A strange thing happened when I sat down to write the review for this week’s CD of the Week, which is Lana Del Rey’s latest album, Ultraviolence. I typed a few paragraphs, looked back at what I’d written, and realized that I hadn’t yet said a single thing about her music. I’m a big fan of the new record—I think it’s disarmingly honest, well-written, gorgeously textured, and a great showcase of her expansive, dynamic voice—but I felt like I needed to set up why it was even acceptable to speak in a supportive way about Lana before I could go on and say what I had to say. And realizing that made my stomach turn.
I’m not alone in this hesitation and confusion. “Ultraviolence grew on me because I let it. Instead of thinking about Lana Del Rey the embodiment of the celebrity zeitgeist, I let the record just be a goddamn record and I listened,” White Lung’s Mish Way wrote recently, admitting to her own annoyance with Lana Del Rey as an eerily well-manicured public figure while praising her skills as a musician. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson began his review by saying that, “Whether or not you want to take this particular ride will largely depend on how much stock you put in ‘authenticity,’” while Time Magazine reviewer Sasha Geffen concluded that, “She is exactly the villain our history needs.”
After reading dozens of reviews and spending hours listening to Ultraviolence, I’ve gone up and down this spiral of “how to listen to Lana Del Rey” many times. Is Lana compelling because she has constructed such a masterful image that it penetrates down into not just the lyrics of her songs but the aesthetic and vibe of her music? Or are we supposed to suspect her motives and keep her at an arm’s length distance, recognizing her as yet another product of the music industry machine tailored to give us what we need in this particular moment? Is she for real? Does it matter?
Up and down, up and down. In the end, I was left with one big, nagging question: Why can’t I just like her music and be done with it?
One of the most compelling things about Lana Del Rey is that looking straight at her is like trying to look into a prism. She makes us question things inside ourselves, and examine each other and the world (“Lana Del Rey willingly gives herself up to the public like a projector screen,” Mish Way writes). There are numerous issues that pop up when trying to dissect her, but I was able to pinpoint two big barriers that I faced before I felt like I could “admit” to liking Lana Del Rey—and also realize why they shouldn’t matter.
That whole “authenticity” thing
As a listener who came of age in the ‘90s and dove deep into discovering new music just as “indie” was transitioning from a word used to describe an artist’s independence from major labels into an entire aesthetic and way of life, I was trained from an early age to suspect things that are too perfect. I think a lot of us were. The grunge and riot grrrl generation taught us that “real” was synonymous with “flawed,” and anyone who seemed too polished was probably trying to sell us Diet Pepsi.
When the music industry shattered and the internet boomed, it seemed like it was going to be easier than ever to draw a line in the sand between authentic musicians who play their own instruments and write their own songs and the manufactured puppets who are controlled by bigwigs in suits. So what are we supposed to do when an artist comes along and doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of either side?
Lana Del Rey is not a real name. It is a stage name invented by New Yorker Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. Just the thought of this pisses a lot of people off. Nevermind the legions of artists who have come before her—Madonna, Gaga, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan—and pretty much every DJ and MC in hip-hop who also embrace these dual identities. And the fact that she (yes she, not some puppeteer looming overhead) constructed an image for herself—”a self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra”—only added fuel to the hatefire.
But when you actually boil down the arguments made when people rail on Lana Del Rey, they sound something like this: We thought she was indie but then it turned out she wasn’t, and she’s just too pretty and too composed and too much. Who does she think she is, anyway?
“Blogs and tastemaking websites just assumed that they noticed her first, when, in fact, they were two years behind a pack of lawyers and A&R scouts, eager to sign an artist who was pre-formed, a total package,” Jessica Hopper wrote in her fantastic piece “Deconstructing Lana Del Rey” for SPIN. “No one rightly discovered her, even the coolest blogs were being jumped into by publicists or grassroots marketing firms like Wiredset, and they were gladly repeating the story fed to them. Many of these same blogs are now indignant, fronting like they got duped into caring about her or lending her credibility.”
WE WERE DUPED. Except we weren’t. And it’s time to get over it.
That whole feminism thing
An overarching theme on both Born to Die and Lana Del Rey’s new Ultraviolence is that she’s often pining over the “bad boys” in her world. They turn up in her music videos, too: These significantly older, slick old Hollywood movie star types who juggle multiple women and whose relationships involve a lot of drugs, drinking, and abuse.
“He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” Lana Del Rey sings over and over again on the title track, borrowing the line from the title of a Phil Spector-produced song written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in 1962. It’s not the only time she glamorizes the pain of an abusive relationship on the album—or the only time she’s revealed her fascination with morbid ideas—and it’s a tough pill for women’s rights activists (or anyone who has been abused) to swallow.
Loneliness is at the core of Ultraviolence, and Lana does a tremendous job of capturing the devastation of this dark side of love. “I could have died right then ’cause he was right beside me,” she sings on that troubled title track, and it’s easy to believe that not only could she have died, but maybe that she even wanted to in that moment.
But is death-by-lover what Lizzie Grant wants? What’s easy to forget, perhaps because it’s so well executed, is that Lana Del Rey is a character and that her songs are also written in character. She’s a bad girl, remember? See that ring on her finger in the publicity photo up above? It says “BAD” on it. Just in case you forgot. And what she’s doing with her characters is well within her artistic license. Life is messy, love can be awful, people can be the absolute worst, and Lana Del Rey taps into that deep well of pain and sadness better than any other pop artist out there today.
As a feminist, I wince when I hear “Ultraviolence.” But as a feminist, I also applaud her. Because what is the alternative: That these dark parts of people stay buried, and that the female side of these stories remain untold? There wasn’t any outrage when Foster the People broke out with a song that enacts a school shooting, or when Fun. rose to the top of their charts with a song in which the narrator apologizes to his girlfriend for giving her a black eye. Listeners weren’t so quick to equate those songs’ lyrics with the real-life personalities of their singers. But when Lana sings it, we are quick to believe her.
There’s a strong possibility that these character sketches aren’t meant to be taken literally. Maybe it’s Lana’s response to her cruelest critics, and to the way she has already managed to be chewed up and spit out by the music industry, then welcomed back in for another round. Maybe the one abusing her is us—but there I go again, trying to stare into Lana’s prism and getting nothing but sunspots in my eyes.
I admire Lana Del Rey not just for her musicianship and songwriting, which have only gotten stronger since Born to Die, but for her bravery. As she rides the wave of celebrity zeitgeist over a sea of so much disdain, she is challenging our very idea of what a female pop star can become. And even on the days when I don’t want to like her I have no choice but to bow down in respect.
- Album Review: Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence
- Theft of the Dial: Lana Del Rey
- Lana Del Rey performs in the Current studios