Being a bad bitch on the side might not appeal to fools like you
“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “It feels too ‘suburban mom.’”
After finding it in the bottom of a drawer, taking it out of its black box, and carefully polishing it, Rachel slid her forgotten wedding band down its finger. She looked down, wrinkling her nose. Her other rings were brassy, bohemian, collected over the years from flea markets and vintage shops. A cheap, silver crescent suggested living carelessly from moon to moon; the shiny princess-cut diamond bespoke the opposite: formality, obligation, and planning. She said the ring looked tacky. I laughed, said something about how “suburban mom/wife” should be her summer look—as if a working-class family life was something to play dress-up in. I thought it was glamorous.
But where did the glamour lie? Was it in the act of marriage or in the unnameable alchemical forces that transform a woman into a wife?
On a continuum, tackiness is the embarrassing cousin of glamour. There’s an over-the-topness to the image of Lana Del Rey in monogram Chanel studs, a thick gold rope chain, and a three-finger ring that says bad in gold script that somehow never topples into “too much.” This is what I was fascinated with. Rachel, placing an overly shined ring next to her carefully disheveled collection, was the opposite of effortless. In one act, her aesthetic was confused and transformed. She became the wifey and all that it signaled; paying homage to all the possible women she could be at once. Glamour was, perhaps, just a meticulously practiced skill, of teetering on the edge of poor taste but always gracefully landing on beauty.
Similar to a Real Housewife or a Basketball Wife, to claim wifey status, you need not be a wife by ring or by ceremony. Devotion, it seems, is the key element. On November 26, 2013—long before Kanye West hired a 90-piece orchestra to play Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” during his proposal or commissioned her to perform at the pre-wedding party at Versailles—Kim Kardashian demurred in the shadows while Kanye sat down for a radio interview. In the video footage, Kim is wearing a black long-sleeve turtleneck, camouflaging against the studio walls. Save for her newly dyed caramel-blonde hair falling over her shoulders and framing her face, she is barely seen. Presumably before the camera starts rolling, the radio host asks Kim why she is sitting in on the interview. On camera she answers, “I just came to support him,” as she gestures to Kanye and smiles.
Radio Host: Oh, you’re on wifey duty?
Kim: I’m just wifey for the day.
Kanye: Oh you’re wifey for the life now!
Circa “Video Games,” Lana used terms like “the gangster Nancy Sinatra” and “like Lolita got lost in the hood” to describe herself and her style. She was innocent yet hardened and, in this way, she appropriates hip-hop’s trope of the wifey. She’s the mythic creature who is half good girl and half bad bitch. Under the Tumblr tag #wifeystatus, unglamorous “taco Tuesdays” and pasta salads are the images that are collaged next to Lana Del Rey in a fur coat. There is only one image of her amongst pedestrian selfies and uploads from porn blogs that post women bending over in thongs playing house. One such image bears the following tags: #cooking, #housewife, #wife, #booty. At first glance, Lana seems out of place here, and the disconnect between the aspiration and the reality of the wifey is striking. But in the near endless scrolling, they fold together, lending their context to each other. To quote a quote in the tag, the wifey “gets hurt because of the things you do but still forgives your mistakes, can’t bring herself to hate you, even though everyone says she should, has only good things to say about you, cried because of you countless times but smiles even when you’ve done nothing for her.” If the wifey is not Lana, she is at least a Lana song. She is the sum of Kanye’s illogical equation: one good girl is worth a thousand bitches.
But to attempt the illogical, as Lana does, serves to reveal our own bodily constraints, pushing up against ideals and exposing expectations. Lana Del Rey—like the widely circulated picture of Kim Kardashian pushing baby North’s stroller with silver-rimmed eyes, a full-volume blowout, and full-volume cleavage—is a Yeezus lyric personified.
For Lana Del Rey, love and obsession is the ultimate expression. Since releasing “Video Games” in 2011, wholesale devotion has been her stock in trade: It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you. “Growing up I was always prone to obsession, partly because of the way I am, but partly because I felt lonely for such a long time,” she told the National in 2012. “So when I found someone or something that I liked, I felt hopelessly drawn to it.” In the trappings of another, she found her freedom. She found a way to survive. On the cover of Ultraviolence, she stands in front of an old car on a tree-lined street, the image black, white, and moody as if snipped from a Douglas Sirk film. It reminds us of two things: that violence is inseparable from domesticity, and that domesticity is glamorous. The lyric “get a little bit suburban and go crazy” has a much different meaning for a wifey than for a teen, and Lana’s near steely look doesn’t let us forget that, either.
Then again, it’s only a little bit. For the wild, directionless, and adamantly free—as Lana proclaimed herself in “Ride”—a nice married life can be something to aspire to, an idée fixe. Just as something out of your reach is all you want to go after. While feminism has been fighting against the confines of the mother and the wife, Lana revels in it. Through wifedom she finds her own resistance and mechanisms for survival under patriarchy. She passes as the devoted wife figure, doing anything for love, but in the same breath she lets us know what she’s really after: money, power, and glory. And she’ll take it from you. It’s a sleight of hand trick, a seduction that’s actually a power grab.
In Lana Del Rey’s three-ringed hands, references to symbols of suburbia and Americana become wistful and lust-worthy. Lana Del Rey’s guns, bibles, American flags, Chevy Malibus, and domestic life are lifted from the context of the most obvious country song and given a rich texture that drips opulence. This is the luxury of leaving, of only playing house. Lana Del Rey’s glamour lies in her ability to look onto the suburban, become a temporary native of it, and then drive away, off to the next sunset.
Lana’s mélange of banality, glamour, and reverence for low-class aesthetics characterizes the striving girl that, above all, prioritizes the present over the future. Those who survive in this way are mutable. Previously, Lana Del Rey has been Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, Lizzy Grant, May Jailer—but like the boyfriends and sugar daddies along the way, she’s left all those girls behind in favor of an incarnation that has allowed her to fill out the shape of stardom. In an interview with Vogue U.K. she explains, “I wanted a name I could shape the music toward. I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba—Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.” From the perspective of self-alteration by any means, I can understand why a suburban life can be romanticized and almost necessary. Any chance to leave behind a former identity is a chance to be taken—whether it’s in the form of a new stage name or a new surname. Both could lead to a better life.
We’ve witnessed this before. When Vickie Lynn Hogan married her first husband Donald R. Hart, she underwent her first transformation to become Nikki Hart. By the time she made her first Playboy cover appearance in 1992 she was Anna Nicole Smith. Like Vickie Lynn Hogan, and their foremother Norma Jeane Baker, Lana was born with transformation in her veins. Their men, money, and self-made status is built on lower-class beginnings. Lana’s self-imposed exile of living in New Jersey trailer parks, falling in with biker gangs and cults, purposefully add to her mythology. These origin stories—Marilyn’s foster care childhood and Anna Nicole’s strip-club genesis—fold into the idea of what signifies an aspirational life.
On Tumblr, an image set lays out a scene from the Anna Nicole Show:
Woman: I think you’re great! But I think you’re being exploited.
Anna: Oh, yeah. Well, I don’t mind… As long as I get paid for it.
It was as much as Vickie Lynn could ask for. She used every ounce of feminine charm to take what she could from men, becoming the seductress, the wifey, and then the widow. Now she’s an icon to be venerated and reblogged by teen girls for whom the details of Anna Nicole’s life are hazy. In pictures, Anna Nicole Smith lives frozen in the black-and-white images of her Guess-campaign youth. Even the moments after her star faded and she herself became unhinged are still celebrated with thousands of notes on Tumblr, captioned with “She is my hero.” Through the Trimspa ads, weight gain, and subsequent nervous breakdown, she hung on to an undeniable allure. Time and distance wash out and over all things, until they are pale enough to reblog. As Lana Del Rey sings in “Old Money,” “My mother’s glamour lives on and on.”