she liked it? What if her pussy tastes exactly like cola? And if all she wants is dope and diamonds, so what? What if the most radical—fuck it, feminist—thing you can do is believe everything a girl says about her life, whether or not you like it?
Two years ago, the prevailing (male) establishment appeared to not like it one bit. Reviews had Lana looking not all that dark, only noir: A vamp and a tramp, a new and more blue Blue Angel, accused of luring lonesome crowds of indie boys from their shitty lo-fi principles. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica called her a poser, a meme, and a has-been, suggesting she could only try again by “wash[ing] off that face paint” and “muss[ing] up that hair.” In other words, Lana Del Rey should have done a better job of passing—of being a “natural woman.”
Instead, Lana Del Rey has replaced Anna Nicole Smith as the reigning “faux queen,” a former blue-jean baby whose rejection of upwardly mobile feminism and/or high-class femininity in favor of fatalistic glamour and female-to-female drag makes her a gender deserter to some, but a godsend to most, because at least she never makes it look easy. And what a relief. When straight girls and women are meant to choose between chic, studied effortlessness (creative upper class/Manhattan) and tweely aestheticized failure (creative underclass/Brooklyn), Lana’s truth is way, way in between: Being a man-loving woman is not an identity; it’s a job. It’s a glamorous job, but the hours are long and there’s often no future and it sucks, it scars and it hardens, and it’s hard. (Here I admit that it’s tempting to read “man” unliterally, as something big and impossible to get out from—drugs, fame, money, a whole damn country. In melodramatic pop songs, almost any relation is easier read as a relationship.)
Against the glistening “unlistenable” void of Ultraviolence (2014), its clamor and glitz and the classless, naked aspiration shared by the best songs on Born to Die, Lana’s old pastels seem cold in a newish light. Everything Ambien blue, Paxil pink, Oxycodone mint. Celexa peach, Klonopin yellow, Wellbutrin violet—the “violet pills” she sings of in a bonus track, maybe… but she’s off it all now. Gone are the prescriptive hits. Gone the flowers. Everything fades to bruise, until the cover of Ultraviolence is her alone in black and white with a white car and a white simple V-neck over a white, visible bra, as if to say, “Is this real enough for you?” It’s strange. No one has ever looked less comfortable in a T-shirt. For a week I couldn’t figure it out, and then I thought: She looks like a patient escaping.