PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

You Know You Like Little Girls: Lana Del Rey and Dolores Haze

Malka Howley

To attack Lana Del Rey, specifically, as being “fake” because she has a definable and separate stage persona isn’t exactly valid -- many pop stars create exaggerated personas with elaborate aesthetics. It’s part of being a successful public figure. The interesting thing is that Del Rey has chosen to be Lolita.

Lana Del Rey

Born to Die

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2012-01-31
Amazon
iTunes

Let's start with the magazine cover. It's like this -- for its recent “Men of the Year" issue, British GQ released five different covers featuring five different men, including one that was actually a woman. On these covers, all the men are photographed standing in black suits, looking well dressed, suave and powerful. But the lone woman -- who happened to be Lana Del Rey -- is sitting curled against a wall, naked except for jewelry and makeup.

In the interior of the magazine, Del Rey poses in various states of undress in an opulent hotel room: wearing a sweater, heels, and nothing else next to the window; then in a strapless one-piece on the balcony; and finally, in one of the more controversial photographs, a man stands behind Del Rey (whose dress appears to be falling off), gripping her face and her bare breast with his hands. Meanwhile, the article about John Slattery, British GQ's “International Mad Man of the Year", does not come with pictures of him naked and getting groped. Men: wearing suits. Women: naked on the floor. Message received, loud and clear.

These British GQ covers are an almost laughably clear example of sexism in pop culture. They're ridiculous -- but they aren't very surprising. Regardless of who you think is responsible for the photos, Del Rey or the editors, they fit in very well with Lana Del Rey's coldly meticulous public image. That girl in the magazine looks like maybe she's got “Daddy Issues", like she just wants you to give her more jewelry and probably some expensive alcohol and take her places to show her off. Like she'd do anything you want her to.

Del Rey has been one of the most divisive artists of 2012. She had been making music since the age of 18 under her given name of Lizzy Grant, but in 2011 she got a record deal and released the single “Video Games", and the full length Born to Die followed in January of 2012. It was massively successful, debuting at number two on the Billboard charts. In fact, Born to Die was so successful that Del Rey felt she needed to re-release it in the same year, putting out the Paradise Edition with eight new tracks.

Some may have objections about her overwrought vocals or melodramatic lyrics, but much of Lana Del Rey's music isn't too bad, and she can, her notorious live appearance on Saturday Night Live aside, sing. (I especially enjoy listening to Born to Die when I'm feeling angsty and sinister, which is often.) Del Rey has described herself -- as every article about her must note -- as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra" and “Lolita lost in the hood". She has characterized the sound of Born to Die as “Bruce Springsteen in Miami". With her allusions to Whitman, the Smiths, and Jackie O (among others), and her retro-glamorous style, Del Rey is a hodgepodge of cultural references. She looks a bit like a blow-up sex doll that was made to resemble Julia Roberts and then cast in Mad Men: plumped-up grimace/pout, intensely-styled hair in retro waves, winged eyeliner. As far as I can tell, she's really into Americana, fake eyelashes, and pouting. She has a lot of style -- but what, exactly, is her substance?

There has been a lot of discussion, much of it skeptical and even accusatory, of Lana Del Rey as a persona, a fiction invented by Lizzy Grant to somehow fool us into liking her music. Except that to attack Lana Del Rey, specifically, as being “fake" because she has a definable and separate stage persona isn't exactly valid -- many pop stars create exaggerated personas with elaborate aesthetics. (See: Lady Gaga, Beyonce -- hell, even Ani Difranco is a persona.) It's part of being a successful public figure. The interesting thing here is who exactly Del Rey has chosen to be: she's decided to be Lolita.

It's not just that she has a song on Born to Die called “Lolita" -- there are many other pop songs named after the character. (Or, rather, the pop culture idea of the character. And pop music is awash with the Lolita archetype--most infamously, perhaps, Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit in the music video for “Baby One More Time".) It's that three other songs on Born to Die also contain direct references to the novel, and elements of Lolita echo through other songs. (I had considered walking you through them all in a giant, David Foster Wallace-style footnote, but I'll spare you.) And it's that her entire oeuvre is an ode to the same beautiful, self-destructive, damaged, unstable, sexually precocious, young American girl. It's all “good" young girls falling for “bad" men. They know he's bad but they just can't help it. They're seductively submissive; they conflate love with a kind ownership. They have big hair, red nails, short shorts, white bikinis, bare feet, and they know they're hot. They like ice cream and chewing gum. They're lost, reckless, doomed, “crazy", and -- in the music video for “Born to Die" -- dead. But don't worry, it's a sexy dead.

I'm not trying to complain that Lana Del Rey is setting a bad example for “Today's Young Girls". She probably is, but that's not the point, and that's not the interesting thing. There are plenty of things and people setting bad examples for children. Del Rey seems to be a symptom of something larger that already existed -- a cultural Lolita obsession, stemming from a preoccupation with youth and beauty; a fascination with relationships between young women and older men; a fear of women and their sexuality; and a tendency to blame the victims of sexual violence and characterize them as temptresses.

The character of Lolita has reverberated throughout our culture ever since she was created -- Nabokov once said, “Lolita is famous, not me." Even people who don't know what the book is about have heard of Lo. She's become a word in the dictionary, the shorthand for a precociously sexy and seductive young girl, a definition which has far too many overtones of “She-Was-Asking-For-It" for my liking. One constantly has to be reminded that the actual character of Dolores Haze in the actual book was, in fact, kidnapped and raped by her stepfather. (And then, also, another older man tried to make her star in his pornographic films.) That is what happened -- and it's not sexy. But the Lolita that has emerged since the publishing of the book somehow is. The iconic image associated with her is the poster for the 1962 film adaptation, in which Sue Lyons is peering over the top of her sunglasses and licking a lollipop; that gets interpreted to mean that Lolita was a porny schoolgirl fantasy who seduced Humbert Humbert. She is a flat character, shallow, unrealistic, and without any nuance.

So is that the Lolita that Lana Del Rey is channeling, a repetition of this sexy schoolgirl trope? Certainly there are radical ways to explore who Lolita is and what she means by writing about her or as her. I just don't know that there's anything new or radical or critical in the ways that Lana Del Rey has imagined and appropriated Lolita. All the girls in her songs are the same perfect, sexy, damaged nymphets -- does writing in their voices make that okay? Is she adding anything? And if so, just what exactly?

One theme that Del Rey seems to be attempting to explore is, as she puts it in one of her songs, “the dark side of the American Dream". And her lyrics are dark, sure, but it's not like they're about working double shifts for minimum wage at a meatpacking factory or getting your house foreclosed on or, well, watching The Vampire Diaries on Netflix Instant for hours on end while eating Pizza Rolls until you fall asleep alone. Del Rey is more the dark side of “Rich Kids of Instagram" than something as big as “the American Dream". Her lyrics, her characters, and her persona are meant to be glamorous -- they'd have to be, or they wouldn't sell. She makes these identical, messed-up girls seductive and cool, and people love it. They eat it up. This whole Lolita thing is really working for her.

Ironically, Lana Del Rey is doing the same thing that Nabokov has Humbert Humbert do in his manuscript: using poetic language and the rhetoric of true love to describe something that is, of course, not at all remotely beautiful nor good. Every other Lana Del Rey song, it seems, has a Lolita reference. Are any of them actually about the book or the character, though? Or are they about the trappings of Lolita, the visual aesthetic and cultural associations?

One of the most important things about Lo as a character--as a person, as a girl -- is her strength. We never seem to be able to remember that she is able to escape Humbert Humbert -- and Clare Quilty, too, when she realizes that he doesn't love her. Vera Nabokov, Vladimir's wife, had it right when she wrote, “I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child's helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage[.]" When we treat Lo as if she was some kind of pre-pubescent sexpot, we are seeing her through Humbert's eyes; we are letting him win.

But that kind of Lolita doesn't really exist. And if Lana Del Rey is trying to be her, or feels like she is her, maybe she knows that. Nabokov wrote that his first inspiration for the novel Lolita came from a newspaper article he saw about an ape at a zoo that had been taught to draw -- the first thing the ape drew was the bars of his cage, and from that we get Humbert Humbert writing a book about Dolores Haze. Perhaps when Lizzy Grant created Lana Del Rey, that's what she was doing: drawing the bars of her cage.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.