“Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life … I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. Did you know I couldn’t last. I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again.” –Candy Darling’s death letter
DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD
“the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins[i].”
In 2014, Lana Del Rey gave an interview to The Guardian’s Tim Jonze ahead of the release of Ultraviolence.
Tim Jonze: “Is there a fantasy of dying young yourself?”
Lana Del Rey: “Yeah, I mean… I wish I was dead already.” [laughs]
Jonze: “Don’t say that.”
LDR: “I do, yeah, I do… I mean, I don’t want to have to, like, keep doing this[ii].”
This exchange ignited a flurry of attacks that mostly accused Lana of being dramatic for the sake of the spectacle. Or, in the words of Frances Bean, daughter of Kurt Cobain, “The death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize[iii].” Bean went on to advise Lana not to “be one of those people. You’re too talented to waste it away[iv].” The same type of criticism was consistent across the music press at the time: “Ultraviolence is a dark, sad, weird record, so it makes sense that LDR is in a dark, sad, weird place, but you rarely see a subject go to those places in a newspaper interview[v].”
What these criticisms ultimately reveal is an alarming lack of differentiation between “Lana Del Rey” as an artistic persona and the human agent behind that persona, Elizabeth Grant. Beginning with the Guardian interview, which essentially erases the concept, and extending into constant speculation about plastic surgery[vi] is a current of skepticism which reflects a demand for authenticity and a calculated refusal to place any critical distance between Elizabeth Grant and Lana Del Rey.
This double standard for female artists is, of course, not new. Consider the emergence and critical treatment of the Confessional poets in the mid-twentieth century. In Arthur Oberg’s article “Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence,” published just five years after Plath’s death, Oberg writes that “as indicative of the confusion of art and life pursued in the writing of an absolute poetry, Sylvia Plath’s last poems must also serve to remind us of the enormous risks, the human cost, as well as the waste that such decadence demands. Against whatever perfection she managed in her final poems must be placed the confusion and delusion which became explicit in her suicide[vii].” Like Oberg, most contemporaneous reviews of Plath’s posthumous book Ariel frame the collection as an extended suicide note, as inseparable from the poet’s very real mental illness.
Compare this to the reception of John Berryman—also working in Confessional modes, also dying by suicide. In Berryman’s case, the emphasis usually lands on the ventriloquistic brilliance of his poetic voice. Nine years after Berryman jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge, Dona Harvey praises his ability to “draw from, combine, and integrate a variety of speech registers, dialects, syntactical structures and poetic forms[viii].” We see no mention, at least in this article, of Berryman’s drinking, womanizing, or eventual suicide.
Lana Del Rey seems to be aware of a forced confessional reading of her work, based on a series of tweets sent after the publication of her interview in The Guardian: “Alexis (sic) was masked as a fan but was hiding sinister ambitions and angles. Maybe he’s the boring one looking for something interesting to write about. His leading questions about death and persona were calculated.[ix]” I’m most interested in the last comment because it appears to suggest two possibilities: either Lana sees her own persona as having replaced Elizabeth Grant entirely, or the whole point of the Lana project is to play with authenticity as mediated through the persona. A possibility that seems to escape Tim Jonze, and most critics.
Life imitates art.
No matter how self-aware Lana’s performance is, her reception seems starkly divided and usually has to do either with authenticity or affect. And it seems clear that the neurotic obsession over Lana’s authenticity is specifically related to her gender performance. “Patriarchal poetics,” a term coined by literary critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis, refers to the “male-imperial potential for ranging across and deploying a variety of sex-gender stances…freely ranging among and appropriating from these conflicting stances but not always interrogating them[x].” DuPlessis argues that the adoption of this practice by the Modernists results in ambivalence toward or outright rejection of “female artists (and sometimes conventionally ‘feminized’ men like gays and Jews)[xi],” even those who also deploy this movement across subject positions.
Listening across Lana Del Rey’s catalogue demonstrates both this kind of “omnivorous” subjectivity and its consequences. The wounded romanticism of “Video Games,” the snarling swagger of “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” the hedonistic detachment of “High By The Beach,” the narcotic threat of “Freak.” And the constant recidivism of critics who fail to acknowledge the distance between the author and her texts, the voice and its origin, Lizzy Grant and Lana Del Rey.
Unlike male artists who work in similar modes, Lana is caught in an impossible double bind of preserving her aesthetic (by refusing to acknowledge the performativity of her persona) and verifying herself as “authentic” (since the persona of the female pop artist is collapsed into the confessional). It is Lana’s response to this binary that makes her so compelling: instead of moving further outward into more distant subjectivities, she descends, like Rimbaud, into interior hells. Her femininity is emphasized to the point that the speakers are blown and she swoons to the bottom of the pool, in the arms of unsurvivable heterosexual love. But it seems equally significant that she closes her most recent record with a cover of Nina Simone’s plea for legibility.
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
HIGH BY THE BEACH
“The forms may alter but the violence is constant.”[xii]
“High By The Beach,” the first single from Honeymoon, is foremost a revenge narrative emerging from competing realities. The primary conflict that drives this narrative is between the emotional labor of sustaining the real heterosexual relation and the entropic refusal of that reality, “all I want to do is get high by the beach.” In its form as a music video, the song becomes a site of convergence for reality, fantasy, privacy, publicity, violence, gender trouble, and the politics of looking.
Laura Mulvey: “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.”[xiii]
Conflict is perspectival. As the video opens, the spectator’s gaze flies low over the ocean, aligned with what is later revealed to be a paparazzi helicopter. Lana Del Rey comes into view on a beach house balcony, sheer gown whipping in the rotor wash. The camera hovers, we look at Lana, she looks back.
Boy look at you looking at me
I know you know how I feel[xiv]
After a shot-reverse shot sequence lets us see the helicopter, Lana retreats inside the house. The camera work reflects this shift. In the domestic space, a handheld camera creates a sense of intimacy. But the voyeuristic feeling persists. In fact, we discover that privacy is illusive in this space, which is filled with the ephemera of visual fascination. Lana looks at herself in a mirror, flings herself dramatically on the bed (repeated for the camera), looks at pictures of herself in a magazine. Interior and exterior collapse into the House of the Image, where Lana’s body is always the object of spectatorship, including her own. Where every gesture is performed for one gaze or another. The first half of the video, then, is framed as pure erotic contemplation in both public and private spaces.
Narrative motion resumes as Lana runs down to the beach, where she retrieves a hidden guitar case and returns to the balcony from the initial scene. As she opens the case, our gaze is placed back on the helicopter and the male paparazzi partially hidden by his phallic camera. Lana pulls an enormous gun from the case, cocks it, downs the chopper. Burning tabloid pages’ drift into the waves.
Hilary Neroni: “The depiction of a violent woman upsets this association of violence with masculinity. Yet, at each moment, when the violent woman emerges on a wide scale in film history, the films in which she appears go to great lengths to frame her violence within the very symbolic system that her violence threatens to undo.” [xv]
The unexpected violence of the helicopter scene is as shocking as it is satisfying. Lana shoots the male gaze in the eye with its own phallic symbol. On this level, it seems as if the act of feminine violence has successfully disrupted the patriarchal narrative. However, the weapon itself destabilizes its own subversive act in its inconsistency with the video’s realist aesthetic. No effort at verisimilitude is made; Lana’s gun looks like a science fiction prop. The visual absurdity of this object lends a parodic tone to the video and reframes the act of feminist violence as pure spectacle.
Neroni: “This contradiction, between narrative and spectacle, underscores the conflict between the violent woman as cautionary tale and the violent woman as role model.”[xvi]
Ultimately, the conflict in “High By The Beach” is less about competing gazes and more about the struggle between reality and fantasy. The order of the real is also the domain of male hegemony.[xvii] As we have seen before, this song is acutely aware of the attrition implicit for women in a patriarchal context.
Loving you is hard, being here is harder
You take the wheel
I don’t wanna do this anymore, it’s so surreal
I can’t survive if this is all that’s real[xviii]
The real—heterosexual relation, feminine performance for the male gaze—is unsurvivable. Thus, the feminist project of disrupting the real requires fantastic violence, or the violence of fantasy.
Judith Halberstam: “Imagined violences create a potentiality, a utopic state in which consequences are imminent rather than actual, the threat is in the anticipation, not the act.”[xix]
If we think about “straight violence” as that which preserves the heteronormative order, “queer violence” is the use of force to disrupt that order. “High By The Beach” participates in this type of queer violence by rerouting its flow back onto the paparazzi, the camera eye, the spectator. Lana seems to be interested in questions of voyeurism and gender performance, since Honeymoon’s second single, “Music To Watch Boys To,” enacts what is described in its title. But the slippage between narrative and spectacle, realism and fantasy, preserves the aesthetic ambiguity of which Lana is so fond.
“The complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound[xx].”
The video titled “Lana del Rey, Tears of emotion during Video Games, Vicar Street, Dublin 26-05-2013,” uploaded to Youtube by user DabbyNoNa, currently has 2,401,607 views and counting. Shot with a cell phone, the video is nearly unwatchable due to the filmmaker’s wavering hand, lo-fi video quality, and treble-blasted, digitally processed sound. Even so, the two million views attest to something oddly captivating about this scene.
“I really appreciate all of my friends and all of my fans,” she says. Moves away from the microphone. Traces a heart shape on her face with her index fingers, in a gesture intended to mimic tear tracks. In the foreground, the scene is repeated in miniature on a series of iPhone screens that float up from the crowd. Lana turns away from the microphone, touches her hair, refuses eye contact. Around 1:26, framed between the phones and the blue glow of the projection screen behind her, she is wiping real tears as the band strikes the baroque harp chords of “Video Games.” “I think you’re gonna have to sing it for me.” Her voice is steady as she sings the open lines. But she stops, lets the crowd carry the verse. Her long fingers reach again for her eyes.
He holds me in his big arms
Drunk and I am seeing stars
This is all I think of[xxi]
Watching these gestures, I have the uncanny feeling that a border is being transgressed—private becoming public, a spectacle of negative affect, “grief porn.” Or the possibility that this moment is staged. Jean Baudrillard writes, “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.[xxii]” But the authenticity of Lana’s tears is completely irrelevant. What is interesting here is the way that the hyperreal allows for negative affect to take on aesthetic qualities without being collapsed into a purely biographical reading[xxiii].
What makes this tearful exchange so ambiguous is the fact that Lana Del Rey’s aesthetic depends on the performance of melancholy. The libidinous energy of her songs emerges from the trinity of heterosexual sex, the death drive, and “summertime sadness,” melancholic because of its perceived objectless-ness[xxiv]. Lana’s art recognizes the attrition of heterosexual desire, specifically affecting the feminine body. Her emphasized femininity that is the target of so much critique is the performance of this attrition, forcing heterosexuality past the limit of sustainability, until all that remains is bad affect and bodily death.
Consider the music video for “Born to Die,” which swerves between a glittering underworld and a teen tragedy ballad, between deathy decadence and the deadly icons of Sex and State. The video opens on Lana seated on a black throne at Fontainebleau, in a crown of ice-blue roses, tigers sprawled at either hand. The scene cuts to the château garden, where Lana is swept off her feet by model Bradley Soileau. Quick cuts between these settings structure the film—Lana haughty and regal in the throne room, Lana vulnerable and compliant in her lover’s Mustang. The end of the video reconciles these tableaux: in a sheer white slip, Lana walks through the sumptuous Galerie de François I and exits into a blast of light. In the next scene, her now-bloodied body lies in Soileau’s tattooed arms as the wreckage of the Mustang burns in the background.
In proximity to the male body, Lana’s agency diminishes to the point of physical death. The crash appears to be caused by a kiss: as Soileau’s character leans out of the driver’s seat, a red glow washes the scene, suggesting brake lights. Heterosexuality literally becomes the death drive. By this reading, the scenes in the throne room might be a baroque afterlife, with Lana as the imperious queen of the underworld. It is here that she rules, here that she can claim agency. The fatalism of “Born to Die” is in fact the fatality of heterosexual desire.
Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough / I don’t know why[xxv].
Another way to think about Lana’s affective politics is through Sarah Ahmed’s concept of happiness scripts: “We can think of gendered scripts as ‘happiness scripts’ providing a set of instructions for what women and men must do to be happy, whereby happiness is what follows being natural or good. Going along with happiness scripts is how we get along: to get along is to be willing and able to express happiness in proximity to the right things[xxvi].” In Lana’s case, the “overacting” of the gender performance disrupts the heteronormative narrative. Her personas experience desire in proximity to the male figures in her songs, but the circuit is never completed.
If it holds that “following [happiness] scripts are what orients subjects toward heterosexuality,”[xxvii] it is also clear that the economies of desire and happiness in Lana’s songs move in only one direction. Sadness is marked only as feminine, becomes a form of occult knowledge guarded by women (“I know what only the girls know”[xxviii]). Enter the death drive. For Lana’s characters, worn down by the machine of heterosexual desire, death is part of the social fabric. Or as Lauren Berlant writes in Cruel Optimism, “slow death—or the structurally induced attrition of persons keyed to their membership in certain populations—is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain where an upsetting scene of living is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all[xxix].”
This is what makes us girls
We don’t look for heaven and we put our love first
Somethin’ that we’d die for it’s a curse
Don’t cry about it, don’t cry about it[xxx]
But from this position of abjection, death also emerges as a radical form of queer refusal. Or in Lee Edelman’s words, “the primacy of a constant no in response to the law of the Symbolic.”[xxxi]
Witch hazel, witch hazel,
One gun on the table,
Headshot if you’re able.
Is this happiness?
Is this happiness?
Is this happiness?
Is this happiness?[xxxii]
This is not to say that Lana’s characters always represent abjected positions. “Sad Girl,” from 2014’s Ultraviolence, allows for alternative power dynamics in the slippage between “sadness” and “badness.” Here, Lana sings from the perspective of a “mistress on the side,” troubling the patriarchal logic of marriage. But she is also in the thrall of the affects that the male body creates: “His Bonnie on the side, Bonnie on the side / makes me a sad sad girl.” However, the last couplet in the chorus interferes with what looks like the replication of the hierarchy of affect established at the beginning of the song.
I’m a sad girl I’m a sad girl I’m a sad girl
I’m a sad girl I’m a bad girl I’m a bad girl
Sadness appears passive, unless it is performative. Badness implies agency, or at least a resistance to gendered or affective scripts. After this first chorus appears, the speaker abandons the moniker of “mistress” for the position of “bad bitch on the side.” Sara Ahmed: “The good woman is good in part because of what she judges to be good, and hence how she aligns her happiness with the happiness of others[xxxiii].” By claiming both sadness and badness, Lana refuses to align her affects with the patriarchal regime. In songs like “Sad Girl” and “Video Games,” Lana embodies an ultrafeminized sadness in the same space as a threatening badness, and makes a claim on power through affective performativity.
I heard that you like the bad girls, honey / Is that true?[xxxiv]
[i] Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Trans. Richard Howard.
[ii] Jonze, Tim. “Lana Del Rey has a problem with our interview … but why?” The Guardian 20 June 2014. Web.
[iii] Grow, Kory. “Frances Bean Cobain to Lana Del Rey: Early Death Isn’t ‘Cool.’” Rolling Stone 23 June 2014.
[v] Nelson, Michael. “Lana Del Rey: ‘I Wish I Was Dead Already.’” Stereogum 12 June 2014.
[vi] “Lana Del Rey finally opens all the way up to Complex, from the authenticity of her much-discussed lips, to how she really feels about those Internet haters, and the sound of her upcoming debut.” Baker, Ernest. “Interview: Lana Del Rey Talks Backlash, Plastic Surgery, and New Album.” Complex 7 October 2011. Web.
[vii] Oberg, Arthur K. “Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence.” Chicago Review 20.1 (1968). 73.
[viii] Harvey, Dona. “John Berryman and the Art of ‘The Dream Songs.’” Chicago Review 32.4 (1981). 34.
[x] DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. 6.
[xi] Duplessis 11
[xii] Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. 145.
[xiii] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual & Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1989. 19.
[xiv] LDR, “High By The Beach”
[xv] Neroni, Hilary. The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. 7.
[xvi] Neroni 20.
[xvii] To loosely paraphrase Lacan.
[xviii] LDR, “High By The Beach”
[xix] Halberstam, Judith. “Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance.” Social Text 37 (Winter 1993). 187-201.
[xx] Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” Trans. James Strachey. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Norton, 1989. 589.
[xxi] LDR, “Video Games”
[xxii] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 365.
[xxiii] Lana later explained this moment in an interview with The Fader in June 2014: “It’s just heavy performing for people who really care about you, and you don’t really care that much about yourself sometimes. I thought it was sad. I thought my position was sad. I thought it was sad to be in Ireland singing for people who really cared when I wasn’t sure if I did.”
[xxiv] Freud: “the inhibition of the melancholic seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that is absorbing him so entirely” (584).
[xxv] LDR, “Born to Die”
[xxvi] Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke U.P., 2010. 59.
[xxvii] Ahmed 90-91
[xxviii] LDR, “Music To Watch Boys To”
[xxix] Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke U.P., 2011. 102.
[xxx] LDR, “This Is What Makes Us Girls”
[xxxi] Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke U.P., 2004. 5.
[xxxii] LDR, “Is This Happiness?”
[xxxiii] Ahmed 55
[xxxiv] LDR, “Video Games”
Zack Anderson is a second-year MFA student at Notre Dame, where he also works as an editorial assistant for Action Books. His poems and book reviews have appeared/are forthcoming in Muse/A Journal, The Brillantina Project, Notre Dame Review, and Kenyon Review.