9 November 2016: The Day After
Arriving on campus, I find one of the department’s work-study students crying at the front desk. Not because of Trump’s victory. Not exactly. Crumpling another tissue in their hand before adding it to the pile scattered across the desk, the student tells me about calling their father earlier in the morning to confess some totally justifiable anxieties about being young and queer in Trump’s America. Dad’s reply? “You’re just overreacting. Everything’s going to be fine.”
The rest of that week feels like an extended funeral. Classrooms that are usually filled with chatter when I walk in are silent and morose. I urge my students to say what they’re thinking. They are not “special little snowflakes”. They are young artists who’ve followed the news intently. My rough estimate is that half of them have voted. Last night they witnessed their values being rejected state-by-state as the electoral college elected a 70-year-old man who has bragged about sexual assault, mocked a disabled reporter, labeled Mexicans as rapists, promised to ban Muslims from entering the country, and insinuated that all African-Americans live in crime-ridden urban poverty.
The majority of my students are young women. About one in four is a young person of color. Many identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. A number of them have disabilities. What they have heard from the sizable portion of the nation that elected Donald Trump is this: “We reject people like you.”
Four Months Later
Lana Del Rey’s new ballad, “Love”, can be heard as a gift to disappointed youth. Ostensibly it says the same thing that student’s father said, Everything’s going to be fine, a reassurance the singer makes plain with her heavenly recall of the title phrase from the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”. But rather than scold its audience for overreacting, the song’s lyrics pinpoint the social pressures and disorientation faced by a generation of American kids who have been relentlessly criticized for listening to their parents’ promises. (And if they are snowflakes, who raised them that way?)
The world is theirs now, sings Del Rey without an ounce of the enthusiasm that’s mandatory at high-school graduations. Her voice as reserved and powerful as it’s ever been, she conjures up the dread that comes with potential, the fear that comes with responsibility, and the powerlessness that can arise from ordinary day-to-day living, the habits she sings about in the chorus: “You get ready, you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular / Back to work or the coffee shop….” Confronted by all of this, love is enough for now, sings Del Rey, not because it can change the world but because it’s constantly on the verge of evaporating.
Given the general lag time of the music industry plus vague reports about its video shoot happening last summer, “Love” was almost certainly recorded before the 2016 US Presidential election, but history has a way of intervening on a song’s meaning. It’s all in the timing, a quality that’s mainly out of the artist’s control. If Hillary Clinton — or Bernie Sanders — had been elected, we might be hearing “Love” as a celebration of youthful optimism. Instead, it’s a post-defeat rallying cry and an affirmation of those teenagers and new adults — the book industry’s term for readers in their late teens and early 20s — who might feel as though emotion, love, and self-fulfillment are naïve concepts in Trump World. Heard within the context of the new administration’s white nationalism, cronyism, glorification of wealth, and adulterous relationship with facts, “Love” sounds radically out of place. “Time out of mind”, Bob Dylan might call it: ancient enough to sound new.
Indeed, our go-to critical framework for Del Rey’s music is nostalgia, and “Love”, which doubles down on minimalism and succulence, isn’t likely to change that anytime soon. Presumably, the song will be included on her forthcoming album Lust for Life, the title of which calls to mind Iggy Pop’s excellent solo album and the 1956 film by Vincente Minnelli. Steeped in an ethereal wash, “Love” fits snugly into Del Rey’s established and panoramic retro style of torch ballads, film noir, Hollywood glamour queens, ’60s girl groups, Nico-era Velvet Underground, and maybe even an immediate nostalgia for Amy Winehouse. It expands the palette by introducing the carbonated textures of ’80s synth-pop — low fizzy strings, high-pitched needlepoint bursts in the song’s refrain — but that’s not much of an expansion and it’s not exactly anti-nostalgia.
“Love” makes me wonder, though, if we’ve misheard Del Rey’s use of nostalgia, mistaking it for the rose-colored (and heart-shaped) variety when instead it produces a fog.
Usually, nostalgia is a kind of cultural shorthand, a compact evocation of a lost time the qualities of which are presumed to be missing in the present. (For instance: authenticity, “the simple life”, repressive gender norms that made a lot of people miserable.) Serving an emotional need and, often, a consumerist function, nostalgia works best when it’s precise. The real past is too complex, too long-winded for impulse buys. Nostalgia locates the audience in a clear and easily understandable dream that’s made especially powerful when it’s communicated through art, including music. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” so efficiently evokes The Eighties (and Prince) that you can smell the hairspray immediately. Stealthily or blatantly, most nostalgic music claims to bring back whatever’s missing, whether it’s the joy of funk in Ronson and Mars’ hit, the sweeping grandeur of ’80s synth-pop in Taylor Swift’s 1989, or the urgent embrace and suspicion of technology in synthwave act Megadrive’s 198XAD.
This is fun stuff, but much of its pleasure comes from the reassurance of familiar sounds and ideas being transplanted into a contemporary context. Even the less derivative garage-punk band White Reaper’s 2015 album, White Reaper Does It Again, relies on immediately recognizable sounds, beats, and lyrical tropes being updated for today, pushing beyond the nostalgic if not the “retro” tag. Listening, you never feel lost.
Del Rey’s use of nostalgia, on the other hand, is dislocating. If more objective nostalgia is like dropping anchor, then Del Rey’s subjective version is like pulling up the anchor and going adrift. We’re likely to get as lost as she sounds and to search for meaning the way she searches for meaning, which is a different and deeper kind of pleasure than what’s offered by Ronson and Mars, Swift, Megadrive, or White Reaper. Del Rey’s strategy is closer to what Amy Winehouse does in “Rehab”, which lifts Motown sounds and structures for a contemporary and jarringly honest purpose. The point isn’t to affirm, it’s to create conflict.
A similar Del Rey song might be “Video Games” from 2012’s Born to Die, in which the title phrase, the shout-out to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” and the contemporary setting seem detached from music that hangs suspended in reverb, from the divine harps and chimes, and from the song’s sheer loneliness. The song’s overt ode to romance is, like “Rehab”, conflicted by past ideals of femininity that were always mythic and remain difficult if not impossible to navigate by. Winehouse always sounded, in her music, like she’d plotted her course, storms be damned. Del Rey sounds less sure of her direction — the music critic Jessica Hopper sharply writes in her book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic that “Lana Del Rey is Amy Winehouse with the safety on” — but that doesn’t prevent her from taking some pleasure in being adrift.
This dislocated and disorienting version of nostalgia has long been part of Del Rey’s aesthetic, but “Love” might be its purest expression so far. The percussive, echoing guitar pulses that open the song recall the composer Angelo Badalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks, and in fact, from its reuse of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” to its deployment of hushed pop synths and overall minimalism, “Love” is dreamy enough to find its way onto the television show’s upcoming revival. (Note to David Lynch: Make this happen.) Like Twin Peaks, Del Rey’s nostalgia has everything to do with a sense of unease that nostalgia is usually supposed to cure.
This is why “Love” so perfectly suits the present moment and the problem of being “young and in love” in the era of Trump. Instead of affirming a modern cultural order — instead of pretending, let’s say, that these bewildering past seven months haven’t radically disturbed the nation’s politics — Del Rey voices the passionate confusion of trying to make sense of culture from within its own typhoon-like instability. What’s more chaotic than young love? It’s a pleasurable chaos, sometimes, mainly due to the thrill of discovery. What is this? Is it real? Where can I find more of it? Is there a limit to how much I can have of it?
As gentle and reassuring as “Love” is, however, Del Rey also warns her audience that discovery has a dark side. “Seen so much you got the blues / That doesn’t mean that you should abuse it”, she sings like an older sister, as if the fated music behind her isn’t warning enough.
In a strange way — everything’s strange these days — the combination of discovery and dread that comes with being young and in love mirrors our intense contemporary focus on the present moment, the way every news alert hits a nerve, the way I can’t stop checking Twitter for whatever new disaster is happening in D.C., the ways in which we’re totally committed to the “now” of everyday life while, at the same time, entirely distracted. We’re a mess.
This turns out to be crucial to understanding “Love” and most of Del Rey’s work. Most nostalgic music harkens back to the days when our identities were formed. We recall those moments, those totems; they were possibilities that bloomed, potential that became the reality of the person we are today. Nostalgia is an act of reconstruction, a performance of the original.
In “Love”, Del Rey voices the construction of identity in the moment it’s happening, which includes the sense that possibilities might slip away. You can feel them being on the verge of slipping away in the song; that’s what makes it the sweetness of its message genuine and dramatic. Del Rey’s brand of nostalgia doesn’t mourn a lost past, it mourns — and relishes — a tenuous and disorienting present, the confusing act of constructing oneself, the search for originality and meaning.
The common wisdom is that youth is wasted on the young, that young people think things will last forever, including those passionate relationships, and that only in hindsight as a bunch of old farts do we appreciate the way time slips through our fingers. I’m unconvinced.
The self-awareness of time’s passing, of youth being temporary, has been a key element in youth culture since at least the ’80s. John Hughes’ Brat Pack films articulated an immediate nostalgia for teen life as it was currently being lived, a trope picked up in the ’90s by films like Singles, Empire Records, and High Fidelity. What’s more, pop music has always described youth-as-it’s-vanishing, from the Beatles’ “In My Life”, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney when they were all of 25 or so, to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” even if it’s sarcastic as hell. That hasn’t changed in the new millennium. Time is accelerated. If rock ‘n’ roll and pop and R&B have always made hay with self-referential celebrations of being young, their sense of oppression came from social norms, not the speed of time and culture. Today there’s a more pronounced sense of melancholy about youth’s quick passage that you can hear in Arcade Fire’s first album, Funeral, in MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”, and in “We Are Young” by Fun with Janelle Monáe.
The result of this heightened awareness is a nostalgia for the rapidly vanishing present. While it’s easy to fixate on the visual cues Del Rey borrows from the mid-20th century in the video for “Love”, e.g. her ’60s baby doll mini-dress and flower-power hairstyle, the song isn’t nostalgic for a specific time period when “things were better”. Instead, it longs for the moments that are slipping away right now. All the more reason to value them. All the more reason that, as she sings, it’s “enough to be young and in love”.
“Love” may resemble a thousand other pop songs about youth and romance, but it hits a nerve right now because the construction of an identity based on love seems both naïve and absolutely necessary in a time of Trumpism — which, let’s not forget, is heavily informed by the simpler, consumerist version of nostalgia. Marked by its slogan “Make America Great Again”, Trumpism relies on a chilly fever dream of American history in which people with dark complexions, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ+ folks knew their place: the margins. Repulsed by changing demographics and the politics of pluralism, Trump and Co. have capitalized on populist nostalgia for a “great” America that never existed.
It’s difficult to imagine any other kind of nostalgia that depends so much on hateful passion. In his novel Love in a Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Márquez plays on the Spanish word cólera, which is derived from the Latin for “bile”; in addition to referring to the disease, the word also denotes rage. While it’s become commonplace to blame the election of Trump on the infuriated populism of a dispossessed white working-class, the truth is that his victory depended also on the colder hatred felt by millions of white, college-educated, and upper-middle-class Americans towards people who are not like them. For Trump and the muckfish he’s brought with him into the White House, people like Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, nostalgia is a useful rhetorical device that orders the nation through difference, not commonality.
Dissenting, “Love” quietly argues for the creation of new relationships. The song uses every tool at its disposal — including, perhaps, the artist’s intuition about the changing historical situation around her — to position love as an endangered virtue in the shadow of Trumpism: love as romance, yes, but also love as friendship and civic bond. Del Rey mourns the confusion, defeat, and powerlessness felt by so many young people in the present but, crucially, she affirms the messy process of discovery and connection that remains the fundamental basis of political thinking. The song’s core meaning is perhaps better described as ethical. In fact, “Love” may be the first ethical protest song of the Trump presidency.
Young people are in the process of creating their history. They’re as nostalgic as the rest of us for the days when their president wasn’t a paranoid egomaniac who may or may not be compromised by the Russian government. They know that everything will not just be fine. They know their decisions matter. That’s why, as they’re looking to be loved and accepted for who they are, they’re also seeking an understanding of how they should proceed. How should they love and accept others? Is it even worth the effort these days? Does it pale in comparison to the thrills of prestige and the smug satisfaction of power?
You’ll meet them in a few years, and you’ll know then what they have learned.